In Gogol’s Dead Souls the scoundrel Chichikov is invited to dine with the landowner Manilov. As they sit down to the table, Manilov says, “Excuse us for not serving a dinner like they would in the elegant salons of the capital. Here we simply have shchi, in the Russian tradition—but it’s straight from the heart. Please help yourself.”
Shchi is the most Russian of soups, and coupled with kasha, it represents basic Russian fare, straightforward in both preparation and spirit. Russian folk wisdom advises, “If the shchi’s good, you don’t need anything else.” And it’s true that a bowl of this hearty soup is enormously satisfying, needing only a chunk of black bread with garlic to round out the meal.
There are several different kinds of shchi. The original soup was made exclusively from fermented cabbage (sauerkraut). It is a wintertime soup, harkening back to the days before mass production, when the soup could not be prepared until the sauerkraut, put up in the early fall, had fermented. At some point an inventive cook decided to make cabbage soup in the summer as well, and resorted to using fresh cabbage. Thus lenivye shchi (“lazy” cabbage soup) was born: the cook was able to avoid the laborious process of souring the cabbage before turning it into soup.
The shchi offered here is slightly unorthodox: it combines both the summer and winter variations, but the small dose of sauerkraut adds a nice tang without making the soup overly heavy. And this version of shchi can be served year round with equanimity.