May 10, 2011

Когда я ем... (On Russian cuisine, part 3)



 When Russian cuisine surprises you, you'll wish it hadn't.  For instance, I couldn't have guessed what "kholodets" was just from the name.  Can you?  The root is "kholod," which means "cold."  Lots of good foods are cold, right?  Like ice cream - ice cream is cold.  Maybe kholodets is like ice cream.  Boy was I surprised when I found out it isn't so much like ice cream, but more like meat-jello.  And that's another thing - for all the time I spend praising the breadth and flexibility and precision of Russian language, they've got no word for "jello."  Pushkin himself, for all his poetic simplicity, couldn't have described jello in fewer than five words.  Indeed, Russia is a puzzling and contradictory land.

What was I saying?  Oh yeah, food.  I thought I had already complained about the food ad nauseam (get it?) in my Irkutsk entries, but by popular demand, today's topic is once again local fare.  I was hesitant, because I don't want this iteration of the blog to echo my writings from Irkutsk.  But here I am, writing a second 'food' entry, in the wake of my second and third 'language' entries.  On the other hand, those two topics do figure prominently in my daily life here.  Who knew that talking and eating were so integral to the human experience, right?  Besides, my Irkutsk entries were something of a caricature, described in stark yellow-and-white for the sake of entertaining the reading public.  In reality Russian food, like Russian everything, is marked by nauseating highs as well as nauseating lows.  Put differently, it's not all pig heads and pig tails.  They also eat the delicious stuff in between.

In Siberia, my host mother was trying to fatten me up for the winter, and failing that, to fatten me up for the spring and summer.  Here in the Caucasus, without concrete weight-gain targets, I've actually been eating pretty well.  Take a look at this holiday spread from Easter with my professor's family.  There's red things, green things, pink things and black things, as well as the more standard yellow and white things.  As for drinks, there wasn't only clear firey stuff, but gold-colored stuff and even deep red-colored stuff.  This was just the appetizer-phase.

Next came the shashlik, a Russian/Georgian/Armenian/General Caucasian variant of shish-kebab:

Wait, sorry, that isn't the right picture.  Here we are:

Sorry it's sideways.  Note the sad, longing dog-eyes in the background - that's how delicious shashlik is.  I know what you're thinking - dogs think everything is delicious.  But take a look at this picture:

That's the dog, two hours after the shashlik was all gone, and he was still upset.  Click on the image for the full-size version, or else you won't appreciate the depth of the resentment he felt.  And it wasn't resentment because he didn't get any shashlik - he did. This was a more profound, personal disappointment in me, for being like all other bigoted humans and not giving him a full portion.


So Russian food isn't all bad.  That said, this isn't one of those doe-eyed travel blogs that reflexively celebrates every aspect of  the host culture.  On this blog, you get the cold, hard, dense, pale-yellow starchy truth, and I still maintain that everyday Russian food is heavy enough to knock a foreign gourmand unconscious.  The food really isn't that great.  Take, for example, this highly fictionalized account of Pelmeni:

This is what sociologists call a "national myth" - a romanticized narrative that a nation repeats ad nauseam (get it?) until they believe they have a balanced diet.  Pelmeni are actually kinda gross - dough, dill if you're lucky, and meat of uncertain origin.  I eat them because they're easy and quick to prepare, and because if I don't eat I'll die. But I can't feign the love for them that Russians do.  And I definitely don't read the ingredients on the packaging.  I'd rather not know the breed, if you catch my drift.

That's more or less how I feel about most Russian non-holiday staple foods - Russians truly believe they're delicious, but having grown up elsewhere, I can only understand it as a sort of mass psychosis.  There are exceptions, of course - borshch (borshcht), plov (pilaf) and bliny (crêpes) are universally appealing.  On the other hand, one could argue than none of those are actually Russian.  On the third hand, there is a great wealth of truly, honestly delicious odds and ends, which when combined creatively, can make for interesting meals.  For example, if you buy affordable fresh pomagranate juice from Azerbaijan, spicy Bulgarian lecho, and a loaf of bread, you can eat bread with lecho and drink pomagranate juice.  Also, the Adyghe people are renowned for their cheese-making.  Here's a picture of the cheese-section of the market:

The cheese comes in wheel-form, string-form, herb-rubbed-string form, and giant unshaped blob form.  Sometimes it's smoked, sometimes it's mild and subtle like mozzarella, and it's always fresh.  Last week, one of the sales-babushki forced me to touch one of the cheese wheels, to prove that it was still warm from the cheesing process.  At first I was sold - I'd never touched such warm cheese before.  But then her scheme backfired, since the whole routine seemed a bit unsanitary.  It's better to buy cheese that hasn't been touched by fifty different Russians.  That's what my dad always said.  So I bought other cheese, and it was great as always.  Through some combination of cheese, tasty fake caviar, prunes, bread, local honey and an Uzbek cafe, I've made it three months without a real functioning kitchen, and haven't even tired of the food.

Oh yeah also, Adyghe national dishes include shyps, a thick brownish soup made from chicken bouillon, and pasta, which despite the misleading name is a corn-meal cake similar to polenta.   Didn't think I'd fit that in there, did you?  Remember it, too - if you ever meet an Adyghe immigrant, you'll blow them away.

That's all for today, I'm a bit rushed.  This entry isn't very well organized, but just assume it's a conscious stylistic decision I made, in order to reflect the patchwork nature of Russian cuisine.  Tune in next time for whatever it is I write about next time.


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1 comment:

beth said...