German-Russian Cooking Recipes: A Culinary Heritage

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German-Russian Cooking Recipes: BorschtThe German-Russian cooking tradition is a testament of a people’s self-sufficiency, frugality and a humble affection for their ancestral origins.  Sam Brungardt, author of the German-Russian cookbook Sei Unser Gast (Be Our Guest), presents an intricate look into the German-Russian cuisine past and present, and the rich history that has made the culinary tradition what it is today.

 What characterizes German Russian cooking in your opinion?

German-Russian cooking is basically peasant cooking.  It’s not fancy, but the kind of plain and substantial cooking that was needed to nourish hard-working farmers.

The German Russians came mostly from German-speaking areas of Western Europe, so the cuisine reflects these diverse origins; with dishes that one would have encountered in Germany, Austria, Luxembourg or Alsace 150 to 200 years ago.  Depending upon where these German-speaking people settled in the Russian Empire, the cooking of the colonists was influenced to various degrees by their Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian and other, non-German neighbors.  Sometimes this hybridization is seen in the adoption of a particular ingredient, such as syrup made from the juice of watermelons, a sweetener that appears to have originated among the Tatars.  In other cases, the German-speaking settlers adopted dishes, such as Borscht, a Ukrainian beet soup.  However, nearly always, the German Russians gave the dishes they adopted their own twist.

German-Russian cuisine was also influenced by the climates of the German colonists’ new home.  For example, those in the Volga region had access to few fruits other than apples, tart cherries and small fruits, such as strawberries, gooseberries and currants.  This was because the climate there was bitterly cold in winter and generally hot and dry in summer.  So, watermelons were very important in their diet; they ate them fresh through the summer and pickled, Russian style, in winter.  In contrast, those colonists who settled near the Black Sea where the climate was much milder were able to grow many kinds of less cold-hardy fruits, such as grapes, peaches and plums, and their cooking reflects this.

So, with German-Russian cooking, we have a cuisine that’s basically German, but influenced by other nationalities and the climate where the Germans settled.  It uses ingredients that could be produced on the farm: flour, dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry, and produce, particularly potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, root vegetables, squash and melons.

When German Russians emigrated to the Western Hemisphere, they incorporated ingredients and dishes into their cuisine that they encountered in the United States, Canada, and South America, particularly Argentina.  So, today many of the Volga Germans who live in the Great Plains states make American-style pies and German-style Kuchen from Schwartzbeeren, the berries of an edible form of black nightshade that they encountered in Russia.

To sum it up, German-Russian cooking is very much traditional cooking, but it is not static because it has always reflected the cuisines of the peoples that the German Russians came in contact with in their new homes.

How has location and time affected the German-Russian cuisine?

To understand German-Russian cooking, one must know something about history -- about the German-speaking people who came to be included in the Russian Empire.  In the 1760s, Catherine the Great recruited settlers for Russia’s newly acquired lands along the Volga River, near Saratov.  Most of these colonists were from what is now Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and the French province of Alsace.  Later, when Russia wrested territory north of the Black Sea from the Ottoman Turks in the early 1800s, Czar Alexander I recruited settlers from southern Germany and Alsace, as well as Mennonites from East Prussia.  As the borders of Russia expanded, other German-speaking people in Eastern Europe became German Russians (an example of this were the Germans in Bukovina, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

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