Kasha varnishkes… the very name brings a smile to my lips, its plethora of shushing sounds inviting silence, simultaneous with its juicy exuberant consonants that demand to be heard. Of course, what delights is not just that onomatopoeic nomenclature (like grains of kasha dissolving in the mouth the moment it is spoken), but the taste memories lingering from youth.
This dish of sauteed onions tossed with pasta and buckwheat groats (the hulled, roasted kernels of buckwheat) is mainly associated with Russian Jews, though I suspect it may have been eaten by poor Eastern Europeans of all religions. It was prepared by my father’s stepmother—my grandfather, something of a Bluebeard, buried at least four wives. I myself come from a mixed marriage (Russian Jewish father and German Jewish mother), and my mother as a rule rarely made these Russian peasant dishes. She didn’t despise them; she just didn’t feel at home making them, so we ate the stuffed cabbage and borscht mostly at my grandfather’s house, or at the many cheap eateries in our neighborhood.
We lived in Williamsburg, when it was still a desperate ghetto and not a haven for young hip foodies. As a result, the food was uniformly delicious: at the Sunset Dairy cafeteria, at the numerous delicatessens, at the family restaurants like Bella’s that welcomed babies by supplying high chairs, you could always get good kasha varnishkes—a side dish, never the main attraction, but all the more comforting for its humility.
Kasha itself, let’s face it, tastes like nothing, or like nothing with a little dirt thrown in. But once it is cooked in chicken stock, lavished with caramelized onions that have been fried in chicken fat, if you’re lucky, then folded in with bow-tie noodles, it becomes an ideal medium for sopping up flavors. Over the years, I learned that you have to coat the kasha with egg first, because that ensures the groats won’t run together in a soggy mush, and each grain retains its integrity. A bit like macrobiotic rice, suitable for chewing hundreds of times. Me, I never masticate it more than once or twice, I am too eager to have that piquant union of bow-tie pasta, onion, and buckwheat swaddle my taste buds with each succeeding forkful.
Whenever I start rhapsodizing about the dish, I am told by people near and dear to me that they hate kasha, that it smells “like a wet basement.” I suspect some kind of social-class bias lies beneath this aversion, especially amongst secular American Jews who are trying to distance themselves from the shtetl. But who am I to judge? They have a right to their tastes and I to mine. One more bit of melancholy proof, if we needed it, that each of us is isolated, in our wayward thoughts, our unappeasable desires, and our nostalgic culinary tastes.
Phillip Lopate is the author of Getting Personal (Basic Books, 2004)