In summertime, when the weather's steamy and company's coming, few cooks would think of grabbing a cookbook filled with recipes from the Soviet Union for their culinary inspiration.
Soviet cooking means heavy cooking to most of us. It's cabbage and caviar and hearty stuffed dumplings. Not what you'd want for a cookout or cold buffet.
For summer, we'd like something a little lighter, something like olives. Maybe eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber. Or maybe some rice-stuffed grape leaves, some spiced feta, cold tuna in walnut sauce, Cornish hens with dried fruit, tahini dip, pilaf, walnut sauces and zesty fish casseroles.
But the surprise is that these are not just Mediterranean foods, they're Soviet as well, the foods and recipes from a new cookbook that celebrates the incredible diversity of Soviet cooking: "Please to the Table" (Workman, paperback, $18.95) by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.
"People here don't realize how different the different cultures are in the Soviet Union," Ms. von Bremzen said during a recent visit to Baltimore. "They think it's something like America, which is a melting pot. But it's actually a conglomerate of different countries, kind of thrown together, which have very, very different foods."
The food of the Soviet Union, she explained, embraces "a vast confection of styles, tastes and ingredients from the robust fare of the Ukraine to the delicate fruit pilafs of the Azerbaijan."
But the authors, who live together in New York City and have traveled to Soviet communities throughout the world to gather recipes for the book, admit to a fondness for the foods of the Caucasus and Central Asia, which are, they say, related to the cooking traditions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
These countries form a crescent around the southern part of the Soviet Union beginning with Georgia in the west next to the Black Sea, then moving into Armenia along the border with Turkey, then Azerbaijan, then jumping east of Iran to Turkmenia and to Uzbekistan which shares a border with Afghanistan.
Because of immigration and because of trade, culinary traditions have merged with one another. In the Caucasus -- Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan -- there are influences of Turkish and Persian cuisines, the authors write. In Uzbekistan, Chinese and Indian influences can be felt, but there are many more. Here, they continue, you might find people from Afganistan, Turkey, Iran, China, Korea, Mongolia, Russia and the Ukraine.
"These cuisines share a healthful emphasis on all kinds of tempting vegetables and legumes; rice in a thousand disguises; bulgur; refreshing yogurts; tart, piquant flavorings; freshly grilled meats and fish; prodigious sheep's cheese; and preparations that work magic with fruit and nuts."
Ms. von Bremzen, who was born in Moscow and emigrated to the United States nearly 20 years ago, is a food and travel writer as is Mr. Welchman. They both write extensively on the Soviet Union and spent three years working on "Please to the Table."
The book was inspired by Ms. von Bremzen's childhood memories of growing up in Russia, in particular, memories of the huge central market in Moscow where she followed along as her grandmother shopped for food. "The market is like the meeting place of all the peoples. You'd go to the market and there'd be Korean pickles, all kind of kimchee, there'd be Uzbeks eating pilaf on their lunch break, Latvians and Lithuanians selling homemade berry products, pork from the west and lamb from the east and so forth and so on."
Family recipes formed a core for the book. "My maternal grandmother was from Odessa and she was Jewish so she cooked a Jewish repertoire. My other grandmother was Russian, but she grew up in Central Asia. There was a lot of migration of people, especially during Stalin, people ended up in all sorts of strange places," she said.
To capture the best of all the various cuisines, the authors traveled not only throughout the Soviet Union but to many places throughout the world where large communities of Soviet emigres had settled, to Turkey where there are large Russian and Armenian communities in Istanbul. "And of course we visited the White Russian emigrants in Paris, London and California."
Much of their research began right in New York, from people who had come there from all over the Soviet Union. "The good thing about getting recipes in New York is that they're all adjusted to the local produce," she said.
When she and Mr. Welchman began their travels abroad, they found they could find contacts throughout the world from the friends they had in New York.
"I asked a friend, do you know anyone in Georgia and he said, 'Yeah, you can stay with my friends and they'll put you up.' And when we arrived, they met us already in two cars and whisked us off to some picnic and from that time on it was incredible.