Chef Bonnie Morales describes the traditional Russian salad known as "herring in a fur coat"— composed of pickled herring, beets, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, carrots, onion, dill and, mayonnaise—as "a seven layer dip, but Russian."
At her restaurant in Portland, Oregon, Kachka, the first-generation Belarusian-American chef has successfully used this dish to prove how delicious the cuisines of the former Soviet Republic can be in a town unaccustomed to such food. On a recent Thursday night, the restaurant is bustling and almost every diner is eating giant forkfuls of the dish. It's not unusual to see local chefs like Andy Ricker here, since her menu (which is full of way-too-easy-to-drink infused vodkas, too) is probably the most exciting thing to happen to Portland's Russian food scene since the first vareniki was available at a food cart.
"It is the classic, prototypical dish that your mom, aunt, and neighbor down the street makes the exact same way," she says of the dish that has made her tiny restaurant one of the most popular in town. "It's become a dish that people seek and come to the restaurant specifically for."
Despite the dish receiving its fair share of accolades from around the US, however, she was deeply conflicted about putting it on the menu on the first place. "I seriously thought that it would be the nail in our coffin because it is such a standard dish, but I was so very wrong." Historically, the components of the dish often came from cans, due to food shortages during the Russian Revolution. Because of this, she had assumed that the cuisine from her family's motherland was just not good to begin with.
Some of her earliest food memories as a kid growing up in Chicago were of locking herself in her bedroom whenever her mother would boil mushrooms because she simply could not stand the smell, and lying to her friends so they wouldn't find out that she ate boiled beef tongue for dinner once a week. As she got older and attended to the Culinary Institute of America, she dreamed about opening up a Russian restaurant during her time at the Culinary Institute of America, but still felt that there was something "fundamentally wrong with the cuisine."
"I thought I needed to Frenchify it. But then I realized that we have dishes that are very similar and equally as tasty in Russia—kholodetz, for example, is our version of aspic." This realization got her thinking deeper about Russian food. What really made her change her mind and embrace her family's food was after she brought her boyfriend (now her husband) to dinner one night. "I warned him to come on a full stomach because it might be really weird and gross. He didn't, ate all the food, and told my family and I how much he loved everything." After that, Morales realized that she had been looking at her native cuisine in the wrong way.
The name of the restaurant is an ode to her Jewish Belarusian grandmother, who narrowly fled a mass execution in her hometown by Nazis. During her escape, she was stopped by a German soldier at a checkpoint who asked, "If you aren't a Jew, how do you say 'duck' in Ukrainian?" She took a wild guess and responded, "kachka." To her great fortune, the word for duck is the same in Ukrainian as it is Belarusian, and the soldier let her go. Morales never got to meet her grandmother, whom she describes as "a Nazi-killing, gun-carrying, badass," but she attributes her amazing story of survival as a big inspiration in her life.
As Kachka is getting ready to open up a much larger second location and Morales is due for her first cookbook debut later this year, she has come full circle in embracing the wholesome, rib-sticking food that she grew up eating. She still has trouble finding a label for it. After thinking deeply for a moment, she arrives at a definition: "first-generation American-Russian."
"The food that I cook isn't just about a cuisine," Morales says. "It is about my family, and honoring the hard journey that they took to get to the US."