This Chef Will Make You Fall in Love With Soviet Cooking

Chef Bonnie Morales mined her Belarusian heritage to create one of the most buzzed-about restaurants in Portland, Oregon.

This Chef Will Make You Fall in Love With Soviet Cooking

Photo by Carly Diaz

Portland-based chef Bonnie Frumkin Morales didn’t plan to serve Soviet cuisine when her culinary journey began. But since she opened Kachka, a tribute to her Belarusian roots, she’s garnered a James Beard nomination and plenty of accolades from the people who matter most: her diners. This fall, she releases her first cookbook, Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking. Here, Morales talks about the power of potatoes, Eastern European dining culture, and more.

What exactly is Belarusian food?

“Potatoes are king. They’re the backbone of the cuisine, and they’re used to make everything from draniki (potato pancakes) to babka (potato casserole). Potatoes are so important, in fact, that people get excited about the first harvest of the season. Belarus also has a lot of forest, so many of the ingredients are from there: porcini mushrooms, wild strawberries, birch sap” [used to make the traditional Belarusian drink, byeryozovyi sok].

And what are meals like?

“Meals are all about zakuski, small plates that range from pickled vegetables to seledka pod shuboī, or ‘herring under a fur coat,’ a layered salad with herring at the base and hard-boiled eggs on top. In Belarus, zakuski are where most of the drinking and toasting and eating and socializing happen. By the time main dishes (such as machanka, pork cooked in gravy) are served, they are more a cue to stop drinking and a way to sop up some of that alcohol.”

Did you always want to cook for a living?

“My parents emigrated from what was then the Soviet Union in 1979. Growing up, I didn’t appreciate the food. When friends would come over for a meal, I had this standard line of ‘You’re not going to like this.’ When my now-husband and I were first dating, I told him that same thing. But he loved everything my family made. He thought Belarusian food was really interesting and delicious. I had a paradigm shift: I started to appreciate the foods I grew up with and to wish they were better represented.”

I hear you have a pretty impressive collection of linens.

“Belarus is known for its linens, which are an obsession for me. I have bins of linens that I’ve either stolen from my mom or picked up while traveling over there. Belarusian linens are not nearly as colorful as, say, Mexican weaving—they’re more about the patterns. The most traditional are white with a red weave or a really cool gradient of gray. There’s a great linen store right on Nezavisimosty, Minsk’s main drag, called Lyanok. I bought this fantastic handwoven dress there on my last trip. It was probably the most expensive thing in the whole store and cost a hundred dollars.”

Where do you go for food when you’re in town?

“One of my first stops is always the Kamaroyka, a massive permanent market with dairy, honey, and charcuterie inside and a covered area outside with mountains of produce. Cucumbers are a very important part of the diet, and so there will be cucumbers piled taller than I am. For a fine-dining experience, I like Kuhmistr, which serves traditional Belarusian cuisine prepared expertly. The horseradish-infused vodka pairs really nicely with the cold dishes, such as herring or pickled mushrooms. And I have to stop at a street vendor cart and get some plombir, which is ice cream served between two wafers or in a cone.”

What might surprise travelers about Minsk?

“If people even know where Belarus is, I think they assume it’s gray and monolithic and serious. The reality is very different. The culture and people are incredibly warm and hospitable. There’s a lot of pride there. The city is incredibly well-kept. I mean it is an authoritarian state, but parks are really important to the culture, so the government keeps them beautifully maintained. That’s a big plus for travelers. After a meal you walk and talk. I like Yanka Kupala Park, a beautiful, serene expanse right in the heart of town.”

How has Minsk’s food culture changed?

“Minsk is experiencing a coffee and cocktail renaissance. It’s in its infancy, but I love seeing new places like Bar Duck, a cocktail bar, and all-day cafés like Svobody 4, which becomes a very hip wine bar in the evening. The first time I went to Minsk in 2000, I felt that the city was too orderly—like people couldn’t express themselves publicly—but there’s a blossoming of culture in the city right now.”

How to drink like a Belarusian

Chef Bonnie Morales’s guide to surviving the vodka-soaked feasts of Belarus.

Sit down. “Vodka is an important beverage in Belarus, but traditionally it’s frowned upon to drink without eating, so instead of going to a bar, you go to (or host) dinner. Everyone drinks while sitting down around a table with a spread of food.”

Master the toast. “Toasts are a big part of the meal. Make sure you clink glasses, catch eyes with people, and shoot a glass of something, even if it’s not vodka. Everyone takes turn toasting, so try to join in, even if you just say ‘to all of us.’”

Eat, eat, eat.Salo, or cured pork fatback, is a crucial drinking food. Fat helps coat the stomach, so people will eat a slice of salo with bread before they start drinking. Whatever you do, eat. Eating is what keeps you from passing out in your salad.”

>>Next: A Chip Off the Old Bloc

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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