I've spent most of the past week evading the ukha. No, the ukha isn't a branch or directorate of the FSB (KGB for those of you still keeping time with the old calendar). It's the pot of fish soup that lives out on host fam's balcony. To Russia's credit, I will say that having a virtual walk-in (out) freezer right outside the door is a pretty cool trick, while it lasts.
Some of you clinging to visions of potatoes and cabbage may be surprised to know that fish has traditionally played an important role in Russian cuisine, thanks to the former abundance and variety of freshwater fish in Russia's rivers and lakes. But that was then, and this is 78 years after Stalin's industrialization campaign began. Suffice it to say that the Soviet fish suffered alongside the Soviet people as they built a brigher future.
I will admit that when it comes to fish, I have been extremely spoiled, having spent the last several years on either coast. Contributing to my piscatorial snobbery is the fact that I probably spent at least 30 days out of the last year on the water catching the sea's bounty. Or at least a boatload of bluefish. One develops a taste for freshness when dinner was happily swimming along only a couple of hours prior...
Of course, this reminds me of a scene in Bulgakov's immortal classic, "The Master and Margarita," in which the Devil happens to visit 1930s Moscow. At one point Satan (referred to, appropriately, as "the Professor") takes a buffet manager to task for selling rotting sturgeon:
'I'm sorry,' said Andrei Fokich, appalled by this sudden attack, ' but I came about something else, I don't want to talk about the smoked sturgeon . . .'
'But I insist on talking about it--it was stale!'
'The sturgeon they sent was second-grade-fresh,' said the barman.
'Really, what nonsense!'
'Why nonsense? '
'" Second-grade-fresh "--that's what I call nonsense! There's only one degree of freshness--the first, and it's the last. If your sturgeon is " second-grade-fresh " that means it's stale.'
It would appear that "second-grade fresh" fish still exists in Russia, and that such a fish found its way into the ukha that's sitting on the balcony. To be specific, a carp (do we even eat carp in America?) had bravely given its life for the pot of soup. I suppose he was trying to build a better future too, though the results surely didn't live up to his expectations nor mine. In the words of one of Russia's post-Soviet prime ministers, "we wanted the best, and what we got was the usual." Needless to say, I'm not fond of the soup.
The aroma - that sinister vestige of "second-grade freshness" - hits me immediately as I lean over the bowl, pondering with spoon in hand how best to handle the situation. Refusing the soup is not an option. My mother taught me that refusing food as a guest is impolite, while my cultural sensitivity training taught me that this is even more true in foreign countries. Besides, these are good people I'm eating with and for them this is good food. No, I'll just have to power through this.
I take the first bite, gathering up some rice from the bottom of the bowl to try to offset the fishiness that is about to envelop me. "Blegh," I think to myself. "This is going to be painful." My expectations are validated as my teeth crunch through the chalky remains of comrade carp's backbone. In America we usually evacuate the skeletal remains from stock before proceding with the construction of a soup. I guess post-Soviet soup is done differently.
Perhaps the most disconcerting sensation is the incessant crackling that occurs with each bite. I stealthily remove the textural offender from my mouth with my spoon (a little trick I picked up in cotillion class so many years ago, along with the mantra that the lady should always be seated to the left of the gentleman. Or is it to the right? In any case, the important rule - that nobody will notice if the food comes out the way it went in - stuck with me). Nestled happily on my spoon amongst the rice and carrots are several fish scales. Aha! That explains the crunchy crackling. But why are there scales in my soup? Don't the know how to scale fish here? I have hit upon another difference between western and post-Soviet soup cultures.
And so I begin building my own better future, in the form of a growing pile of bones, scales, and the occasional fin (not Finn) on my napkin. By this point I have given up on stealth, as every bite requires that something be rejected. By the end of the bowl I have build up quite a little empire. I look across the table at host dad, who smiles kindly. He has no pile and his bowl is completely empty. He has consumed everything - bones, scales, and possibly Finns.
I salute you, Konstantin Konstantinovich. You are the stronger man.
And so, not wishing to repeat Monday's experience yet still not wishing to be rude by refusing, I have taken evasive measures. Specifically, I have arranged my daily errands around the lunch hour, preferring the safety of street food to what comrade carp has to offer. My hope is that host family will finish off the ukha before I win the second-grade fresh lottery again. Of course, after several days of reheating and balcony freezing we may be talking about third-grade fresh. If only it were borshch week again! Now THERE'S a soup I can get behind!
Unfortunately, I have no errands to run today. I fear my luck is about to run out...