May 222008

Kasha Varnishkes/קאשה וורנישקס (כוסמת עם אטריות)/קאשע ווארנישקעס
каша варнишки/Kasha Varnishkas/Kasha Varnishka

Mmm. Childhood food. I don’t think anyone ever acquires a taste for kasha varnishkes as an adult; for the dish to be truly appreciated, the earthiness of the kasha and the fleeting sweetness of the caramelized onions have to be augmented by recollection, by the sense memories of your grandmother’s kitchen as experienced from your below-the-countertop vantage point. Eating kasha varnishkes without ever having had an Eastern European Jewish grandmother is like eating hummus without tehina.

Kasha varnishkes is a heavyweight of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine in America, familiar to probably every American Ashkenazi with roots in Eastern Europe. I grew up eating it in my Baba Larisa’s little apartment, where it was usually followed by her airy, moist apple cake, but until not so long ago, I was under the impression that it was a Russian dish. My mother’s parents, from the Austro-Hungarian/Romanian/Ukrainian/Romanian/Ukrainian/Russian/Ukrainian city Chernivtsi (isn’t 20th century European history fun?), had their Jewishness, or at least their willingness to talk much about it, effectively beaten out of them by the lightning jab and cross of the Nazis and the Communists, which is why it took me so long to realize that many of the foods I had grown up identifying as Russian, kasha varnishkes among them, were actually Ashkenazi Jewish.

Kasha is the Slavic word for any kind of cereal porridge, a basic staple of Eastern European cuisine – but in Yiddish, which adopted the word from the Slavic languages, and in English, which adopted the word from Yiddish, it refers pretty much exclusively to buckwheat groats. The etymology of varnishkes is murkier. It means “bow-tie noodles,” but it appears (to my knowledge) only in the context of this dish. It’s a Yiddish word, at least in structure and phonology, but the Yiddish word for “noodles” is the unrelated lokshn. Obvious cognates don’t appear in the main source languages of Eastern Yiddish (medieval German, classical Hebrew, and the surrounding Slavic tongues). The Italians, who probably invented bow-tie noodles, call them farfalle (butterflies), so much as in World War I, they’re little help. I couldn’t even find a consensus on how to spell varnishkes in Yiddish. I was beginning to think, after much research (even, vey is mir, reading Yiddish newsgroups), that like General Tso, tikka masala, and the global success of Domino’s, varnishkes would have to be consigned to the great realm of culinary mystery. But then I asked my mother, who knows everything.

“It’s from vareniki,” she said. I was skeptical. Filled dumplings seemed a fairly far cry from bowtie noodles and kasha. But then she started making sense: she explained that “varnishkes” was a Yiddish corruption of “варенички” (varenichki), the diminutive of vareniki, and that the dish arose as a quick and easy version of those significantly more arduous stuffed pasta dumplings. Those lazy Jews. It makes sense; varnishkes sounds pretty damned close to varenichki. Reigning lady of Jewish cooking Joan Nathan mentions a kasha varnishkes recipe dating back to 1925 that was “basically a kreplach-type noodle stuffed with kasha, buckwheat groats, and gribenes” – which implies that, at some point in its history, kasha varnishkes was literally kasha vareniki, that is, noodle dumplings stuffed with kasha. So there you have it: a mystery even the Internet had no answer for, solved in thirty seconds by my mother. And they give Joan Nathan the million-dollar ethnic cookbook deals. Feh.

But for now, less inherent unfairness of life, more kasha varnishkes recipe. Read on:
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