White Russians and Soup

Hi reader – thanks for stopping by – this is a half formed chapter – but I wanted to get it down just to get some sort of accomplishment. I’m actually heading down to Hong Kong in a couple of weeks to do more research – the sort you can’t do from Shanghai – but I thought this exploration of how a food transforms through it’s journey from farmers in Ukraine to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong was fascinating. Obviously with the notes to myself and need for documentation – this is far from a final form, but I’m just spitballing here.

Borscht

If you were to end up a Hong Kong style Western steak place, say like Sammy’s Kitchen in Sheung Wan or Boston Restaurant in Wanchai, you’ll be presented with a selection of “Set Menus,” with some sort of steak, cooked on a sizzling iron plate, a soft dinner roll and a choice of soup. Those soups, almost uniformly are two options: cream soup, a sort of watery, cloudy white soup that tastes of a lot of butter and borscht or ??? in Chinese, literally “Russian Soup”.

Growing up, I never thought to question why a Ukrainian peasant soup would appear on menus half a world away. Even in the pre-Globalization world, it was one of those things that just was.

It wasn’t until I read Martin Booth’s excellent memoir Gweilo/Golden Boy (depending on what market you purchase/read it in, it’s got different titles) and he talks about meeting White Russians on the bus, and about Russian bakeries in Hong Kong that my curiosity was piqued, and I started to put two and two together.

[Insert quote from Golden Boy here where he talks about Tschanko’s pastries here]

photo from susanbkason.com

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917), supporters of the Russian Tsar scattered and escaped first to Vladivostok under the protection of the Japanese, and then as the turmoil of the 20s and 30s advanced, they would move from Vladivostok through Northeast China/Manchuria eventually landing in Shanghai, which at the time was a freeport, with no visa or identity papers or passport required.

During this time in Northeast China the recipe for the hearty soup changed dramatically. For those familiar with the original Ukrainian soup – traditionally made with beets and cabbage in a meat broth with a deep red color and served with sour cream. Beets are not common in Shanghai, so as a substitution Russian chefs began to use available red cabbage, ox tails and tomatoes. As the white Russian migration began down the coast they began to re-establish life in Shanghai, opening restaurants and businesses. Oddly enough, in present times, Pushkin Square, nearby the current locations of the French and US consulates, is one of the centers of expatriate life in 2017, with a creperie and a sports bar showing NFL and Premier League games.

As an aside, I took a trip to Russia in 2012, and one of my friends was obsessed with finding “authentic” borscht. And we went to restaurants all over St. Petersberg and Moscow ordering borscht, borscht and borscht. It wasn’t until I was on my way out of Russia that I actually was able to have the traditional beets and sour cream version. All the other versions of borscht we encountered were sorrel, rye, or cabbage based. Being the airport, the borscht was sadly mediocre.

Following World War II, while still reeling from occupation and atrocities committed by the Japanese army, China plunged right back into civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, eventually resulting with the Nationalists escaping to Taiwan and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

While this was going on, Hong Kong became a natural refuge for many in Mainland China during this time. Parts of my own family moved to Hong Kong in 1949, and in the post Civil War period, as many as 20,000 Russians made their way to and through Hong Kong as well.

[Note to self, more in-depth research and supporting material for migration of Russians down – as well as follow up on Apple Daily article regarding the recipe switch from beets to cabbage]

Bringing with them skills and experience from the restaurant industry in China, and shunned by the already existing expatriate community in Hong Kong, many of the white Russians opened bakeries and restaurants, as mentioned above in Booth’s memoir or the still famous Queen’s Cafe & Bakery in Causeway Bay today

During this era, existing Western restaurants were out of reach of all but the wealthiest Hong Kongers, or for actual Westerners. Either hotel restaurants like Gaddi’s in the Peninsula Hotel or stand-alone places like Jimmy’s Kitchen – most were out of the price range of solidly middle or working class Hong Kong. However as these white Russians moved into and through Hong Kong, a peasant based, modified for available ingredients was well within the reach of the working class, and as the life and business of restaurants evolved in Hong Kong, Chinese staff from these Russian founded eateries went off and founded their own businesses and took “Russian Soup” with them.

Mimi Thorisson wrote a blog post about this era of Russian food:

I have always loved a borscht soup, and have fond memories of going to a very unusual restaurant in Hong Kong called ‘Queen’s café’. It was the very old one that closed down decades ago (there are new ones now but the atmosphere is modern and completely different). It was small and dark, the waiters were old Shanghainese men, dressed in white jackets and matching gloves. They were extremely grumpy. Queen’s café served Russian food, like borscht soup, potato salads, marinated chicken wings, nougats and delicious biscuits you could buy at the deli. There was an element of old-school Shanghai, influenced with Russian culture. I loved it.

[Note – need more background about this era of HK restaurants – history of Louis Steakhouse, Boston Restaurant, Goldfinch – and Russian restaurant population in HK beyond Queen’s Bakery – start with this post about Tkachenko’s]

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