Okroshka: A Refreshing Summer Soup From Russia

Okroshka (Окрошка) is a cold soup that probably originated in the Volga region of Russia. Because of its light, refreshing taste, it is popularly served in summer. The soup usually consists of diced vegetables, eggs, and meats in a base of either kvass or kefir and is often garnished with sour cream. Best known in Russia, it can be found throughout the former Soviet space.

(recipes are in the end)

How Okroshka Got Its Name

Okroshka most likely derives its name from the Old Church Slavonic «крьшити», which in modern Russian corresponds to the verb «крошить», meaning to crumble, break, or chop into small pieces. As in many Russian soups and especially salads, chopping the ingredients to a small, uniform consistency is a large part of the art of its preparation. Okroshka is classed as a “похлëбка” (pokhlyobka), which basically means that it can be composed of various and often indiscriminate odds-and-ends that might need to be used up. Okroshka can have everything from mushrooms, meat, fish, eggs, beets, vegetables, and/or even fruit floating in it, depending upon the nationality of the person making it, the occasion, and what happens to be on hand. Although okroshka is Russian, its inspiration may have been Turkic in origin. Similar soups can be found in many Turkic cultures and Turkic peoples were (and still are) settled along the Volga region where okroshka is believed to have originated. Analogues include “овдух” (ovdukh) from Azerbaijan, which is very similar to okroshka but usually made with boiled beef and exclusively made with “кефир” rather than “квас.” In Uzbekistan, “чалоп” is local version soup made with a sour-milk product called “катык” and is usually meatless.

How and When Okroshka Is Eaten

The most standard vegetables used to make okroshka are fresh cucumbers, boiled potatoes, radishes, and various greens such as scallions and dill. Most common for meats are diced ham or soft, boiled-type sausage such as “докторская колбаса” (doctor’s sausage), a type of bologna developed in the USSR. However, beef, veal, or other types of sausages can also be used. Other, less common regional variations include using cooked beets in the recipe (found in Ukraine and the Baltics) or adding walnuts (associated with Bulgaria).

Both traditional bases – kvass and kefir – are fermented foods. This means that they have a small alcohol content – as all fermented foods (like yogurt, kimchi, or traditional root beer) do. These all have less than 1% alcohol content, which means that the alcohol gives the foods a slight bite to their taste, but eating them will not get you drunk.

Instead, the probiotics in the foods as well as the very small alcohol content have several health benefits for one’s digestive and cardiovascular systems. Some also say that the probiotics have good effects on your hair, skin, and energy levels.

Okroshka is, by and large, a summer dish, as the refreshing and cool kvas or kefir that is at the heart of the dish are perfect ways to “beat the heat” of a Russian summer (which can get quite hot). Many also associate the soup with the “дача” (dacha), the traditional “second home” that many Russians keep as a way to escape the city on weekendsIt is a common and easy summer lunch often had at a dacha, where one might make it using vegetables taken straight from the garden. It can also be found in restaurants as a seasonal dish.

Certain окрошка variations might be eaten at certain times on the Orthodox calendar. One of the best examples of this is the окрошка eaten during Peter’s Fast (the Apostles’ Fast). This fast, which begins a week after the “День Святой Троицы” (Day of the Holy Trinity; in the West often called “The Pentecost”), a date which can range from early June to early July, and ends on July 12 with the feast of Peter and Paul, requires that the observant eat neither meat nor dairy. Thus, the natural solution for the inhabitants of water-rich Russia, which contains more freshwater than any other country on earth, is to eat fish, a shift reflected in the “рыбная окрошка” (rybnaya okroshka) eaten during this portion of the summer.

Okroshka is always served cold. Beyond that, there are no unique standards of presentation. Some chefs will garnish it with various ingredients such as sour cream, garlic, horseradish, mustard, one half of a hard-boiled egg, and/or dill; others will serve it “as is”.

To eat okroshka, you only need a spoon and a hungry stomach. It is a very healthy, oil-free, and inexpensive dish that can be eaten as a starter or a meal.

Preparing Traditional Okroshka

Classic okroshka is dominated by boiled eggs and potatoes as well as diced bologna and cucumbers. It is served in kvas or kefir and seasoned with dill and/or green onion.

Preparing okroshka is very easy and can be done in half an hour. The longest element will be preparing the boiled potatoes. Boil them until soft, but not until they are mushy. They should still have enough firmness to be cut into cubes without falling apart. One recipe below for kefir okroshka suggests simply grating the potatoes and leaving them raw, for extra crunch. You can use boiled or grated potatoes for either recipe, depending on your personal taste.

The next longest cooking time will be the boiled eggs.

The debate on whether kvas or kefir is an intense one, with Russians usually being solidly in one camp or the other. Kvas appears to be the older and likely more traditional choice for Russian culture, while recipes using kefir are generally associated more with Central Asian, Eastern European, and Caucasian cultures. Some Russians point to the old Russian belief that mixing dairy products and cucumbers (a common ingredient in okroshka) is bad for the digestive system. However, both variants of the soup can be easily found across Russia. It will be up to you to decide which camp you fall in.

A survey was taken that reveled that the kefir vs. kvass orkoshka divide in Russia is a regional debate.

If one chooses to use kvas, care must be taken in which type to use. Most store-bought kvas is too sweet for producing good okroshka. Traditional kvas is, on the contrary, rather sour, a hallmark of the painstaking brewing process. This sourness contrasts beautifully with the saltier notes of the vegetables and/or meat in okroshka and helps to pull the dish together.

There are also several different types of traditional kvas, including even a very concentrated version used in past centuries for skin treatments. The two main divisions, however, are “белый квас” (white kvas) and “красный квас“(red kvas). White kvas is simpler, less processed, and less sweet, having undergone a much less rigorous heating process than красный квас, and making it the best of the kvas family to use for making an okroshka. In Belarus, a version of kvas is made using beets and is popular for the local okroshka there.

Kefir okroshka often has sparkling water added. Borjomi, a Georgian mineral water that is naturally high in salt and other minerals is the favored water to use for this. Borjomi is so known for its health properties that the water is one of the tiny country’s major exports. If you use Borjomi, you might need to reduce your added salt by about half. The added minerals and strong carbonation will also add an extra kick to the soup.

Some cooks will additionally add about a tablespoon of strong Russian mustard (or two tablespoons of Dijon) to the vegetable/meat mixture per liter of kvass or kefir. This will give the soup a slightly bolder flavor.

Thus, while okroshka may be a simple dish, it by no means offers only simple flavors. It allows for a surprising amount of creativity. The dish, best served, will deliver a salty-tangy flavor, and mixes the smoothness of the kefir or kvass with the crunch of fresh vegetables.

Lastly, always remember that adding of the kefir or kvas is actually the last step in making the okroshka! The texture of the dry ingredients would be irrevocably changed to a soggy mass were one to add them to the okroshka rather than the other way around. It is possible to make batches of “dry” okroshka and keep it chilled in the refrigerator for a few days (chilling it at least overnight will improves the flavor) and then you can scoop out servings and add kefir or kvas as needed.

Let’s Cook Okroshka!

Okroshka (with kvass)

Ingredients:
radish – 230 g
boiled potatoes – 400 g
large chicken eggs – 5
fresh cucumbers – 300 g
boiled sausage – 300 g
sour cream – 230 g
salt – to taste
kvass – to taste
green onion – 1 bunch
fresh dill – 1 bunch

Preparation:
1. Boil the potatoes and eggs, then peel and cut them into cubes. After that, chop the cucumbers, radishes and sausage.
2. Finely chop the dill and green onions.
3. Combine all the prepared ingredients. Season with salt and sour cream.
4. Add kvass to taste (some like it thicker and some thinner).

Okroshka (with kefir and water)

Ingredients:
boiled potatoes – 4
smoked sausage – 300 g
fresh cucumbers – 4
radish – 500 g
eggs – 2
green onion – 1 bunch
dill – 1 bunch
sour cream – 4 tbsp.
kefir – 1 ½ liter
sparkling mineral water – 2 cups
ground black pepper – ½ tsp.
salt – ½ tsp.

Preparation:
1. Hard boil, cool, and peel the eggs. Then wash the radishes, cucumbers, and greens. Peel the cucumbers.
2. Peel the potatoes. Then julienne the potatoes, cucumbers, and radishes using a grater.
3. Thinly slice the smoked sausage with an electric slicer and further slice them into thin strips.
4. Mix the kefir and mineral water in a blender. Add salt and pepper.
5. Finely chop the onion and dill. Put all the prepared ingredients in a saucepan, pour in the kefir mixture, and stir. Put in the refrigerator.
6. Pour on a plate and add sour cream. Stir. You may add ice cubes.

-Natalia

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