You know, over the past few weeks I have had a culinary epiphany. I have realised that, pretty much like Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme Mr. Jourdain, I have been eating kasha, or kasza, all my life, and never knew.
Do you know what kasha, or kasza, is? If you were say, Russian or Polish, I guess you most certainly would, but as a Bulgarian, you’re at a complete loss. You see, in Bulgarian kasha (I’ll use the Russian transliteration henceforth) means two remotely related dishes, and, quite logically so, is also figuratively used to denote “a mess.”
In Russian and in Polish the term kasha is used to describe groats boiled in water or milk with or without additives such as dried fruit and nuts. Mind you, this is not a health dish developed by vegans, nutritionists, or marketers with spare fodder to sell, but rather, a dish that has ensured the survival of the species in harsh northern European climates for centuries. Kasha and soup, these have been the foods of the poor since about agriculture emerged in the Neolithic, remember from my soup posts?
To take details a notch further, the main types of kasha in Russia are made from buckwheat and pearl barley. I daresay the same goes for Poland, while oats – I am not sure about wheat – were more popular on the British Isles from where they had been exported to the US on the Mayflower.
According to the Joy of Cooking, a legendary book that was the starting point of my life’s culinary journey, kasha means boiled buckwheat. Reading this about 10 years ago, I had somehow concluded that kasha is tantamount to buckwheat, had mused a bit on the different meaning of the term in Bulgarian, and had moved on as I detested buckwheat anyway. Not so now, and exactly my love of buckwheat and a search for a deeper culinary identity had set the stage for my second meeting with that simple term shrouded in a veil of mystery. Well, we’ll sort out what’s what, right now.
According to a milestone cookbook called Bulgarian National Cuisine, published in 1978 as part of the communist regime initiatives marking the 1,300th anniversary of the foundation of the Bulgarian state, kashas are a popular dish in Bulgaria, especially in the Rhodope mountains, where they are – nobody says when – allegedly prepared with two types of flour, not grains. The combinations provided as examples include barley and corn, wheat and corn, and rye and corn. Now, in all the 35 years of my earthly existence, I have never eaten such a thing, nor have I seen it on a menu, nor have I heard somebody mention it, nor a foodie publication write about it. So fairly popular my foot.
On the other hand, there is a Bulgarian bread called prosenik, proso meaning barley, and it is typically made of corn flour only. The demise of groats and cereal which are not wheat and corn is a lamentable trend around here, and the funny thing is that groats that were once consumed in Bulgaria as a matter of course, have thanks to the monoculture policy of communism been for a long time regarded as fodder, way inferior to refined and bleached wheat flour reportedly worthy of humans.
What is even funnier is that these groats are now returning as health/vegan/occasionally no-gluten foods, and many young upholders of these food trends genuinely believe that by eating them, they’re tapping into the longevity secrets of the Maya, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Hunza in Pakistan and so on. God, I beg of you, make the blind see! – that’s the title of a Bulgarian 19th-century short story, and is what a true Bulgarian would exclaim in such circumstances.
Anyway, that Bulgarian National Cuisine book may have gone over the top with all those kasha flours, but what is absolutely acknowledgeable by any contemporary Bulgarian is that a kasha to us is a savoury dish made of flour mixed with boiling water, or fried in oil/butter/lard, and then mixed with hot water. Other typical ingredients may include cheese, meat, mushrooms, and spices. Sweet kashas, boiled in milk and enriched with fruit, powdered cocoa, nuts, or exotic additives such as coconut, maca root and whatnot, had come to us not earlier than in the 1990s as health foods, truly.
In the same time, early 20th-century cookbook The Frugal Cook by Pani Maria Chmielewska, or M. Hmelevskaya, as her name is known in Russian, has about zillion kasha recipes, some of which outrageously rich and decadent. Milk, butter, cream, fruit, nuts, you name it. If in the proper mood, you may try your hand at cooking the sweet and famous Guriev Kasha, or Guryevskaya Kasha, named after a 19th-century Russian count. Recipe 1 here, and 2 – perhaps a more authentic one – here.
The Bulgarian dish that gets the closest to the Russian and Polish, or eastern European if you will, understanding of kasha, is funnily, boiled wheat, a thing we consume as ritual food at funerals. It is made of whole wheat kernels boiled in water, with added sugar, cinnamon, and lemon zest. Some add breadcrumbs and dried fruit to the mixture as well. It is actually delicious and my mum’s of course tastes the best, but for years I had refused to eat it, saying it tasted like a funeral. It actually tastes of lemon and cinnamon, so let’s keep an open mind, that’s what I say now.
The most typical non-funeral kasha known in Bulgaria is kachamak, which is the same as polenta. It is known strictly as kachamak though, and never as kasha or a variant of kasha. In that Wallachian village on the Serbian and Romanian border where my mum grew, a thick mixture of coarsely ground corn flour and boiling water was what pigs were fed on. There, the mixture was referred to as “pasat”, and this is the word I’d use to date to describe an unpleasant edible concoction any of my two children may produce in their plates by drenching too many pieces of bread in the dish liquid before eating them.
Once I remember my and my cousin’s family were having fruit in the garden in our house in that village. I was eating some extruded corn snacks too, was reading the nutrition label, and asked “Does corn make you fat?” My aunt replied, “Of course it does, that’s what we fatten the pigs on!” There you go – a couple of words had solved the mystery of fat gain that traditional science proves and disproves to date.
I say I have been eating kasha my whole life because ever since I’ve realised that eating had everything to do with getting fat at about 14, I have striven for simple and unprocessed foods, and have somehow naturally landed on rolled oats (the only thing available in the 1990s) to which I added fruit and nuts for breakfast. I remember dad teasing me I was eating horsefood. Balkan people are generally known for loving meat and a good barbecue, so no big surprise there.
According to Bulgarian cultural studies scholar Raycho Pozharliev (more here and here), the kasha, meaning grains, seeds or flour boiled in water, is perhaps the most ancient dish on the planet. Density is the main characteristic of kashas setting them apart from thinner and runnier soups. This may be tricky though, as soups can transform into kashas, or stews in the Bulgarian case, quite easily. On the other hand, the prevalence of kashas or soups is directly related to the availability and affordability of bread, as thick kashas are self-sufficient, while thin soups require bread. In Bulgaria of the centuries past, bread was THE staple food to such an extent that soup was considered its accompaniment rather than the other way round.
In this sense, kasha is the food of the poor to an even greater extent than soup because kasha is prepared using whole kernels and without processing, while bread calls for flour which does require processing during which part of the kernel is thrown away. Consequently, eating bread is more expensive and wasteful than eating kasha. In addition, basic kasha is simpler and quicker to make than bread, and allegedly keeps one full for a longer time. An example of bread turned back into kasha is the bread sop, a variant of which exists in almost all culinary traditions. Bread puddings may be considered the posh version of a sop, while thin soups consumed with bread may be a posh version of uncomplicated kashas. I daresay milk puddings are distant cousins of kashas too.
According to Pozharliev quoting his Polish peer Paszensky, the association between kasha and poverty is the reason why cookbooks emerging after the 16th century typically do not contain kasha recipes. (Are French roux-based sauces sublimated kashas, the way men’s ties are remnants of Medieval knights’ garments?) On the other hand, kashas were regular fare at noble and royal courts during the Middle Ages, with only slight differences in ingredients between rich and poor. Thus, an 8th-century Irish text on class-appropriate feeding Pozharliev cites, recommends that the children of the poor classes have oat kasha (porridge? gruel?) with milk or water and some stale butter; upper class children have barley kasha with fresh milk and fresh butter; while royal offspring enjoy semolina (durum wheat kasha) boiled with fresh milk, butter, and honey. Now go back to the Guriyevskaya Kasha and enjoy it, as royal offspring would, and I won’t have complaints that semolina is disgusting baby food, not anymore.
Finally, a long(ish) and very appetising quote I came across in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I read the book some three years ago and it didn’t strike a chord with me at all, but now I am re-reading it “like the desert wants the rain,” as the saying goes.
In the quote, we have Oblonsky and Levin who for our purposes represent the City and the Countryside respectively, about to dine in an upscale restaurant in Moscow.
“Flensburg oysters are well enough, but are they
fresh?” <Oblonsky asks a Tatar waiter.>
” They came yesterday.”
“Very good! What do you say <Oblonsky says to Levin> — to begin with
oysters, and then to make a complete change in our
menu. What do you say… “
“It ‘s all the same to me. I ‘d like best of all some
shchi <fermented cabbage soup> and kasha <gruel> but you can’t get them here.”
“Kasha a la russe, if you would like to order it,” said
the Tatar, bending over toward Levin as a nurse bends
toward a child.
“No. Jesting aside, whatever you wish is good. I
have been skating and should like something to eat.
Don’t imagine,” he added, as he saw an expression of
disappointment on Oblonsky’s face, ” that I do not appreciate your selection. I can eat a good dinner with
“It should be more than that ! You should say that
it is one of the pleasures of life,” said Stepan Arkadye-
vitch. ” In this case, little brother of mine, give us two,
or…. no, that ‘s not enough, three dozen oysters, vegetable
soup …. “
” Printanier,” suggested the Tatar.
But Stepan Arkadyevitch did not allow him the
pleasure of enumerating the dishes in French, and con-
“Vegetable soup, you understand; then turbot, with
thick sauce; then roast beef, but see to it that it’s all
right. Yes, some capon, and lastly, some preserve.”
The Tatar, remembering Stepan Arkadyevitch’s ca-
price of not calling the dishes by their French names,
instead of repeating them after him, waited till he had
finished; then he gave himself the pleasure of repeating
the order according to the bill of fare : —
“Potage printanier, Turbot Sauce Beaumarchais,
Poularde a l’Estragon, Macedoine de fruits.”
Then instantly, as if moved by a spring, he substi-
tuted for the bill of fare the wine-list, which he presented
to Stepan Arkadyevitch.
“In the country <Levin says> we
make haste to get through our meals so as to be at work
again; but here you and I are doing our best to eat as
long as possible without getting satisfied, and so we are
eating oysters. ” ….
“Well, there’s something in that,” replied Stepan
Arkadyevitch; ” but the aim of civilization is to trans-
late everything into enjoyment.”
” If that is its aim, I should prefer to be untamed.”
I do love good food but I kind of see Levin’s point too,
PS. At long last, a great Russian song for goodbye. The two singers are very good and are huge stars in Russia but this particular songs does not showcase the best of their ability. Still, its merits include incredibly poetic and delightfully incoherent lyrics with stream-like flow and certain onomatopoeic qualities. I rather believe they speak of nature’s spring-time reawakening when Fickle Fate starts making the world live again through the powers of its Word, and the wind. Fate acts differently in different people but the common thing is that it comes down as a rainbow but is actually a dragon, and although it wags its tail in a friendly way, there is ice in its eyes. Thus, people feel fear in their heart and anguish in their soul, and are overwhelmed with pain and grief. They need ice from their pockets and water from the reawakened rivers to cool off their frenzied foreheads, but are reconciled as long as Fickle Fate keeps knocking on doors and clearing away snowdrifts to make words, and the world, live again.
I say, I’ve not been so impressed with song lyrics for a long, long time. And Anna Karenina does relate to them too, in its own way.