New Year’s Eve is a huge celebration in most Russian speaking homes, the biggest night of the year. This is when Ded Moroz (Father Frost) visits every home and leaves presents under the Christmas tree. He’s accompanied by Snegurochka, his granddaughter, both dressed head to toe in dashing white and silver.
Like most children I was a sucker for this magical celebration, the only night of the year where the sheer volume of food is so overwhelming, it makes you giddy. You get to eat all of your favourite dishes, unwrap the presents, wear a beautiful outfit, stay up very late and listen in on grown-up conversations.
New Year’s Eve is about celebration, closure and new beginnings. Starting fresh and starting the year right, and the best way to do it is by feasting with your loved ones. Family recipes and traditions get passed down, each region carrying their own. Your mum/grandma/great grandma and auntie obviously make the best dish, and your neighbour’s Olivier doesn’t stand a chance in this unofficial competition.
The preparation starts weeks in advance, beginning with a guest list. If you think wedding guest list planning is bad, this is 100 times more nerve-wracking.
Who’s allowed to come? Who’s going to drink too much and cause a scene? Whose partner is so intolerable that it might be best to just miss them off the list? Who’s well-mannered and never comes empty-handed?
Then you start purchasing the essentials, slowly. Searching for best deals and special offers. Stashing ingredients away. Bottles of vodka, a special bottle of ‘champagne’, bags of sweets kept away from the little hands.
The cooking starts days in advance, the lack of fridge space is not an issue, as Eastern bloc is blessed with cold winters, so you can just store your food on a balcony (if you have one), or if you’re feeling brave you can hang your food on windowsills to keep cool.
When it comes to the menu, each family is different but nearly every household will have a giant vat of Olivier – soft potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, pungent pickles, Doktorskaya Kolbasa (only the best quality for this celebration), tinned peas – a pop of freshness in the cold winter, all heavily drenched in mayonnaise.
Furry herring is another classic dish that graces EVERY single table. Honestly, I checked with my friends and Pod Shuboy came in at 100% YES. Pod Shuboy (literal translation: under a fur) is a layered salad of meaty flaky herring, raw onion, boiled potatoes, mayonnaise, grated carrot, more mayonnaise, grated egg, followed by even more mayonnaise, a layer of grated beetroot. And behold, one final layer of mayonnaise. Each cook will have their own version and order for the layers.
Crab salad is abig treat, with no actual crab meat involved. Seafood sticks, rice, cucumbers and pickles, tinned sweetcorn, red pepper and dressed with… you guessed it - mayonnaise! For whatever reason, my mum didn’t save Crab Salad just for celebrations so we would get to eat it a few times a year – ‘just because'. The best time to eat Crab Salad? At breakfast! Scooping up the juicy mess with a slice of fresh baton (white bread).
Some festive tables will have giant bowls of dumplings, steaming and covered in sour cream and fresh herbs. The use of condiments is non-negotiable and isn’t up for debate. We didn’t have dumplings on our New Years table, we saved them for lazy frozen dinners.
Others will serve caviar on the thinly sliced baton, washed down with a shot of ice-cold vodka. Plates and plates of cold cuts - salamis, more Doktorskaya, smoked meats, all the good stuff. Things that you don’t eat every day. Jars of pickles and preserves laid out beautifully on small plates. All homemade, conserved at the peak of the season with all glut produce. A Russian banchan, if you wish. There are also thick cuts of salo - cured slabs of fatback. Not for the faint-hearted. Normally served atop rye bread, rubbed with fresh garlic, sharpness cutting through the fat. And let’s not forget kholodetz - savoury meat jelly, wobbling comfortably in the middle of the table, reflecting festive lights.
Every table has a platter of fresh fruit, with tangerines being the star of the show. Ask your friends from ex-Soviet countries what smell is akin to New Year’s Eve celebration and almost everyone will say tangerines. Even now, peeling a tangerine takes me back to a TV-lit lounge room, filled with people and a heaving overflowing table.
And for dessert? Only the best chocolate sweets and inzhir - chocolate covered dried fruit, the epitome of luxury.
As I am recalling all these dishes and numerous celebrations, I add a date for my diary in November – ‘plan your guest list for New Year’s eve’, 1st December – ‘start thinking about the ingredients’. I dedicate a new page to curate our New Year’s Eve menu; I’m even considering adding dumplings to the menu,because my very British boyfriend & I love dumplings and see them as worthy of a special night. New Year’s Eve 2021 is the year to revive old traditions and create new ones.
Find Kateryna's New Year's Eve Feast illustrations here