Back in the USSR...

Post date: 02-Jun-2013 23:33:00

22nd June 2013

“Yes, we have no bananas”

In 1976, the Former Soviet Union’s imports of bananas amounted to 0.0025% of our current banana imports in the UK. With a population roughly 4 times the size.

A Russian reformer of the 1990s once explained his belief in western-style democracy by saying, " I never want my children to ask me, Dad, what is a banana?" Many children in the Soviet Union had seen bananas only in school books. The 1991 revolution changed the situation with a proliferation of small banana stands in Moscow in the early years of the Yeltsin regime, flooding the country.

My friend Oxana, who saw her first banana aged 6, remembers that they had 2 types of banana in Moscow, both of which were extremely rare. They were green and black. The green one, they wrapped in newspaper and put in the cupboard, trying to ripen it. As soon as it demonstrated any signs of yellowing, they would take it out, cut it into four, and eat it. She’s not sure why the newspaper, but thinks it’s because they used to wrap apples in newspaper when storing them, to stop them from spoiling. “It sounds crazy, but we had no idea what to do with them”, she says. The black ones she now understands were overripe bananas– “...we tried to eat them, too” she laughs. “We didn’t really know what a banana should be like. But we liked the black ones better, because they were sweeter”.

When I was in Georgia, someone recalled a guest bringing the first banana they ever saw, as a teenager. They cut the precious thing into small pieces and the whole family ate a bit. I asked Ilona whether the fall of the Soviet Union led to a sudden glut of bananas in Lithuania. “Bananas? they came much later” she said. “First came the Russian tanks on the streets of Vilnius, it was a scary time”.

In Germany, one of the strong recollections of the fall of the Berlin Wall was the great banana shortage. “All the bananas disappeared” says a German friend. “One of the first things all the people from the DDR bought was all the bananas. There was a joke – how do you use a banana as a compass? Put it on top of the wall and the side with a bite out of it is East”

Despite the shortage of bananas, the USSR had a rich food heritage. With 14 countries ranging as far south as Tajikistan, and as far east as Kamchatka, they certainly had a world of recipes to draw on.

We will try to cook you representative dishes from as many as possible. My Lithuanian friend Ilona will cook a traditional cold beetroot soup, and other Baltic dishes. I will do Russian, Georgian, Ukraine, Armenia. Alex’s family will contribute an Uzbek plov recipe – which is a fairly ubiquitous dish throughout all the “Stans”.

On the menu will be:

Russia – Torte Napoleon, a totally amazing Russian dessert – we have to bake 16 layers individually but it’s worth it (v)

Turkmenistan – fish manty (dumplings); Turkmenistan borders the Caspian sea

Georgia – Batlijani – aubergines with walnut paste and pomegranate seeds (v)

Ukraine – Deruny, crispy potato pancakes (v)

Uzbekistan – Lamb Plov, or pilaff, common throughout the Stans.

Moldova – Placinta - baked cheese and raisins in phyllo pastry, a recipe donated by the uncle of a Moldovan guest (v)

Belarus – Mushroom and potato cutlets (v)

Armenia – Eetch - a classic of Armenian cuisine, a bulgur salad with tomatoes, pomegranate and cumin (v)

Tajikistan – chickpea and onion stew, sounds boring but is delicious (v)

Latvia/Baltic states – herring with carrots and onions

Lithuania – cold beetroot soup (v)

Khazahstan - Sour Mutton Stew another unpromising sounding thing but again, really tasty

Russia now has plenty of bananas, a democracy in name only, probably little real freedom of speech, declining personal security, and shockingly declining life expectancy. And bananas are supposed to be good for you.

MSF works in several of the ex-soviet states, including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Anyway we hope you will come and enjoy our journey back to the USSR with us. And not a banana in sight.

Please mail us with bookings on

Cost will be £45 of which £35 will go direct to MSF.