Sunflower oil is one of those secret ingredients in the Russian cuisine that makes root vegetables tolerable and even delicious. The tradition of eating onions, potatoes, and beets comes a history of impoverished serfs who had no purchasing power and had to rely on the harvests of their tiny land plots. As a precaution against cases of grain spoiled by frost, they planted root vegetables that were certain to survive the winter. Thus, for these slave laborers, the potato was a difference between deadly starvation and life. In the 20th century, the former serfs gradually acquired purchasing power, but since traditions die hard, the root vegetables remained an essential part of the diet.

Sunflower oil is the secret to making the plain onion and the potato taste good. In one traditional dish, the sweet, tangy oil is poured over bitter and crunchy onions. So the combination is sweet, crunchy sticks of onion that are also moist and gooey. Sometimes, the potato becomes a third player in this melody of onion and sunflower oil. A common Ukrainian and Russian breakfast dish fuses boiled potatoes with onions in sunflower oil. In this case, it is best that the onions are diced and the potatoes are boiled until they are flaky and likely to fall apart. These flaky potatoes are put onto a plate with diced onions drenched in sunflower oil and then crushed with a fork into either lots of small clumps or into paste. The clumpy slices of potato on a fork are then dipped into sunflower-oil soaked onions and eaten. Once you bring up this potato clump to your mouth, it has bits of onion stuck onto it by the sunflower oil which acts as a sort of a glue. By this point the potato itself becomes greasy and mushy as it has absorbed the oil. What you've got in the end is a piece of mushy potato that tastes like sunflower oil with crunchy bits of onion as a topping. Another taste usually comes into the equation as it is customary to eat sliced herring as a part of the potato-onion-sunflower oil meal.

Although sunflower oil is something to make root vegetables taste sweet, it's more than just a dining experience. It has also managed to enter literary folklore. Since sunflower oil is a key plot element in Russia's most famous novel of the 20th century, Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, dining and reading become intertwined. It is probably necessary to have eaten sunflower oil as a part of meal to understand its meaning in the book. Within the book, sunflower becomes associated with demonic magic. The devil uses it to prove to a smarmy bureacrat, the president of the governmental literary association, that his and the state's doctrine of materialism that excludes spirituality and magic is wrong. The sunflower oil is the proof of the existence of the supernatural: The devil promises Berlioz that a magic and fated occurence will prevent him from reaching a writers' meeting. This fatal occurrence is brought about by Berlioz's slipping on sunflower oil spilled by a woman Annushka before he is to board the train that would take him to his meeting. As the sunflower oil makes him fall under the train and get decapitated, the reader witnesses the first fulfillment of a magic spell in the novel.

Is it it a coincidence that the very sunflower oil that turned ordinary hum-drum boiled potatoes and peeled onions into a sweet, tangy dish is the very same ingredient that introduced magic into the drab world of bureaucrats, trains, and state-sponsored literary meetings? I can't say but I do know this dish of onions and sunflower oil somehow managed to leave the kitchen and sneak its way into a work of literature. Was it by some act of transfiguration? I just don't know. Only the Devil knows how it truly came about.

Notes: Some variations of the sunflower oil and onion mixture include a bit of vinegar. If you are going to try making this dish, you may want to add some as well. If you have a lot of time at your disposal, it may be worthwhile to marinate the onion in vinegar a few hours before adding the sunflower oil.