If you got to an American grocery store looking for kasha, you’ll find buckwheat. Which will surprise a Russian, because it’s like asking for cereal and being pointed to a facing of corn flakes.
Russian kasha isn’t just buckwheat. kasha is any cereal (or pseudo-cereal, in the case of buckwheat), cooked in water, milk, or broth, with or without additional ingredients.
Kasha is porridge.
The 1901 edition of Elena Molokhovets’ Advice to Young Housewives lists 43 kasha recipes made from a variety of grains, and a couple made with non-grains like chestnuts, pumpkins, and even rosemeal. This of course does not include the recipes for grain-based side dishes, breads, casseroles, pies, and so much more. So let’s take a look what kasha meant that long ago.
(Advice to Young Housewives was the turn-of-the-century Joy of Cooking for Russian housewives.)
Манная каша — Cream of Wheat/Semolina
The largest section is about recipes based on semolina, or cream of wheat. The formal introduction announces that it can be cooked to “three degrees of thickness,” and that it should be cooked “exclusively in milk, rarely in broth.”
Personally, I believe cream of wheat should always be cooked in milk.
Other recipes call for the addition of walnuts, or a crème brulee kind of finish, or almonds, or almond milk. Of course, the addition of full cream doesn’t hurt.
Смоленские крупы — Hulled buckwheat
The following segment gave me some trouble, but apparently I wasn’t the only one. With a little research among Russian food bloggers, I discovered that “Smolensk groats” were most likely finely hulled and maybe cracked buckwheat – resulting in a blonde, rather than brown, grain, easier to digest and more likely to cook into a porridge rather than a loose side dish.
Hulled buckwheat seems to be uncommon in Russia today, but still widely available in (or from) Asia.
The other possibility is that “Smolenks groats” referred to a different type of semolina. There’s only one way to be sure, and that’s to experiment. Of course, it may be that the recipe works with both semolina (wheat) and buckwheat (the pseudo-cereal).
Гречневая каша — Buckwheat (groats and ground)
Buckwheat itself, of course, holds a place of honor among the porrige grains. Both the whole-groat and the cracked-groat varieties were used. It was (and still is) prepared with water or broth (meat or vegetable, especially mushroom broth). It was (and still is) served plain, savory or sweet, reheated with milk and a sweetener (sugar, honey, preserves), or with caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms.
It can be used for stuffing (of meat or of pies). And of course it could be ground into meal and used as flour.
Рис — Rice
Although rice is not a native Russian grain, it is a mainstay of the Russian diet today, and holds a place of honor in Molokhovets’ cookbook. Rice porriges and puddings, sweet and savory, all the presentations we might expect would have been familiar to a Russian cook of the turn of the 20th century.
Ячневая крупа — Fine-ground barley (ячмень)
Перловая крупа — Pearl barley
Barley is another grain used commonly in Russian cooking and uncommon in american kitchens. Recipes for fine-ground barley meal (not flour) include a few that incorporate sour cream and fresh cheese (tvorog, similar to fresh farmer’s cheese or crème fraiche).
Овсяная крупа — Oatmeal
Oatmeal has its own place, naturally, but not as large as semolina.
Пшенная каша — Millet porridge
Among the “miscellanous” porridges we find millet kasha. The millet in question is proso millet (Panicum miliaceum, also known as broomcorn millet, common millet, broomtail millet, hog millet, red millet, white millet) – and yes, it’s the grain you buy as birdseed. But in parts of Eastern Europe (notably Russia and Ukraine), it is grown as a food crop. There’s even a well-known dance song of the challenge-response type about millet.
Unexpectedly, there are a few recipes classified under kasha that are not grain-based. One is pumpkin kasha – we’d call it pumpkin pudding, I imagine. The other is chestnut kasha, which seems to be a classic chestnut puree.