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Back in the U.S.S.R: A New Look at Cooking : Russian food: The winners of the Beard Award for Best International Cookbook say the diversity of foods served inside the Soviet Union is simply astonishing.

May 16, 1991|ANYA VON BREMZEN and JOHN C. WELCHMAN | Von Bremzen and Welchman are the authors of "Please to the Table" (Workman Publishing, 1990: $18.95). and

Mention Soviet food and many Americans will conjure up images of long lines, empty store shelves and those hapless meals of thin borscht and stringy stroganoff served up in the state-run restaurants and hotels.

But if you manage to venture beyond newspaper reports and Intourist service, a meal in the Soviet Union can prove a real revelation, a culinary voyage of discovery in the largest nation on earth.

For this is a country within whose borders more than a hundred languages are spoken; a place where the diversity of produce and preparations from the Baltic nations to the shores of Lake Baikal, from Kiev to Kazakhstan, is simply astonishing.

For many, the real revelations of Soviet cuisine come from the exotic, healthful foods of the Caucasus and Central Asia, whose cooking styles--and lush climate--are related to the great traditions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

The three picturesque Caucasian republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, share much with the cuisines of neighboring Turkey and Iran--arrays of stuffed vegetables, bulgur and rice pilafs, meat grilled on skewers, eggplant in a thousand disguises, egg and lemon or garlicky yogurt sauces, and honey- and nut-based sweets perfumed with rose water.

Yet, as everywhere else, local cooks have their own preferences. While Georgians work wonders with walnuts, the Armenians prefer pine nuts and almonds. Cilantro is the herb of choice in Georgia, but the Azerbaijanis adore mint and tarragon, which they wrap in flat breads along with a slice of feta cheese for a casual snack. All of the Caucasian republics are devoted to spices, but in Armenia the favorites are cumin, allspice, cinnamon and mild chiles; Georgians prefer coriander, hot chiles and fenugreek; and turmeric and saffron predominate in Azerbaijan.

In the tiny western republic of Moldova (previously known as Moldavia) there is a delightfully diverse Balkan-style cuisine. Corn is the main staple here, and mamaligha , a cornmeal mush, much like Italian polenta, accompanies almost every meal. If mamaligha doesn't make the daily menu, then a savory, feta-flavored corn bread is sure to appear. This bread is at its best accompanied by a beautifully textured vegetable caviar called givech , or by roasted red peppers. Other regional temptations include bountiful moussakas, feta-stuffed peppers and a profusion of sweet and savory strudels.

In certain regions, the Soviet Union is a land of plenty. On a recent trip to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Alma-Ata in Soviet Central Asia, we saw no sign of the lines and distribution problems that afflict the colder northern areas of the U.S.S.R., even in winter.

The modern Olai bazaar in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, was ablaze with piles of bright orange and yellow carrots, carefully julienned and mounded into spectacular heaps on white-slabbed counters. Nearby were baseball-sized green radishes, purple-tinted garlics and piles of ripe pomegranates sliced through to expose their sparkling crimson seeds. The yellow carrots of the region lend the Uzbeks' favorite lamb pilaf a delicious mild sweetness, which is punctuated by a skillful blend of spices--cumin, hot and sweet ground chiles and barbaris (a tart purple berry).

Here and there amid the melon stands and the trays of white, marble-sized yogurt cultures were fast-food joints selling perfect lamb-filled steamed dumplings--borrowed from neighboring China, steaming is one of the preferred cooking methods in Central Asia--and delicious filled pastries called samsa --not dissimilar to Indian samosas from which they take their name. Among other culinary debts to India were stacks of warm non-- flatbreads known as naan in India and baked in outdoor clay ovens--and the many mung bean dishes that are so popular in both regions.

Soviet cuisine is probably the most diverse in the world, and as the U.S.S.R. emerges from its momentous social and economic changes, food lovers everywhere will be fascinated to encounter a brave new world of cuisine.

ROAST PORK PAPRIKASH (Porc Prajita Cu Paprika)

3 pounds boneless pork butt, rolled and tied

4 cloves garlic, sliced

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 small onions, coarsely chopped

1 green pepper, quartered

4 tomatoes, peeled and quartered

1 stalk celery with leaves, cut in 4 pieces

1 1/2 cups beef stock or canned beef broth, about

2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika

10 ounces mushrooms, sliced

1 scant tablespoon flour

1/3 cup dry red wine

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Make deep slits all over meat with sharp knife and insert garlic slivers as deep as possible into slits. Rub meat with salt and pepper to taste. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large casserole over medium heat. Add meat and brown on all sides. Remove from heat and spread mustard over meat with spatula.

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