The Soviet-Korean carrot salad is a sweet-and-sour testament to a diaspora's resilience.
A simple salad called morkovcha or “Korean carrots” can be found in markets and on tables across the former Soviet Union. Despite its name, people from Korea probably won’t be familiar with this dish of julienned carrots marinated in white vinegar, vegetable oil, coriander, red pepper, and fresh garlic. But anyone from Uzbekistan will recognize it immediately.
The former Soviet Union is home to around 500,000 ethnic Koreans (or Koryo-saram), with the largest communities in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Their forebears had come from the northern part of Korea to Russia’s Far East in the 1860s to escape famine. In the early 1900s, another wave of Koreans fled repression by the Japanese colonial authorities. By the 1930s, nearly 200,000 Koryo-saram had settled in what was by then the Soviet Union.
In 1937, as tensions rose between the USSR and Japan, Joseph Stalin deemed the Soviet Koreans an “unreliable people” and forcibly relocated the population to remote parts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Many Koryo-saram died on the month-long journey. Those who survived were forced to start over with nothing in an unknown land. Hunger and extreme poverty marked the early years.
Koryo-saram cuisine diverged from traditional Korean cooking, first as the group mingled with Russians in the Far East and later in response to Central Asian influences and crops. Morkovcha is a prime example of this evolution: When common Korean ingredients such as napa cabbage weren’t available for kimchi, for example, carrots could make a handy substitute. Meanwhile, the coriander seeds and fresh cilantro often added to the salad are staples of Uzbek cuisine.
As Soviet Koreans moved around the USSR to study and work in the 1960s, their cuisine spread and morkovcha became a staple outside the diaspora. The crunchy, garlicky, sweet-and-sour salad is so well-loved, many grocery stores sell packaged spice mixes to make it at home.
Need to Know
Look for women selling morkovcha and other Korean salads at bazaars across the former Soviet Union.