Cooking the East European Way: Homemade Kvass

Sooner or later, I was going to experience the real foreignness of foreign food. We Americans like to think we have an international palate, because we grow up eating food that calls itself Mexican, and food that calls itself Chinese, and food that calls itself Indian. It's all delicious, and it's rarely a challenge. Your average Mexican restaurant in the US, as an example, doesn't serve food made with corn smut, a corn-destroying fungus that is seen as a delicacy in Mexico. You're probably not going to get snake soup in Chinese restaurants or bullfrog in an Indian restaurant. Heck, it's pretty hard to get black pudding in Irish pubs in America, and that's a mainstream British treat.

Foreign foods can run pretty far afield of the American palate, and, unless a restaurant caters to an immigrant clientele, their menu will be Americanized. I've been to many Eastern European restaurants in my life, including having been a regular at the legendary (and recently closed) Nye's Polonaise Room in Minneapolis, and so I reckoned I'd had a lot of what Eastern Europe has to offer, and I was wrong.

It's only my second blog entry in this series, and I have already strayed far from mainstream American tastes. Because I made my own kvass.

For those of you who don't know, kvass is an enormously popular beverage in Slavic and Baltic countries, where it is vended in the streets. It is slightly sour and fizzy and mildly alcoholic. It tastes like rye or black bread, which is what it is made of. It's not widely available in the US, because we drink sweet drinks, and we don't drink bread.

I drank it once previously. I peeked into a Russian grocery store once, curious, and bought some candies and some cookies. I also saw a massive bottle of what looked like a brown soda pop, so I bought it, and it tasted like a tart beer. I shrugged it off then -- who would drink a beer soda pop? -- and threw the rest away. I was younger and stupid, because millions of people drink the stuff, and it is the basis for several popular recipes.

I am older and not quite so stupid, and so I made my own kvass. There are a number of recipes online, and they are all pretty similar: Soak bread in boiling water for a while, add in sugar and yeast and let sit, cool and drink. Sometimes you add something else -- I added raisins, which is a popular choice. You can use any hearty bread, and you cook it or scorch it before adding it in, to make the drink extra bitter. It's not hard to make, although it is a little time consuming -- all told, it was about three days from toast to kvass.

There are other types of kvass as well, including a beetroot variation that I have not made yet. The kvass I made seems fairly straightforward, and I am not yet acclimated to the taste. I used rye bread, and I am a fanatic about the taste of rye, but it is taking a while for me to appreciate it as a soft drink. Also, because I fermented the stuff on my own stove, I was terrified it might kill me, but I have had several glasses now and managed to survive.

I also tried mixing it with other beverages, which I don't believe is typically done in Eastern Europe, but American bartenders have started to experiment with the drink as a mixer. I added lemonade and touch of lemon seltzer to give it more fizz, which seemed logical -- kvass has a beer-like flavor, and people have been mixing beer and lemonade together forever and calling it a shandy. The kvass shandy was pleasant enough, although the combination seemed to highlight the fact that kvass is not beer. It tasted somehow off, which is the risk you run when you try to just substitute one ingredient for another, less familiar ingredient in a drink you are already familiar with.

I suppose the next step is for me to try other recipes and, over time, I will be familiar enough with the flavor of kvass to know what to expect, and what I like. It's happened to me with other drinks. I have developed a real taste for an herbal liqueur called fernet, which is about as bitter as you can imagine -- as bitter as a married couple discussing the terms of a divorce.

In the meanwhile, I will start looking for cooking recipes that use kvass. I barely understand how to drink the stuff, so why not cook with it?

Said nobody ever.