Friday, January 27, 2006

One of my favorite topics ... FOOD

I started thinking about Beaker at SVO again. Image of him chomping away on Pringles and lamenting no White Castles in Russia. One of my favorite topics is food, and I always find the comparison and sharing of Russian recipes very interesting. I've been good at trying lots of different foods while in Russia and Kyrgyzstan over the last few years ... and I'm going to throw down a list of things that I have tried and tasted with some thoughts about each item. I'd love to find a more comprehensive website with Russian recipes and foods ... the ones that I have found all seem to lack a certain something.

Also, I realize that many of these food items are not strictly "Russian" .. there is a strong influence of southern foods in Russia, just as there is a Mexican influence in much of what Americans eat. But I think every item here is commonly found in Russia, and less common in the US.

It is worth noting that large Russian family dinners stick to the tradition of a 1st course, 2nd course, etc. 1st course is generally small finger foods, salads, pickles, fresh vegetables that are in season (radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, etc.). Some smetana (sour cream) and condiments such as tomato sauce (finely chopped tomatoes with onions) or crushed red peppers. Smoked fish, or smoked sausage or meats are also eaten at this time. All of this is rather tasty, vodka-friendly foods. Strong tastes seem to go well with the clean vodka taste.

So in order of recall ... here are some of the things I have tried over the last few years:

Black tea from dried loose leaf, made from zavarka (заварка) with hot water added
- Painful lesson that I wrote about earlier ... you don't drink just the zavarka .. it is the concentrated brew. Let's not be like Sascha, Katja's neighbor! Tea made this way is much sweeter and less bitter than from teabags ... even my daughter is crazy about it now. Russians will tell you that teabags are made from the broken crap and dirt and twigs and such that are found at the bottom after the good tea is removed.

Various Russian Pickles
(cucumbers, mushrooms) and Salats (carrot salads most notably) - Traditional first course fare. In the US, pickles means cucumbers, even as we acknowledge that other foods may also be pickled. In Russia, you should be specific, to call it pickles could mean any number of vegetables that are pickled to preserve food. These pickles and salats were all rather good with occasional shots of vodka mixed in ... which brings me to:

Vodka (Водка)
- Well, it has to be discussed, doesn't it? I mean ... Westerners think of Russia and it is inevitable that they will also think of vodka. It can be a touchy subject actually, as Russians can be justifiably defensive when accused of all being drunkards.

So, a few points and observations: Russians do drink vodka, but my times of drinking vodka were not as I imagined they would be. From movies, literature, and stereotypes I had this idea that drinking vodka with a Russian ... would be like doing battle. There would be one shot, and then another, until someone passes out.

The reality is much different.

As I was taught, the senior head of the table is responsible for the bottle. A small shot glass (about 40 ml) is for everyone who wishes to drink. There is no drinking without eating ... I was taught this is a sign of bad character. And there is always some toast that is given with a drink. There is no shame in saying you don't wish another drink, or that you don't wish to have another vodka either. And it is a shot of vodka starting with the 1st course about every 20 minutes or so (well ... faster than that when it is New Years with Viktor!)

None of this is to say that Russians do not suffer problems with alcoholism, just like any other culture. I would say they are more afflicted with this problem, than most countries. But this does not make the majority of Russians drunkards or even heavy drinkers in general. I'll visit this topic another time with more stories and data if I can find it.

Carbonad (Карбонад) -
Smoked pork, similar to Canadian bacon (oops, not to offend Canadians and others ... who simply call it back bacon.) Rather tasty side dish with all the 1st course veggies. I can easily say this is one of my favorites, carnivore that I am.

Smoked Fish (Копченная рыба) -
Russians seem crazy for the stuff .... especially Russian men. Katja's family doesn't seem too fond of it, but I see smoked fish everywhere in Russia. When in Bishkek the men of the Skochilo clan would dig right in with fork and fingers and mouth down close to the plate. I've found a few places to buy it here in the US, and it is really very rich food. The fish becomes soft and the flavors concentrated from the loss of moisture and smoking. I think it needs vodka to be fully appreciated. I'm told that Russians also really enjoy smoked fish with pivo (пиво = beer). Say it like "PEE-va" to you non-Russian speakers out there ... unemphasized "o" is said more like "a" in Moscow Russian dialect. Moloko (молоко) is Ma-la-KO ... Horosho (хорошо) is Ha-ra-SHO. That is enough Russki for you today, Мои друг.

Plov (плов)-
Yummy. Uzbek-style, I am told. Big fragrant mound of spicy rice with lamb chops. This was the 2nd course and main dish in my first big family meal in Bishkek. Typical rice pilaf that American's make from some box is but a pale pale shadow of this dish. In Russia and CIS, the best food is still found in the home. I'm afraid this isn't always true in the USA.

Kotleta (Котлета) -
Literally a cutlet ... sort of like a gourmet approach to meatloaf or a hamburger. Mine was with tomatoes and dill and onions on top. Not served as a sandwich, but as a slice of meat on the plate. Had this at a popular university hang-out cyber-cafe in Bishkek.

Pelmeni (пельмени) -
Americans would look at these and call them perogies. Some might call them raviolis. Either way, they are small little stuffed dumplings, served in juice or soup. Tradition has it that they are Siberian, and supposedly the word comes from Chinese for "ear bread". Seeing their shape, one can easily imagine that. They are often made at home in large batches and then frozen. I've heard in Siberia, they would be made and placed on a large wooden board, set outside in the winter time to freeze them, and kept indefinitely in that fashion.

Mante (манты) -
Another type of dumpling, larger, stuffed with meat and onions, and steamed. Oksana Skochilo made the first bunch that I had in Bishkek. She showed how the fold of the dumpling indicates various nationalities ... Uzbek style, Kazakh style, etc. Not that I remember any of this. Andy and Oksana ground their own meat for making mants, with a big metal meat grinder, something like my grandmother would have. Was served with a chopped tomato and onion condiment.

Shashlyk (шашлык) -
Americans would see this and call it shish-kebob without the veggies. Russians that I've said this too are greatly insulted, and point out all the differences. The meat is MARINATED, generally some vinegar-based marinade as near as I can tell. And you must cook it over wood coals ... very natural ... strictly speaking you shouldn't grill it over a gas flame, for example. Lamb is preferred, but can be made with pork or rarely chicken. As I remember, we got VERY drunk this night in Bishkek ... big shame on me for staggering home that night!

Tvorog (творог) -
Now, this will translate as cottage cheese, but it is actually closer to the less common farmer's cheese. At first look you might compare it to ricotta cheese also, but ricotta is made from whey and not curd (who knew?). Katja makes her own tvorog. She has a big glass jar, about 4 liters, just for making it. Special long thin spatula. Cone-shaped strainer. Let me tell you, she is a tvorog professional. It is like her own special art. Anyway, it is really quite good, very mild and all natural. If you can find some farmer's cheese in the US, give it a try.

Blini (блины) -
Crepes. Or Blintzes if you prefer. Well, Russians will call them pancakes ... but any American will say such flat things can't be PAN-CAKES. Pan - something maybe, but nothing like a CAKE. Katja has seen my American pancakes, and there is a word for them in Russian. She and I have agreed to call Blini ... blini .... as it is a perfectly acceptable word in English. I've had them plain, with smetana and sugar, with apples, with jam, and with meat. There are even more styles than this - I forget all the kinds offered at Teremok, for instance.

Kasha (каша) -
Porridge, generally buckwheat (which isn't a wheat at all) but it can be semolina (yep, Cream of Wheat = kasha) or various other kinds. Oatmeal would be a type of kasha, for example. Katja isn't fond of buckwheat porridge, but her family has a special pot just for it, keeps it rather nicely.

Balik (балык) -
Fresh meat. I am told that it is usually in a Kazakh form of smoked raw fish ... but what I had was smoked raw meat. Like sushi for carnivores. It was still obviously raw, it had the limpness of raw meat ... fresh is how they called it. Sergei was eating it, so I guess it has to be very healthy somehow. But while your eating it, it really seems sort of luxuriant and rich in your mouth. Thick and meat, smokey and juicy. Yum-yum. But I am an unapologetic carnivore.

Kolbasa (Колбаса Русская) -
Well, you might think this is kielbasa .. and it is close or similar. Smoked and dried a little bit, with largish cubes of fat ... this is basically a form of smoked sausage. Wasn't bad .. Katja bought it for me to eat with cheese, bread, and other light foods. I'm a man, so she guessed I wanted some meat (she isn't a heavy meat eater at all).

Bizhbarmak (Бижбармак) - Kazakh dish, large flat home-made noodles with sliced onions, lamb, and juice from cooking the lamb. We had this on New Year's, it was great, I found myself eating it all night and the next day also.

Ukha (уха) - Fish soup. I've had a couple of varieties, the fanciest one was in Rybinsk and had several sorts of fish and calamari also. In Russia most soups are eaten with smetana.

Borsch (борщ) - Beet/cabbage soup. Every family seems to have a different variant, I've found them all good. And they are better with smetana added just before eating ... makes the soup creamy and the fat carries the flavors of the soup better.

I am sure that I am forgetting something ... If I remember it I will come back and add it to the list. Some other things worth noting ... the Russian diet seems to use more dairy products. Butter (maslo), sour cream (smetana), kefir, yogurt, cheese (syr), tvorog ... all seem heavily consumed in the Russian diet. The idea of using margarine is generally preposterous to Russians, by the way.

Latest edits on January 29th

I will try to keep this to things that I have actually eaten. I've been reminded of some food items that should be on the list:

Buterbrod (бутерброд) -This word is obviously borrowed from German, meaning literally "butter bread". A Russian might tell you that it is a sandwich, but any American will look at it and say that it clearly is NOT a sandwich. Buterbrod is more like open-faced sandwichs that you might be served at as hors d’oeuvre at a party. Thick slice of bread, some butter spread upon it, cheese or caviar on top. I've had them with chicken liver pate (was excellent actually) and other toppings also. A bit lighter and more sophisticated than the typically American sandwich, I would say.

Solyanka (Солянка) - A meaty soup, primarily started with beef kidneys, but likely with other meats as well (one recipe I see here calls for veal, beef, ham, and sausages .. in addition to beef kidneys!) Very good hearty soup.

Salo (Сало) - Mmmmm ... Salo. Ukrainians are famous for eating this, of course. The first joke I ever heard told by a Russian involved a Ukrainian eating salo on black bread and calling it a delicacy. Salo translates as "bacon" but my understanding is that it is lard or pig fat ... often whipped or mixed with garlic or other things. I've also seen slabs of pig fat, like bacon without the meat and unsliced ... and this is also called salo. I can say that salo is ok, but not my favorite item that I had in Russia.

Rassol'nik (Расольник) - Similar to Solyanka, both feature beef kidneys and possibly other meats and vegetables. However, my understanding is that Rassol'nik has pickle juice in it, giving it a bit of acidity and vinegar taste.

Beef tongue (язык or язык говяжий) - Yep, if you are American you probably think this sounds gross, but it is really very good. My grandmother cooked beef tongue, and I never found it that appealing. While in Russia, it was always served presliced and was extremely tender. At Korchma it was cold and sliced, like a very tender cold-cut. Was served with various other meats, aspics, and cheeses ... like a very fatty Ukrainian antipasto.

Caviar (икра) - Various forms, most abundant and cheap is red caviar (красная икра) from salmon. Typically we had this as a buterbrod ... it is really rather good, especially when fresh. Katja had a special little ceramic pot with a plastic top for storing caviar airtight after opening. Even so, I found that it became more salty and fishy with time .. so best eat it all in one sitting!! - black caviar (черная икра) and pressed black caviar (черная паюсная икра) I actually have not tried. They are rather expensive, even in Russia and quite illegal now in the US due to a ban on sturgeon caviar. That isn't to say that, someone like ... oh ... maybe Volodia ... might carry back a few cans of choice black caviar in his carry-on luggage.

Morozhenoye (мороженое) - I'm sorry to say this but ... I have yet to see or have any good Russian ice cream. For a country and people who like to pride themselves on being all natural, their ice cream is more like candy, than like ice cream. Whipped stuff with gelatin in it, with lots of candy chunks or chocolate coatings. I think if it were left at room temperature, it wouldn't even melt. Plus they just serve annoying small portions of it. When I was in Bishkek, the ice cream stand had one flavor (Creme Brule aka caramel) and the server carefully weighed the grams onto a cone. I was dumbfounded.

American ice cream pretty much whups the bejesus out of Russian ice cream. Breyers, Ben & Jerry's, Edy's Grand. Sports Bars, Klondike Bars, Dove Ice Cream Bars. Boxed or on a stick. Or the ultimate ... soft serve ice cream (creamee's it was called in my youth). You order a small softee and it is almost more than you can eat.

Notes on typical Russian Bread (хлеб) versus typical American Bread - In general, Russian Bread tends to be rather European bakery style, crusty, chewy, unsliced ... purchased in a whole loaf of white or dark bread. There are many styles of it, of course .. and you can buy small loaves of sliced bread as well. American bread tends to be pre-sliced and softer stuff (even the whole wheat and organic whole grained breads here tend to be softer). I think the American bread is softer partially because much of it is made by machines and the softer dough is necessary. But also, I think Americans just like their bread to not be too resilient or chewy (for some reason).

Now, you can find bread in Russia that is similar to what is typical in the US ... and you can fined bread in the US that is just as crusty and chewy as anyting in Russia. But in general, the majority of the breads sold in each country fall into the categories that I spelled out above. I've had some Russian friends come to the US who had difficulty at first finding bread that they liked ... but it is here, usually in deli sections, where stores might bake their own loaves of bread.


Tim Newman said...

I am sure that I am forgetting something...

Yup, you are: solyanka, rasolnik and xarcho to name just three.


Mishka said...

Anybody heard of "kotleta v teste"? We used to have it at our school cafeteria.

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