R is for Russia
Ahhhhh R, how you spoil me! After the exiguous offerings of the last weeks (not you, P, you were great), I felt a little spoilt for choice when it came to selecting a country for R. I had not one, not two, but THREE whole countries to choose from! Imagine, three countries – and not small ones, I hasten to add – whose greatest culinary exports, for the most part, do not include rice. Christmas has truly come early. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, three is not actually a substantial number. My choice this week was limited to Russia, Rwanda and Romania, none of which I have any particular personal connection to. My one Rwanda-related anecdote came in the form of a witness for whom I translated at court here in Germany. I won’t go into too much detail, but the nub and gist of the whole thing was that, having learnt on the day that Rwanda does in fact have two official languages (English and French) and that said witness declared himself to be far more proficient in French, I found myself dusting off my good old A-level French in that most opportune of moments, a murder trial. Unfortunately, though not wholly surprisingly, ‘la région Rhône-Alpes’ (A-level French topic, fyi), did not feature too prominently in his statement. That riotous situation aside, my links with Rwanda, and also Romania, are non-existent. This of course left me with Mother Russia. As luck would have it, my guinea pig/sous-chef this week has an actual Russian mother, so voila, all was well in the kitchen.
|The sacrilegious herbs|
Before I continue, I would like to say right now that there is no way on this earth I could even attempt to recount the history of Russian cuisine in a nutshell without boring you to tears, so I shall quit while I’m ahead and focus on more specific aspects of it. But first, some words on the country itself. I don’t know about you, but thinking about Russia produces a similar reaction in me to when I ponder the very existence of space: basically, my brain can contemplate it up to a certain point but then it starts to feel woozy and needs a little rest because it’s all a little bit too much and, yes, I would like a cup of tea to calm my nerves, thank you. What I’m trying to say is that Russia is vast. Stating the obvious, yes, but consider this: Russia – a country here on little planet earth – has roughly the same surface area as Pluto, a.k.a. an ENTIRE GODDAMN PLANET. Not only is it big, but there are a whole lot of people living there, too. Apparently, more people flit on and off the subway in Moscow every day than in New York and London…combined. 9 million of ‘em, to be “precise”. Are you gobsmacked? I am. My gob is well and truly smacked. There are so many mind-boggling facts about Russia, I could fire them at you all day, but we are not here purely to pick up points in a pub quiz. No, kids, as we know, I’ve got my knife and fork ready and I’m waiting for the buffet to open.
|Rollin in dough|
I think it’s fair to say that Russia is probably one of the more misunderstood, or simply mysterious, nations. It’s shrouded in secrecy, with all kinds of rumours swirling around it like a snowstorm in Siberia, feeling almost impenetrable to outsiders. To a lesser extent, Russian food is also an unknown entity for great swathes of the global population. Hand on heart, when was the last time you heard someone say “By Jove, I had an absolute corker of a meal last night, little Russian joint round the corner. Really, Denise, you must try the rassolnik…”? OK, that sentence was very specific, but you get my point: Russian is not necessarily lauded as one of the world’s great cuisines in the same way that French, Italian and Indian are, for example. However, it’s simply not possible to have a country so preposterously large without a good solid dinner to back it up - but what, then, is on the plate?
First of all, one must distinguish between Russian and Soviet cuisine. Traditional Russian cuisine is based on peasant food and, as we are all aware, Russia is no tropical paradise (see Siberian snowstorms above), resulting in a diet based on hardy staples such as rye, fish, pork, barley, berries and vodka. Language nerds among you, the word vodka is a diminutive form of the Slavic word for water (voda), so vodka basically just means ‘little water’. Sounds harmless enough, but it’s a different story when you’re three sheets to the wind off the stuff and making the oh-so-wise decision to get on the karaoke machine and give the world your best rendition of ‘Lady Marmalade’ while swinging your bra around your head. Vodka aside, traditional Russian fare is awash with good hearty soups like solyanka (a thick, salty-sour soup) and borscht (beetroot, tomato and beef soup), cereal-based porridges (kasha), meat-tastic dishes like shashlyk (yep, shashlik to you and me) and a curt nod to fresh vegetables in the form of salads such as sel’d’ pod shuboy. Rolls off the tongue, that one, eh? Known as ‘herring under a fur coat’ (errr….), this little delight consists of a layered salad with pickled herring covered in grated boiled vegetables, chopped onions and mayo, finished off with a flourish of grated and boiled beetroot mixed with mayonnaise, lending the dish a rather alarming purple colour. As if that weren’t enough, it’s garnished with grated boiled eggs, producing a final product that is, essentially, my sister’s idea of living hell.
|Fill dem pelmeni|
Be that as it may, Russian food has some bloody tasty niblets tucked away, but first I would quickly like to touch on Soviet food. That is a beast unto itself, formed by bringing together the national cuisines of countries that belonged to the Soviet Union. As you may well expect, the cuisine was characterised by a somewhat limited selection of ingredients and generally comprised ‘watered down’ versions of French, Austro-Hungarian and traditional Russian dishes. The notion of Soviet cuisine not only refers to the food itself, but also to the general approach to eating it: a typical full-on Soviet meal consisted of 3 or 4 courses (logically, “the first”, “the second” etc.), each of which was distinct from the one before. The first course was normally a soup or broth, followed by a ‘solid’ dish of meat, fish or poultry and a garnish for the second; third out of the kitchen was something to drink, and finally the whole thing was topped off by the fourth course, a dessert. Find your way into a restaurant and you could go mad, ordering whatever your heart desired on the menu; however, in the state-run canteens (so-called stolovaya), you ran the gauntlet of a more restrictive kompleksny obed, or combined lunch, when your tastebuds were truly at the mercy of the guys and gals cooking it up. The common approach to food was, and to some extent continues to be, ‘eat a lot, a few times a day, and nothing between meals’. Whatever you think about pickled cucumber soup and stuffed cabbage, you can’t argue with that sensible logic.
|Before being boiled aliiiiiive|
When considering what to cook this time, I allowed myself to be guided by the aforementioned guinea pig/sous-chef. He led me straight back into my new-found comfort zone, to the world of dumplings – in this case, to pelmeni. These babies supposedly tipped up in Siberia, though precisely when and how isn’t exactly clear. One theory is that they are a Siberian version of the Chinese wonton; another is that the Mongols lugged a load over to Siberia with them, from which they spread across the Urals and beyond. The word pelmeni itself means ‘ear bread’ in a number of native Uralic languages, which most likely alludes to their form, rather than to the ingredients (at least, I hope that’s the case!). Just to give you an idea of what pelmeni look like, imagine any one of the following and it should help you out: Turkish/Kazakh manti, Nepalese and Tibetan momo, Korean mandu, Japanese gyoza, Italian ravioli, Ukrainian varenyky or Polish pierogi. Get the picture? Apparently, all these different types of dumplings are in fact cousins, coming together to form one big, doughy family. The crux, I’m informed, lies in the thickness of the dough: for pelmeni, it should be quite thin, with a high proportion of filling. The filling is simple, just minced beef and/or pork with perhaps a few simple herbs and seasonings thrown in. Sounds easy enough, right?
|The final product!|
Well, I have to hold my hands up here and say that, while I made the dough and the filling, the real artistry of folding the little blighters must be credited to the sous-chef. Thanks to the addition of an egg, the dough was extremely soft and quite tricky to work with, but it meant that the final product had a very pleasing richness, particularly when compared to the less than thrilling flour-and-water Qatari dumplings last week. Judging by the sceptical look on the S-C’s face when I produced the filling, I went for a more “out there” recipe that included a smattering of dill and parsley – shock, horror – which produced a nice little herby respite from the meaty meatness of the dish. Fiddly as they were to fold with such thin dough (I mean, they looked very fiddly from the right side of the table), the final product tasted rather spectacular in a simple, homely kind of way. Of course, pelmeni isn’t pelmeni without a good dollop of sour cream on top, immediately undoing any notion one may have had about this dish being vaguely healthy, a point which was also not helped by the addition of a couple of measures of neat vodka. But you know what, it’s flippin’ cold in Siberia! I’d be fattening myself up too in the face of sub-zero temperatures all the live long day. So to Siberia, and Russia, and pelmeni, I say ‘здоровье’ (sorrysorrysorry to Russians if that is totally wrong – I tried!).