So, the last book that the wonderful Roast Books released was a pretty brilliant one. I know. I would say that because it’s mine.
But what have they followed it up with is the question?
And the answer is ‘My Soviet Kitchen’ which is described as Neo-ckicklit. With a darker side, a vodka twist and a generous slice of post-Soviet living.
Interesting stuff, no?
And when you buy it, you don’t just get a book. Oh no. It comes in a bag. And you also get an accompanying ‘Guide To Life – post soviet style’.
Once again Roast Books have produced something exceptional and beautiful.
So, to celebrate its release I’ve invited My Soviet Kitchen’s author, the lovely Amy Spurling here for a chat.
But you’re not only getting a chat. Oh no. You’re getting a recipe for Georgian kebabs. There’s a cake contest where you can win a signed copy of the book. AND a vodka challenge.
So sit back and enjoy:
Hello and welcome! It’s lovely to have you here. So, first of all, could you tell us a little about your debut novel, ‘My Soviet Kitchen’, published by the most wonderful Roast Books? Who’s it for? What’s it about?
Well thank you for having me. I guess the pink cover might be a bit of a giveaway! Although really I’d say the book is for anyone who likes finding out about other countries (namely Soviet bloc ones), laughing, cooking and the odd romance.
It’s about a PhD student who is researching the Colorado Potato Beetle in the former Soviet Union and gets led astray…mainly by vodka and two very different men.
Why did you write it?
Because I loved the places I visited (Russia, Uzbekistan and Georgia) and I thought they suffered from bad PR. Most people didn’t realise that there’s a lot more to the ex-USSR than snow and hard liquor. Most people also didn’t realise that the other 14 ex-Soviet republics are very different from Russia. When I was in Tbilisi (which has quite a Mediterranean lifestyle), people kept asking me: “How’s Russia?”
You spent some time living in Russia – could you tell us a little about that and about what influence that had on you and on your writing of the book?
I went to Russia when I was 19 – an impressionable age, and I was duly impressed. By the way people helped and supported each other – I made friends for life. I was also impressed by the lack of pretention. And the lack of health warnings everywhere (i.e. on shampoo bottles) – in the ex-USSR they believe in Fate.
People in the former Soviet Union have often had very hard lives – but they still manage to rise above it, joke about life and have a good drink! So I have tried to show this in the book.
Food and vodka. How important are they to the story? (I should point out that each review copy of My Soviet Kitchen came with a miniature bottle of the latter).
Well Ivy does wake up with a hangover on the very first page. A lot of the novel’s action happens in the kitchen, so there is a certain amount of drinking and vodka snacking that goes on. And at the end of the book, a dish cooked for her wins her over…
As well as the vodka, a small ‘Companion Guide to Life’ comes with the book, containing, among many other things, recipes (I was rather taken with Nana’s Walnuty Aubergine Slices). Could you talk to us about that? How did it come about?
I thought that instead of bogging the story down with explanatory details of this unique place – I’d put it all in a glossary. And a picture is supposedly worth loads of words – so the illustrated lifestyle Companion guide was born!
I included a few recipes because I think you can learn a lot about any culture from its food, drink and way of drinking. It’s a shortcut to the place. So when you eat a sweet ‘n’ sour Uzbek pilaf or a Georgian kebab (see Kebab recipe) marinated in wine and cooked on an open fire – you’re halfway to the place itself… Drinking happens quite a lot in the former USSR – both as entertainment and escapism. And since there’s no Health and Safety, quantities can be robust!
‘My Soviet Kitchen’ has been described as ‘Neo-chicklit’ – how does that compare to traditional chicklit?
Perhaps it’s a little more grown-up and slightly darker. Instead of handbags, shoes and shopping there is more irony and culture (and in this particular example – there’s also a bit of entomology!). Still some romance, farce and humour though.
It’s also been described as having a ‘vodka twist’ – any sort of vodka in particular?
The precise vodka drunk in the book is Pshenichnaya. Which was the reasonably-priced preferred vodka in early-nineties Moscow amongst my friends… I remember that it had a little picture of a wheat field on the label. But here and now in London – I’d say try Russki Standart (see the Vodka Challenge).
Describe Russia in three words.
Spontaneous. Hedonistic. Intense.
When you’re not writing, you’re most likely to be found…
In a nice family-friendly historic pub, at a gallery, or in a vintage clothes shop.
What would you say is the biggest difference is between Soviet and Post-Soviet? Have the cakes changed?
Well I wasn’t actually in Russia during the Soviet period, but of course the biggest difference is now the ability to travel and more or less speak one’s mind. Though this hasn’t meant much to the poorest social strata – they lost a lot with Perestroika (savings, state benefits).
Have the cakes changed? Well the Napoleon hasn’t (see Cake Challenge), but there’s probably a wider choice now and perhaps more cream!
What book would you recommend to someone who enjoyed ‘My Soviet Kitchen’?
Good question. Probably A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck – because it’s hilarious and surreal. He went there in the 40s with Robert Capa taking the photos and, let’s just say, the interplay between the two of them and the country is priceless. Also, I’d have to say, Bridget Jones, because that too is funny. And it’s a clever satire on the time it was written.
What’s next for you?
A cake book, funnily enough. And something completely different – the true story of an Englishman killed in the former Soviet Union. This will be a memoir of me getting to know him after his death.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for reading. And keep exploring other worlds!
A GEORGIAN RECIPE
This is a Georgian recipe from the Companion guide to My Soviet Kitchen. It is for kebabs in the open air – preferably cooked on an open fire.
GIORGI’S WHITE-WINE MTSWADI (KEBABS)
400g boneless lean pork (i.e. leg escalopes)
1 small onion
small glass of red or white table wine
salt and pepper
an open fire
bunch fresh parsley, coriander
- Chop the meat into big chunks and bundle them into a large jar or airtight container. Now make the marinade – slice the onion into thin rings and add three-quarters of it to the jar, sprinkle salt and pepper over the meat and pour over the wine (Giorgi prefers to use white, but either colour will do).
- Leave in a cool place for about three hours, then thread the meat pieces onto a long skewer. You will need an open fire, says Giorgi, otherwise, it’s not mtswadi. However, he does concede that some restaurants use a frying pan to roast the meat and juices instead.
- When the meat is browned and slightly underdone it is ready – probably after five to ten minutes on a high heat (but check there’s no pink inside), unless you prefer your meat well-cooked.
- Tease the meat chunks off their stick (or out of their frying pan) and tumble them onto a plate. Sprinkle with more raw chopped onion, fresh parsley and coriander leaves, and pomegranate seeds.
- Eat with pitta and salad or chips. Wash down with the opposite colour of wine you used for the marinade (preferably red).
A CAKE COMPETITION (you could win a signed copy of the book)
TAKE THE NAPOLEON CAKE CHALLENGE!
This is a Mille-feuille cake – literally ‘thousand-leaf’. This means layers. And this is where the ‘challenge’ part comes in (though this recipe is quite a few short of 1,000 layers). In Moscow, big trays of Napoleon were made for birthdays. I had the impression they took about two days to make.
This is a French creamy-layer cake that the Russians have made their own. The stunning Napoleon featured here has been made by Zhenya, a competent cook and also an engineer – the perfect combination for assembling this cake.
To take the Cake Challenge check out Zhenya’s recipe below and then make your own! Send a photo of your creation, plus a short commentary on the making process, to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Wednesday 18th August.
The best wins a Most Perfect Napoleon Prize – a signed copy of My Soviet Kitchen and a cake recipe book of your choice from Amazon!
For the pastry:
250g butter or marg
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
125 ml water (cold)
For the cream:
300g of butter
405g tin condensed milk
- Mix flour and fat with fingertips, till they form breadcrumbs.
- Mix the water, egg, lemon juice and salt.
- Pour into the breadcrumbs and mix again.
- Form the mixture into 7 balls and leave in the fridge for an hour.
- Flatten every ball into a thin circle (or square or rectangle, depending on what shape you want your finished cake to be).
- Bake at 250 C for 20 minutes – until your shapes are lightly browned.
- Once they are cooked, take the least perfect circle, crumble it and set aside.
- Spread the tops and sides of the other 6 with your cream mix and assemble in layers.
- Sprinkle the top and sides of the cake with the crumbs you set aside, and leave to stand for half an hour or so.
- Serve with tea or liqueur.
Good luck and enjoy!
THE VODKA CHALLENGE
RUSSIAN VODKA COCKTAIL
Here is a Russian cocktail, taken from the Companion guide to My Soviet Kitchen:
BELI MEDVED’ (lit. polar bear) – is champagne and vodka mixed. Particularly popular and traditional on New Year’s Eve; the combination of spirit and bubbles is lethal, since the latter go straight to your head whilst the former ensures the effect is long-lasting. Patsy and Edwina also drank this cocktail in Absolutely Fabulous, they called it “Stoli Bolli”.
HOW DO YOU DRINK YOURS?
Usually, however, Russians prefer to drink their vodka neat. So fill up your shot glass, then cut up some vodka snacks – gherkins, salami and black bread. Now drain your glass and chase with a snack.
I would recommend a Petersburg vodka – ‘Russki Standart’ (Russian Standard) as a good one to drink neat because it has a smooth flavour. However, a slightly less hardcore way to drink it is to fill up a tall glass with ice, slide in half-moons of lemon and lime and top with a measure of RS. Swill the glass until the chill has permeated the vodka and drink!
TAKE THE VODKA CHALLENGE
Tell us what your favourite vodka is and why. Then tell us how you like to drink it.
Amy Spurling lived for 10 years in the ex-USSR as a writer and journalist. She likes kitchen tables and wine everywhere.
* The kebab photo is courtesy of David Jennings
** Cake pics by Andriy Bychay
*** Vodka art by Ivy Stone