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«Икра» (“caviar”) without any fish eggs! Posted by on Sep 17, 2012 in Culture, language, Russian food, Russian for beginners

In this video post, I’m gonna play “Julia Child” and walk you through the recipe for one of my favorite Russian hors d’oeurvesбаклажанная икра, or “eggplant caviar,” which is essentially a chunky version of Middle Eastern babaganoush. In fact, the word баклажан (“eggplant; aubergine”) is itself from the Middle East, and was borrowed into Russian by way of Turkish. As you can guess from their name, Russian “vegetable caviars” are very popular as a frugal alternative to the Real Thing, whether they’re made from eggplant, тыква (“squash”), грибы (“mushrooms”), or whatever. (There are many variants.)

In fact, if you remember my post from a couple months ago about the Soviet comedy «Иван Васильевич меняет профессию», there’s actually a pretty funny joke during the big banquet scene about the cost of баклажанная икра versus beluga caviar!

So, on with the recipe:

Всего я снял больше двадцати пяти минут кадров (“I recorded more than 25 minutes of footage”), but in order to keep the finished video at a reasonable length, I had to cut a lot out! So, to begin with, here are some additional comments I had about the recipe:

I used one large баклажан (“eggplant”) weighing around полтора фунта (“a pound-and-a-half”, or 600-700 g) — but you can use several smaller eggplants. Also, I decided to use большая горсточка (“a large handful”) of little-bitty grape tomatoes, but you could instead use one large помидор (“tomato”). And my version calls for a generous quantity of сырой чеснок (“raw garlic”)… something like five cloves. In my personal philosophy, it’s impossible to have слишком много чеснока (“too much garlic”) — it’s like being слишком богатый или слишком красивый; there’s no such thing. On the other hand, a lot of traditional Russian recipes use чеснок in parts-per-trillion quantities that are only detectable by gas-chromatography. So if you want your recipe to be a bit more authentic, you can add much less garlic than I did!

And speaking of traditional recipes, my version was loosely adapted from this mammoth 1960 volume for Soviet housewives, which I found years ago in a used bookstore:

The 870-page «Книга полезных советов», or Book of Useful Advice(s), is a wonderfully absorbing read as a sort of “period artifact” — though to be frank, I think they were maybe slightly over-optimistic on the полезный part! For example, it includes over 180 pages of recipes, but most of them are so hilariously lacking in detail that if you didn’t already know the basic steps for making “eggplant caviar” or cranberry preserves or sweet yeast dough, you’d be totally lost. I mean, their recipe for homemade томатный соус is basically:

  1. Peel tomatoes and chop a small onion
  2. Stew tomatoes and onion in saucepan until they’re done
  3. Whatever you do, FOR GOD’S SAKE DO NOT ADD ANY GARLIC!!
  4. Serve with macaroni or rice

(Okay, maybe I made up #3.)

Some key vocabulary:

The verb (ис)печь (perfective (испечь) basically means “to bake in an oven,” but usually in reference to things NOT made with flour. It conjugates:

(ис)печь, (ис)пеку, (ис)печёшь; (ис)пёк, (ис)пекла

On the other hand, when you’re talking about “things made with flour” (bread, cakes, pies, cookies, etc.), you would generally use the verb pair выпекать/выпечь. The perfective conjugates just like (ис)печь (except that the stress is fixed on the вы-), while the imperfective is я выпекаю, ты выпекаешь, etc.

The root verb жарить, (я жарю, ты жаришь) is used in this recipe with the meaning “to fry in a skillet with oil/butter”, but elsewhere it can signify “to roast (meat) in an oven”. The “neutral” perfective form can be prefixed either with за- or из-), but in the video I also use the perfective поджарить, which means “to saute until golden brown” or “to toast” Thus, поджаренный хлеб is “toast” — not to be confused with тост, which is when you do the l’chayim! thing. And you’ll also hear me use the construction пока не поджарится — which is translatable as “until it’s golden-brown,” but more literally means “while it shall not have been toasted.” (This kind of construction with “пока не + [perfective future] ” is often the best way to render the English “until so-and-so happens”.)

When you’re talking about chopping onions and whatnot, you’d generally use the verb pair нарезать/нарезать, which differ in conjugation as well as stress. The imperfective is я нарезаю, ты нарезаешь…, while the perfective is я нарежу, ты нарежешь…

And, finally, a few nouns that you’ll hear in this recipe are печка (“oven”), сковорода (“skillet, frying pan”), and противень (a flat “baking sheet” or “cookie sheet”).

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  1. Yelena:

    Awesome job! I was wondering how you were going to make баклажанная икра. There are basically two schools of thought on the subject. One says that you should cook (saute) onions (and, in your case, zucchinis) and the other one says that only the eggplant gets cooked (baked) and the rest must be raw. I am so very jealous of your Книга полезных советов! What a terrific find. Maybe one day I’m going to get this lucky and find such a раритет (rare object) at one of the local книжный развал (book stalls).

  2. Sara:

    Okay since no one else said anything, I thought the garlic jokes were very funny. And very true!

  3. Rob McGee:

    Thanks, Sara!

    Of course, in fairness, it must be admitted that Americans were also very garlic-phobic until relatively recent decades, if we can judge by old cookbooks. I once saw a 1920s recipe for “spaghetti with Italian sauce” that called for “half a clove of garlic (if desired)“. Also, you were supposed to boil the spaghetti for over half-an-hour (Al dente? What’s that?)… and the “sauce” was basically a large bottle of ketchup with some ground beef added.

    And in the sitcom M*A*S*H (made in the 1970s, but set in the early 1950s), the American soldiers in Korea use “kimchee” as a sort of cuss-word — as in, “We’re in deep kimchee now!” — presumably because kimchee does have quite a lot of garlic, and was considered almost Satanically spicy by the standards of mid-century American cooking. (In fact, kimchee is milder than its Western reputation suggests, and I’ve successfully used it to “kick up the flavor” of some Russian/Slavic cabbage dishes.)

  4. Rob McGee:

    Yelena — this is actually the first time that I used цуккини in this recipe — it was an improvisation because my sister had given me a few zucchini from her огород (“vegetable garden”) and I had half of one left. (And by the way, не обязательно очистить цуккини, потому что кожица у него очень тонкая и мягкая — “it’s not necessary to peel the zucchini because its skin is very thin and soft”).

    Also, in the past, I have usually used raw onions (which I often puree in the blender with the eggplant). This time, because I was using the green onions uncooked, I decided to try sauteeing the yellow onion to give it a mellow, “caramelized” flavor.

    But if you happen to have a red onion on hand, I would recommend using it raw so that it adds an attractive color as well as a strong flavor. And also try yellow tomatoes or yellow bell peppers when they’re available — again, they add to the visual appeal of the икра.

  5. Rob McGee:

    Regarding Книга полезных советов, I should point out that although many of the recipes are lacking in detail, other chapters have a LOT of information — for instance, the chapters on houseplants and vegetable gardens offer extremely detailed advice on properly preparing the soil (e.g., how to tell if the soil is too acid or too alkaline, and what chemicals you should add to correct the pH), and how to diagnose and treat sick plants — are they being attacked by тли (“aphids”) or паутинные клещи (“spider mites”), or some kind of грибки (“fungi”)?

    The chapter on стирка (“laundering”) was also exhaustively detailed, with tons of advice about preparing “homemade laundry detergents” — using ingredients you’d expect, like мыльные хлопья (“soap flakes”), нашатырный спирт (“ammonia solution”) and washing-soda, plus some you wouldn’t expect, like горчица (“mustard”) and отвар фасоли (“water in which beans had been boiled”)!

    These DIY tips were presumably a reflection of the fact that consumer goods as banal as packaged laundry-detergent powder were often in very short supply in the USSR, even though they did exist. And needless to say, there’s not a word about стиральные машины (“washing machines”); the corrugated-metal washboard was apparently the state-of-the-art for Soviet housewives. (The book definitely leaves the reader in awe of the heroic day-to-day labor done by Russian women!)

  6. Scott marr:

    Rob would you sell this book to me? We want to use it in a display and we are looking for that exact book. I’ve been looking all over for the 1960 edition. Thanks for your consideration.