"She introduced to me her dream project — to republish her father’s recipe book, which was a commercial failure when it first came out in 1991. To this day, there are still close to 5,000 copies of the book gathering dust in their garage."
BY NATALIA SMOLENTCEVA
When I met Masha Khankhunova for the first time last summer, she stood out to me immediately. There were many bright young people attending the Forum for Young Professionals Europe Lab in Poland, but Masha’s incredible openness and sense of humor was something special.
We started talking, and she introduced to me her dream project — to republish her father’s recipe book, which was a commercial failure when it first came out in 1991. To this day, there are still close to 5,000 copies of the book gathering dust in their garage. Masha’s family is from the Republic of Buryatia in Siberia, and the cuisine of this region is not so well known even in Russia, not talking about abroad. But Masha believes her father’s work on their traditional food deserves another chance.
The Republic of Buryatia is located in the south of Siberia, more than 5000 kilometers east of Moscow — a six hour flight. It borders Lake Baikal, the deepest lake on the Earth, and the Mongolian plains. Like many Russian republics, Buryatia is a very traditional place, where gender roles have become deeply embedded over the generations. “Here we say: ‘man says means man does’, ‘wife must stay behind her husband’ and so on,” says Masha. “But in our family it was never like that.” Masha grew up in the home of Russian ‘intelligentsia’. Her parents were friends and colleagues: her father cooked and her mother didn’t have any problems with that. “Maybe that is why I am not so good at cooking now,” Masha laughs, “as he never let us near the kitchen.”
When Masha was just three years old, her father published a book about eastern cuisine. It wasn’t a ‘cookbook’ in the modern sense — no pictures, no stories, just simple recipes. Over the course of several years he collected eastern recipes, as there was not much written on the topic. His idea was to make an easy-to-carry pocket book. Finally, the book came out, with a circulation of 5,000 copies. But most of them are still in the garage of Masha’s parents’ house.
“My father tries to avoid this topic, for him it was a big failure,” says Masha, who as a child played among cardboard boxes full of her father’s book. She still doesn’t know what went wrong back then: marketing mistakes, lack of time due to the raising of two small daughters, disillusion with work? “When I propose plans to him to re-publish the book or make a website out of it… there are so many possibilities nowadays, but he is not very enthusiastic about it. That is why I decided to make it myself: I am ‘a father’s daughter’, and to me it is an important personal story.”
Siberian cuisine is mostly based on meat. People from the East of Russia were to a large extend nomadic, and their traditional meals had to be easily prepared wherever they happened to be: they hunted rabbits or fished for omul [traditional fish from Baikal lake], and cooked it on a campfire. “My father eats meat three times a day”, Masha told me, over a plate of vegetarian soup in the cafe in Berlin where we met up. “I am not a big meat-lover, but can’t resist his cooking.”
“What does your father cook the best?” I ask, curious. Masha looked away for a while, probably imagining herself at home. “His pilaff [rice dish with meat] is very tasty… so are the different fish dishes and our national dish buuz [dumplings with two types of meat inside].”
The secret to good buuz is the broth. When you are served buuz, you should drink the broth first, then eat the meat. The meatball inside the buuz is made from a mixture of pork and beef, with the addition of shredded onion,” Masha went on, describing the pride of their national cuisine. My mouth filled with saliva.
But for the best flavor to your meals, there is only one thing more important than a good broth: family. The story of Masha’s fathers’ book is ultimately a story of family values. “Cooking is about family and unity,” she says, recalling Sundays at home when the whole family would come together to eat the lunch prepared by her father. Everyone would sit around a big family table, and Masha’s father would pay close attention to how everyone ate the fish, the meat or any other delicious thing he had prepared for his loved ones. “He enjoys it when we praise his cooking” says Masha, “and we do so honestly, as it is usually excellent.”
Masha came up with the idea to continue her father’s work this year, and has already consulted with a designer. She decided to switch the focus from eastern cuisine, to the national cuisine of The Republic of Buryatia. “There is no good book of Buryat cooking available — with good photos and detailed recipes”. The book, according to Masha, can’t stand alone: her plan is to make a series of cooking master classes together with her father. “He doesn’t take it seriously so far, but once I start he will have no way back.”
“What do you cook according to your father’s recipes?” I wonder. “The only thing I can cook decently is blini (Russian pancakes),” admits Masha with a smile. “But when we will give master classes I will cook myself too … I will have to!”
To Masha, it is important how the idea of the cookbook and the master classes will be received in her own community. Now her region experiences a ‘come back’ to traditional cuisine with new cafés offering Buryat dishes popping up everywhere. “The problem is Buryat cuisine is not so varied like french or italian,” says Masha. So she prefers to focus on her region when it comes to promotion.
Masha’s project is is about ‘national’ and ‘traditional’ Buryat cuisine. But at the same time it breaks down stereotypes — stereotypes about ‘traditional family roles’ that are currently being promoted in Russia. Apart from a collection of delicious recipes and the fulfillment of a father’s dreams, this book will also be a powerful example of a different family model. I can’t wait to read it.
NATALIA SMOLENTCEVA is a journaist and illustrator based in Berlin. Born in Russia and raised on borscht and pelmeni, she enjoys drawing, writing about and tasting new foods. Her Spanish husband cooks amazing tortilla (one of the reasons she got married).