Saturday, December 24, 2005

Food - From Russia to America and back again

I'm emailing this one for posting. I'm going to be travelling next week, so this might be the only way to post.

One of my favorite discussions regarding Russian culture is food. I think there are many misconseptions about Russian food in the U.S. (and even more misconceptions about U.S. food in Russia!), so it is a topic worthy of discussion. Besides, it seems that most of the blogs regarding Russia, written by English speakers, dwell on the political realm. I'll certain touch on that sometimes also, but I'd like to be a bit broader ranging.

If I had to summarize the typical American stereotype of Russian food (if they have any image of Russian food at all) I would say "bland and strange". If I had to summarize the typical Russian stereotype of American food, I would say "unnatural". Maybe I should add "overprocessed fast-food hamburgers and pizza" to that stereotype. My experience shows that neither is true, although the typical Russian diet is milder compared to the spicy range of foods Americans enjoy. It seems to me that the Russian diet is closely tied to the seasons as well, as they don't yet seem to enjoy imported or hothouse fruits and vegetables to the extent that we do in the U.S. I suppose that to a Russian visiting the U.S., seeing strawberries in grocery stores in January probably adds to the impression that all our food is "unnatural". Add to this media stories of bio-engineered foods, rising obesity due to lifestyle choices, Twinkies, Betty-Crocker, and perfect-looking Idaho potatoes ... and you can see how they might arrive at this impression. However, I can assure you that no American thinks back on his mother's home-cooking, and has images of her unwrapping Twinkies and making a big simmering skillet of Hamburger Helper while a batch of Betty-Crocker brownies is baking in the oven. If you are the rare American who has such comfort food memories, I feel sorry for you, really. You probably weigh 350 pounds.

So, the first recipe I am going to share with you is for Manty, a type of steamed meat-filled dumpling. One thing you will notice in discussing Russian recipes is that Russians will commonly tell you that all these foods that they eat and enjoy aren't Russian. Shashlyk? Not Russian. Borsch? That's Ukrainian. Pelmeni? Siberian. Vareniki? Also Ukrainian. Plov? Eeek, NO! There is a mental index of all these foods, and they are labelled Armenian, Georgian, Kazahk, Jewish, Ukrainian, etc. And yet these foods are quite popular in Russia. It has often made me wonder what foods are considered authentically Russian, other than smetana, mushrooms and Schi (cabbage soup).

Manty or Mants (Uzbek style) - Technically these arent Russian, but they are familiar and fairly popular with Russians (based on my experience).

These are basically meat stuffed little dumplings that are steamed rather than boiled or fried. They require a steam tray set up .. Russian style seems to be metal pans that stack on top of each other, but oriental style bamboo trays stacked one on top of the other would work just as well (anyone with a wok is probably familiar with these trays).

Sift 500 g (about 2 cups) flour
Beat 2 eggs
Add 1 cup of water
Add salt to taste

Work this mixture into a dough and knead until smooth. Cover and set aside.

Meat Filling:
Mutton or Lamb 500 g (little more than 1 lb)
3 onions, very finely chopped
Smetana (Sour Cream) 150 g (about 1/2 to 2/3 cup I'd say)
Butter 2 tblsp
salt and pepper to taste

You could probably use ground or chopped beef for this also, but that would be less traditional (and let's be honest, less tasty). Finely chop the lamb and cook with the onions, smetana, butter, salt and pepper. I have seen this mixture put through a meat grinder after cooking, but if you chop it fine enough, shouldnt be required. Food processor could be used if it is coarse.

Roll pieces of the dough into about 3" squares (or if you prefer slightly larger circles). Put a dollop of the meat on the dough, and fold the dough around it into a little dumpling, pinching the edges to seal. There are various ways to fold these dumplings, and each culture has their own signature style, or so I amtold (Uzbek-style, Kazak-style, etc). For our purposes, just matters that you get the meat wrapped. You can call your sloppily wrapped dumplings "American-style". Lightly butter your steam tray and arrange the dumplings for cooking. Steam for about 30 to 45 minutes to cook. Serve hot. Can be kept hot in a ceramic pot with top.

Serve with a mild salsa. You think I am kidding, but that is what the condiment of choice basically is ... tomato and onions finely chopped. Often this mixture is canned and used through the year. If you prefer, make it a hot salsa or even Tabasco (we used a finely chopped red pepper condiment in Bishkek with this). Smetana also (is there any dish eaten in Russia that isnt considered improved by adding smetana?).

Rather good with a 1st course of sliced veggies (whatever is in season; radishes in spring, cucumbers later in summer), salads (green salad, potato salad would be good, or some of these Korean-style shredded carrot salads that I have seen in Russia and central asia), pickles, sliced cheese, breads, and some sliced meats like ham or canadian bacon. Smoked fish if you have it. Russian 1st courses seem to be a bit of a smorgasbord of veggies, salads, pickles, cheeses, sliced cured meats, and bread. I'll probably spend more time discussing this in later posts.

Partake with vodka every 15 to 20 minutes or so (to taste) with a toast around the table.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Riding the Metro

On Tuesday I will be back in Russia (and Moscow, of course). It will be a 12 day trip and uses up the last of my vacation time for a while. I'll be sure to grab lots of photos and keep notes of every little thing that I notice or observe.

One of the things I am most looking forward to seeing again in Moscow is its famous Metro. Now, as an engineer, I suspect I see such things a bit differently ... because beautiful as many parts of the Metro are, I was struck by it more as an engineering achievement. Everything was in superlatives ... the DEEPEST stations ... the STEEPEST and LONGEST escalators ... the FASTEST trains. And an immense flow of people. I had thought that perhaps Tokyo's subway system might be more crowded ... and then I came across this November 2005 graphic from Atlantic Monthly (I recreated it here).

It just reconfirms my impression that the Moscow Metro is doing the most people moving, with the fewest resources. I had read that the distance between Metro stations was the greatest of any major subway system, but these numbers just sort of confirm that information.

So jump on board for a quick ride. To be like a real Muscovich, you should not smile, so as to appear DIGNIFIED. I bet you didn't know that dignity was the reason behind a Russian not smiling, did you? At least that is what I am told ... smiling and laughing in public isn't dignified. Keep a straight face. Look serious. Try not to embarass me, Oo-en-dell.

Somehow, Americans have a different idea of dignified, however. The Queen of England can smile, and still appear dignified, somehow. To an American's mind dignity demands some subtlety of expression and motion, but not a complete lack of outer countenance.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

First Post ... Watch Out Below!

This is my first post on my new idea for a blog. I find myself reading more and more blogs, particularly those involving Russia and expats in Russia ... so I decided to give this a whirl. I am leaving for my 3rd trip to Russia/CIS in a few days, and I hope to use this to document some of my impressions. I have hundreds of photos and impressions, good and bad, about Russia and how knowing that country affects my views of the US.

One of the first things that I should say is, I get to travel a bit for work. The small consulting firm where I work has sent me everywhere from South Dakota to Florida on various projects. Most of them are small, requiring me to just pop in for a day or two, write a report, and then move onto the next project. Because of my discussions with Katja (she of Rostov Veliky fame), I have been making more and more photos when I travel. Partly it is to show her things I observe in the US .. but it is also to document my impressions of things here also.

So I was in North Carolina on Sunday/Monday .. and made this photo on the way back to the Raleigh-Durham airport. And somehow, it just struck me as wrong or skewed or terribly ironic ... in a way that the person who put these slogans on their vehicle never intended, I am sure. Am I the only one who sees these two comments as being opposed? Maybe I am going nuts, but I have come to realize that we Americans are often almost as fanatical as some of these Muslim Fundamentalists. I guess most Americans wouldnt bat an eyelash at the juxtaposition of these two slogans.

"Get the Bastards!" "Hate is Not A Family Value"

And you know, this person (I am guessing a woman) even has a pink magnetic ribbon on their vehicle. I guess this means she is opposed to breast cancer (aren't we all?). I feel a little bit like the driver of this vehicle would condemn me for pointing out that "Get the Bastards!" is very hateful and vengeful. Maybe you even know the type of person that I am imagining. They probably buy only tuna that is labelled as "Dolphin Free". Drink only organic coffee, made from fresh ground coffee beans. (Great marketing ... get people to pay more to feel good about their consumerism. Pay us a premium and you can sleep well at night, knowing you are doing your best for the planet.) I bet they have one of those coffee makers that grinds the beans and then brews the coffee immediately (well, they are nice to have, I suppose). I am sure there are some overvalued South African diamonds on a tennis bracelet involved in this picture somewhere.

And if I point out something contradictory on their car (or their behavior), I am immediately a loathesome person with dark intentions.

So, pleased to meet you. I'm the loathesome person with dark intentions.