Provisions for a Russian WinterPosted: February 4, 2012
Привет из Москвы, Друзья! It feels good to be back in a land of ice and snow, where -15 degree days have been the norm for weeks. Not much to be done about that except layer like a crazy person. My colleagues see my wool coat and are incredulous; most women here wear enormous down coats or fur шубы, which are super elegant and warm-looking. Anyway, I’m trying to take the cold as an excuse to stay indoors and read, drink coffee, go to the cinema, and cook. I’m getting much better at boiling pasta, and have already made several loaves of banana bread, but I’m trying to revisit lovely Russian edibles, which are ideal for winter. As happens, Russian food is a mix of indigenous ingredients, as well as ideas that flowed back and forth from Eastern Europe and Asia, including Estonia (whose cuisine I discussed here) and parts of the Caucasus like Georgia and Armenia. I feel it should be better known. The following is an update on a post I wrote a few years ago the first time I went to Russia. As my knowledge of Russian cuisine grows, it’s time to revisit the idea.
Russian food gets a bad rap for being bland and heavy, but it’s really just a combination of different tastes–there are more bitter and sour flavours, I find, than in North American food. (Oh, there’s also the flavour of dill. Get used to it.) My friend even told me that zakuski, the snacks you drink with vodka–including black bread, caviar, and mayonaisey salads–are all perfectly balanced by what you’re drinking. It’s science.
- Black Rye Bread (Ржаной хлеб): While I generally prefer fluffier, softer bread, this dense, nutritious bread is perfect with fish or caviar, and for open-faced sandwiches. I’ve been thinking about making my own, but the sheer number of ingredients makes me pretty hesitant.
- Blini (Блины): Throughout my time in Russia, I must have eaten millions of these pancakes, as they’re sold everywhere and are terrific. Several Russian fast-food chains seem to have been created on the strength of the blini appeal. They’re usually buckwheat crȇpes, filled with cheese, mushrooms, meat, or caviar. You can also buy sweet ones filled with honey or jam.
- Borsch (Борш): This is the famous beef-broth-based beet stew of Ukrainian origin often topped with smetana (sour cream). Note that in Russia you’re not just limited to 2% dairy fat sour cream, oh no–20% fat is very common and, obviously, way better than any low-fat variety.
- Caviar (Икра): You should be careful about which kind of caviar you buy as Beluga caviar, for instance, is quite rare and potentially harmful to the Beluga sturgeons. But in general, with a bit of sour cream on some blinchiki, the caviar here is beautiful. Besides, what better place to buy caviar than in a place like Russia, where there’s so much selection?
- Chai (Чай): I tried to ask my Russian friends what a chai latte would be here–a chai chai? Masala chai? Or maybe it’s just not a thing at all. Must find the answer! Regardless, regular black tea is usually served with lemon and maybe sugar, but definitely not milk. When I was in Saint Petersburg I found that getting good tea was extremely easy, while finding a good cup of coffee could be a challenge. In Moscow it’s a lot easier, what with Coffee House on every corner, not to mention Coffee Company, Double Coffee, Coffee Mania, and Starbucks. But still, tea is my saviour halfway through a long day at work.
- Champagne (Русское Шампанское): This “champagne” is so sweet and so festive, it instantly makes me feel the Russian spirit. I used to drink it sometimes in Estonia, and was always happy that I did.
- Ice Cream (Мороженое): Somehow there’s just something beautiful about Russian ice cream–it’s rich, filling, available everywhere and beloved by all. I mean, in what other country would you be able to spot businessmen walking down to the street, ice creams in hand? Or see people carrying cones on a -15 degree day. Nowhere else, I believe. Eskimo is my favourite, and has been around for about a thousand years.
- Kasha (Каша): Kasha’s a hot breakfast cereal, usually made of millet or buckwheat, sold everywhere by the kilo for the equivalent of $1. Teremok, a paragon of Russian fast food, serves up my favourite sweet kasha with honey and cream.
- Kefir (Кефир): A tangy, lassi-like yogurt beverage that I pour over my kasha or drink straight. It reminds me of the YOP drinkable yogurts of my youth, although the flavour is “plain” instead of “Razzle Raspberry” or whatever.
- Kvass (Квас): A fermented rye drink (the Estonian Kali) that’s mildly alcoholic and far less sweet than regular soda. I won’t ever need to buy a two-litre version, thanks, but getting a glass from the vendors on Arbat street in the summer would be very welcome. It may have alcohol in it, but it’s given to children like juice.
- Medovukho (Медовуха): This is another slightly alcoholic drink, a sort of honey-mead. Мëд is also the word for honey, another food that Russians love, and with good reason. In the markets, honey is sold from giant containers, freshly scraped off the comb. Vendors will shout out “Devushka! Devushka!” as you pass, plying you with enormous samples. But don’t make my mistake and pay an embarrassing sum for honey. Haggle for all you’re worth!
- Pelmeni (Пельмени): The Russian pierogi/ravioli. The first time I came to Russia I purchased some at the supermarket, but got home and realized that I wasn’t going to be eating them; if I had been paying attention, I would have seen the huge letters on the package which read: “С много много мясом!”, meaning, “With lots and lots of meat!” Oy.
- Russian Salad/Olivier Salad (Оливье салат): A delightful mayonaise-based salad with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, peas and vegetables. It sometimes has some meat in it and definitely has some dill sprinkled over the top. A столовая (cafeteria) favourite.
- Tvorog (Творог): Similar to cottage cheese, with much less whey, tvorog is actually more akin to cheese curds, being quite dry in consistency. So many delicious things are made with tvorog here: plenty of pastries, as well as those glazed sirok bars and sirniki, the wonderful curd-cheese pancakes in the top photo that I’ve been making for breakfast this week.
- Ukha (Уха): A broth-based fish soup that can be found everywhere, though it is best when homemade, served straight from a delightful babushka’s own stone pot. Also, what other soup could serve as a film plot point? This one certainly does, in 2009’s I am Love. See it to believe it.
- Vareniki (Вареники): My understanding is that Vareniki differs from Pelmeni in the way the dough is made: vareniki dough is a bit thicker, and vareniki are usually filled with potatoes or a sweet cherry filling instead of meat. They both seem to be served the same way, however, with sour cream and–what’s that?–dill.
- Vodka (Водка): Duh. This list wouldn’t be complete without at least a mention of vodka. It’s cheap and it’s part of the language: the root of водка is вода—water. I won’t be treating it like water, as some local gents do, but I certainly hope to have some ice cold shots with my zakuski. На здоровье!
This is what I’ve tried so far–I can’t wait to see what other treats this beautiful country has in store for me!