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.