29 July, 2007

These are a few of the tastiest things...

Russia is like southern Italy: its cuisine is delicious, and its food is famous, yet no one thinks of it as a culinary paradise. I have no idea why.

When most people think of Italian cuisine, they probably think of regions like Tuscany, no thanks to a spectacularly successful marketing campaign by the Tuscans. (I have no proof of such a campaign, but there must have been one. Read on.) The Olive Garden restaurant chain hasn't helped, what with its ads boasting that its cooks are trained in Tuscany.

I find that curious, since the most famous Italian dish is not one of those fancy fish or lamb dishes that I can't stand but pizza, which comes from southern Italy, in particular, Naples. Why do you think that pizza is so big in the United States? It wasn't the northern Italians whom the House of Savoy reduced to such poverty that they found themselves compelled to migrate to the United States.*

As for Russia, which is the actual point of this essay, Borsch (or however you spell it) is okay, and rice pilaf is much better, especially the way my wife makes it mmmmmmmm. But Russians have a number of tasty foods that I never saw before, and since Russian restaurants are hard to come by (I've never see one in the States) I thought I'd describe a few.

Пирог (pirog): Essentially, a giant pie. Take dough, lay something down on it, and cover it with more dough. Bake it in an oven. Voilà! It is essentially the same thing as the tiella of Gaeta, Italy; it's another one of those southern Italian specialties, which I never saw outside southern Italy until I came to Russia. The essential differences are (a) the Gaetani typically use a thin dough, and bake it crisp, while the Russian dough is rather thick, and is baked soft like bread; (b) the fillings are different. Gaetani use spinach, or egg and ricotta, or a tiny octopus called polipetti, or some vegetable and fish fillings that I can't remember, primarily because I can't stand them. Russians use egg and cabbage, or mashed apricots, or other typical Russian vegetables or meats.

Треогульник (treogulnik, "triangle"): Take a hexagonal layer of dough, put a mix of diced meat and potatoes in the center, then fold the corners in, pinching them together on the edges where they join, to make a triangle. Bake. My wife tells me that this was originally a Tatar dish that has spread throughout Russia. It's superb.

Винегрет (vinigret): The name looks French (think of the "vinaigrettes" of salad dressings that you can find on supermarket shelves) but the ingredients are pure Russian: boiled beets, peas, carrots, and healthy dose of... uhm, I'm not sure. My wife won't tell me all the details of how it's made. She realized quickly that I'd be her slave as long as the secret is hers.

(And you thought I married her only for her beauty. Wrong! I married her for her beauty, her brains, and her vinigret!)

This is a good time to mention that Russians enjoy a lot of delicious salads assembled from ingredients that I have never seen arranged the way Russians do, even if they sit in the average American salad bar. Forget the lettuce and the cheese; for a Russian salad you should just throw together a bunch of the other things at the salad bar. A little mayonnaise helps, too. To this day I'm convinced that my wife's salads cured me of heartburn.

Пельмене (pyelmenye): Visit the supermarket and find tortellini in the section for refrigerated, pre-prepared foods. Pyelmenye is essentially the same thing, only with a tasty spice in the meat, so that it doesn't need tomato sauce the way tortellini do even in Italy. Russians usually spoon some sour cream on it anyway. Personally, I prefer my pyelmenye straight.

This is probably a good time to mention that Russians are obsessed with sour cream. Nearly every time I sit down to eat, someone asks me if I'd like sour cream in the soup, or on the pyelmenye, or in my tea—well, not in my tea, but you get the idea. They do ask if I want milk or jam in my tea. Barbarians!

Russians eat a lot of soup, too. The most famous are probably борщ and щи, borsch and shi. Borsch, a soup made from beets, is great. It's often made by adding beets to shi, a cabbage-based soup whose bland tastelessness is redeemed only by the fact that at least you feel full after you eat it.

Плов (plov, or pilaf): You probably have an idea what this is already, but the Russian version, especially in my wife's incarnation, is different. She adds carrots, meat, and small black things that she swears are dogwood berries, although I've never heard of such a thing before. In any case the taste is beyond heavenly. In the States, my wife would prepare pilaf almost every week. Why? She says it's relatively easy, and she knows I won't complain about it. I don't know what's different from the American verison, but I never much liked the pilaf I had in the States, whereas my wife's... ahhhhhhh.

My wife tells me that I also have to mention Вафельный торт (vafilniy tort, waffle cakes) which are not really cuisine but confections similar to the sugar wafers that we have. Thin, crisp wafers are stacked with chocolate between the layers, and a final layer of chocolate on top. Sometimes the manufacturer tops the cake with nuts. I like these a lot, and my mother-in-law sent them occasionally while we were in the States. When I arrived this year, she showed me a bag full of Джек a new brand of individually-wrapped servings. Oddly enough, Джек is how one writes my nickname (Jack) in Cyrillic.

*Certain northern Italians assert that southern Italy is a crime-infested cultural backwater, another country really, and that Italian culture comes from the north. It's much the same attitude that many Yankees have toward southerners, and is no less unfounded. Such northern Italians must not have heard of pizza, or Neapolitan song (think of Santa Lucia, 'O Sole Mio, Funiculì Funiculà), a number of famous Italian comedians (most famously Totò—just look at his face and you will start laughing, although the insanity of Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia also springs to mind), and Luigi Pirandello, author of The Late Mattia Pascal, one of the best novels I ever read. Ironically, this book was recommended to me by a northern Italian. :-)

Note that Northern Italy has given the world Umberto Bossi, Bettino Craxi, and Silvio Berlusconi, Benito Mussolini, and Federico Fellini. You make the call.

Similarly, a lot of Westerners look down on Russia as a crime-infested cultural backwater, a completely different culture really. Never mind that the Russians gave us Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Lobachevsky, Mendeleyev, Tarkovsky, Solzhenitsyn (my wife isn't reading at the moment so I can write this), Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, and the Moscow Ballet!

Note that the West gave us... oh bother, who cares?


Clemens said...

I have a Russian colleague from Ossetia in the Caucasus Mts. Says he is a descendant of Cossacks - he showed me a picture book of the Russo-Japanese war with an engraving of his grandfather, a commander of Cossack cavalry so I believe him.

When he first came over without his wife or family he made me borscht - washed down with ice cold vodka it was great.

Now that his wife is here with him he and she have become the caterers by acclamation for all our departmental functions. I have no idea what the various things they make are, but they are all delicious.

As for Italy - in the Middle Ages the two richest and most civilized spots in Western Europe were Venice and Sicily. And Sicily is about as 'southern' as you can get. I had a medieval history prof in grad school who insisted that all the problems of southern Italy were caused by Spanish rule. Sounds about right (since my wife is not reading I can say this).

jack perry said...

I had a medieval history prof in grad school who insisted that all the problems of southern Italy were caused by Spanish rule.

I once rode the train with some Neapolitans who said something similar, only I think they blamed the French instead. There's a lot of philo-Bourbonism in southern Italy now that they've endured 90 years of Savoy and 60 years of, well, themselves, really, although such people say the Republic has been a ruse for northern exploitation, an attitude that, in my opinion, explains a lot of the problems in southern Italy: avoid responsibility for anything.

One might be tempted to answer that "Bourbon was a French family" but the ones in southern Italy came via Spain.

Then again, maybe that's what they were complaining about: the Bourbons. I don't remember any more. But there has been a nostalgia for that period in southern Italy, and for the kingdom of Charles V (the one who expelled "the Turks"). Search the net hard enough and you can find websites that proudly display the flag of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Clemens said...

Yes, and I always thought one Sicily was enough. The medieval history of Sicily is fascinating. Very complex.