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21 August 2020

The politics of the spice rack: Russia’s love of dill

Each jar and packet in the kitchen is part of a wider story, involving geography, culture and politics.

By Lisa Haseldine

Let’s face facts: dill has a bad reputation. Lacking the romance of basil or the sophistication of rosemary, this sweet, pungent herb will be familiar to anyone who’s eaten a pickle, or maybe tried gravlax. In the West, its usage stops about there.

But you only have to venture into the Slavic world to witness dill in all its glory, taking its role as the stalwart herb of eastern Europe very seriously. Slavic cuisine is multinational. For example, you might know the soup “borscht”, but what you’ve tasted will only be a version of it. Russia has its own; Ukraine has its own; as do Belarus, Poland and many other countries, each fiercely proud and protective of it. I’m half-Russian, with family in Belarus, so my frame of reference lies there. (I’m sure other countries are also guilty of what I’m about to describe – but I have no wish to offend anyone in the process by lumping all Slavic cuisines into one.)

Dill is notoriously ubiquitous in Russian cuisine. For any traditional Russian dish, dill is considered a respectable garnish. Borscht? Absolutely. Pelmeni dumplings? Definitely. Olivier salad? Sure, sprinkle it on. They all taste better for it. And I would go as far as to say the relationship between dill and the food it flavours seems to have developed a symbiosis in the Russian palette: it gives these dishes their characteristic Eastern European flavour, and Russians have come to rely on the herb to elevate a dish.

This is evident in dill’s intrusion into other cuisines cooked on Russian soil. Russia’s restaurant industry has experienced a boom over the last decade, with establishments serving all manner of cuisines: Japanese, Chinese, Italian, French, they’ve got them now.  

Yet it seems some home comforts are too dear to give up. You never know where dill will make an unlikely appearance: to your bemusement (and eventual despair) sushi will arrive coated in it, chips sprinkled with it and pizza laced with it. Even supermarket goods aren’t immune: you won’t struggle to find dill-flavoured crisps or cheese. For many tourists, Russia’s overreliance on dill is too much to handle. I can sympathise. After all, dill is no mild herb. Strong and fragrant, it has the power to lift and transform a dish, or decimate it. I think it can do both.

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The reputation of this spindly herb as Russia’s culinary crutch has gained cult status. The internet is full of memes poking fun at it; if you google “Russia dill”, a whole host of perplexed articles attempting to unpick the country’s dependency on it will appear. You may even stumble upon “DILLWATCH”, a Facebook group run by the Guardian’s central and eastern Europe correspondent Shaun Walker, which is dedicated to “inappropriate sightings of dill”. Such is the group’s grievance with it that their mantra is “fighting for the reclassification of dill from herb to weed”. 

But Russia’s faith in dill remains unmoved. Legend even has it that cosmonauts requested dill on their space flights thanks to its anti-flatulent properties. (Dill has been used as a digestive aid for millennia: as Gernot Katzer’s encyclopaedia of herbs and spices explains, our own word for “dill” most likely derives from the Old Norse “dilla”, meaning “to calm or soothe” – referring to its ability to ease the stomach pain of babies.) 

But dill’s story has not always been a sunny one, and it has shared in the murky history of Russia’s geo-politics. Having access to the same ingredients, Ashkenazi Jewish food, for example, overlaps with Russian and Eastern European cuisine. When fleeing waves of persecution, the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora brought dill with them to the US, preserving it as a staple of their cuisine and establishing the foundations of what is commonly associated with American-Jewish cooking today: dill pickles, matzo ball soup and gefilte fish wouldn’t taste the same without it. 

More recently, dill has been dragged into the identity conflict of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Around 2014, the Russian word for dill, “ukrop”, began being used as a derogatory word for Ukranians (the word play is not hard to figure out). Refusing to let the Russians have the last say, Ukrainians subsequently reclaimed the word, with participants of the war sewing green sleeve patches depicting dill on to their uniforms and the right-wing political party, the Ukrainian Association of Patriots, calling themselves “UKROP” for short.

Dill might be a divisive herb, but its fascinating backstory is a reminder not to dismiss it outright. While I’m not convinced by dill on pizza or sushi, with the right combination of ingredients, it truly can be the maker of a great dish. I would encourage you to take a chance on it.