An article about food in Russia from the perspective of an Antiguan
|Food is one of my favourite ways of experiencing the cultures of others. At times it can be the most potent aspect of a country or city. While learning about about different countries, and their languages, food is always on the table, because it's just that important. So when I decided to learn more about Korea, I took to their cuisine. I tried Korean cold noodle soup, kimchi, and kimbap. I made pickled radish, bought canned chili tuna, and even pre-packaged black bean noodles. I'm a little adventurous. So when I realized I would be going to Russia I became excited about the opportunity to have a go at Russia by food. But I'm Caribbean, and more so, Antiguan so I thought the best place to start would be asking Antiguans who'd already had, and were living through this opportunity.
"I only eat their KFC."
But that's not Russian food, I thought. And I asked again and got "I don't like their food." What? Was this going to be me too? Would I be living in a country for five years and not be able to share the gift of food between us? Would I be living in Russia, but outside of the culture?
I got to Russia. And I again the international students about the food. They too were living on the 'safe' side?
A Columbian would try authentic foods from China, Vietnam, Mongolia, Japan, Africa, Spain, Antigua, and Venezuela but never taste Russia. All these foods sound amazing. They are! But I came to Russia to experience it in its fullness, so I decided to taste Russia for myself.
Food, is edible art.
Sitting in Krasnoyarsk, Russia I pushed a forkful of mashed potatoes into my mouth. Before tasting it I knew it would be different simply by sight, because it was puree, pureed potato. How could this thing be so thin? Was this for real? Of course it was. But where Antigua says add a little milk and mash, Russia says add a lot of milk and blend until smooth, and then add more milk. This is my understanding from having eaten "mashed" potatoes in various Russian canteens.
But the creamy white potatoes tasted like home. I could even taste...a little garlic? I ate other mouthful. There it was again, garlic. I cut in the meat patty anxious to know if it was just the potaotes that would be similar. It was a tasty, homemade, chicken patty. But beyond that nothing stood out. Where was all the fear-inspiring difference. I hadn't found any and I was ready to begin my journey into the world of Russian foods.
Across the distance
Russian food is like any. How it tastes depends on who cooks it, how they've cooked it, and at times, your mood towards both. I've eaten in canteens, restauants, from supermarkets, at church events, and in the homes of friends. The distance between these varying artsists is wide, but the artists remain apart of the world of Russian cuisine. I will try to showcase the similarities, and difference in Antiguan and Russian cuisine.
The main similarities between Antiguan and Russian cuisines are the seasonings. Among the seasonings used in Russian cuisine are: garlic; parsley; dill; bay leaf; black pepper; and cloves. These are also typical seasonings used in many Antiguan dishes. These seasonings make many of the Russian dishes seem more acceptable, less like new dishes and more like acquaintances. Russian cuisine also makes use of spices such as ginger, coriander, cinnamon, saffron, and myrtle grass. These are known but aren't used as much in Antiguan cuisine.
The Russian drink, comport, is also made using heat and is a lot like the process for making tamarind juice, if you do so by boiling that is. The difference is that tamarind isn't the fruit being used. Instead there are a whole host of others including apples, peach, and berries. In canteens and restaurants the juice is served without the fruit, in homes and at some events they swim around in your cup or glass and you can eat them or leave them.
After moving to Russia I decided to cut meat, oil, salt, and sugar from my diet. I was eating raw salad, fruits, healthy soups, and feeling quite good about myself. I would eat out occasionally but these now and then bits didn't affect my eating plan. And then I was introduced to Russian pastries.
These fantastic dough purses were stuffed with fruits, thickened sweet milk, and jams. The textures varies greatly from crispy, to flaky, to cloud-like fluffy. This is where my no-sugar rule bent and eventually broke. I began with one pastry every Friday, then two every Friday, then a bag every Friday, then a bag every Friday with a box of juice. Friday moved and I haven't really seen its borders since. I try to resist sugar in my tea when I can...and it works sometimes. But I have no problems with pastries. I eat them.
There are also a host of traditional Russian sweet breads and biscuits, buns, and, candies, marshmallows, jams, and halvah too. I eat these with delight too. The familiarity of these sweet and salty foods allowed me to feel more at ease in experiencing the new, and there have been many.
I'm still hungry.
The main difference you'll probably notice in Russian cuisine is that the foods are much lighter and the servings are smaller. Dumplings filled with potatoes and meat, or vegetable sounds like a more filling all-in-one. But these morsels boiled, fried, or baked are just morsels, and one must eat quite a few, i.e. twenty or more, whereas three or four white dumplings will fill an average person. The soups are tasty but also light. They contain carrots, cabbage, potatoes and such but no dumplings or flour components.
Bread is a constant on the Russian table, at every meal. This includes breakfast where porridge maybe the main. If there's no bread on the table someone will be sent or volunteer to buy it. This can be considered as the flour accompaniment. At first, I thought it was a little outrageous. At first I didn't touch, and outrightly refused it. And then I gave in for the sake of politeness, only eating it by itself. And finally I've become accustomed to it. I expect bread on the table. I'll help slice it as well, because I eat it with my meal, shoving a piece of bread into my mouth right after a spoonful of almost anything. And the truth is, it doesn't taste bad once you've got a tasty bread.
But don't assume that every Russian eats bread at every meal. Many Russians do, and some don't, some may even voice a dislike of bread. Nonetheless it will be placed on the table for those interested, and you may even be encouraged to take a slice.
What with what?
One of my favourite food combinations is Russian sour cream, Smetana, with everything. This sounds strange and it is. Why would I put Smetana in the chicken soup? Why would I put it in any soup really?
Smetana is milk but slightly thicker with a somewhat sour bite. So again, why would I pour milk in my soup? I wouldn't. But as I sat at this family's table and stared back at the two small girls (3 and 7 years old) and their parents, whose united expressions were a mixture of politeness and shock due to my eating the soup without Smetana I decided I would try it.
I spoon a little into my soup from the bowl which sat in the middle of the table. I look at the little girl to my left. She looked back at me and then silently directed me to mix the Smetana into the soup as she did. I followed, and smiled at her, cleared my mind and lifted the full spoon to my mouth. It was delicious.
Of course the taste had been changed but it wasn't for the worst. Today, once I have the opportunity, I eat half of my soup first and then spoon and mix Smetana into the second have. It comes close to eating two dishes at once.
Beetroot is one of the most used roots across Russia. It can be found in salads with cucumbers and dill, and herring, and soups with carrots and tomatoes.
You've mostly likely heard of borsch, one of the most well-known Russian soups, but perhaps you've never thought of making it yourself. It is a light soup which utilizes beetroot as its main ingredient. The rich red colour of the beetroot makes it one of the brightest dishes I've encountered, and the sprinkling of fresh parsley on the surface, makes it look like Christmas in your bowl. It is a good introduction to russian cuisine, so I've decide to share the recipe, which you can find at the end of this article.
There are also new food combinations like a salad of herring and layered, boiled vegetables, called herring under a fur coat. I was very displeased to find out that I would have to fight with the bones in this fish while eating my salad at a New Year's dinner. I was even more shocked to find out that the top layer was of grated beetroot mixed with Smetana.
How it's done
Sometimes as with the mashed potatoes, the difference lies in the technique or even the length of time food items are cooked. In other words, two soups could be made with the same ingredients using the same instructions, and still be of different textural quality due to the length of time they remained on the fire. In general vegetables in Russian soups are soft while those in Antiguan soups require the use of teeth.
Both cuisines make use of boiled dumplings. The taste and texture are far a part. A dumpling in Antiguan cuisine is heavy and flour-packed, in Russian cuisine it is a thin layer of flour wrapped around a tablespoon of filling, be it potato or meat. In Russian cuisine, dumplings can be served as a solo dish and also with meat and other vegetables.
We eat with our eyes
Before eating Antiguans critically assess dishes, and therefore also try to display the food in a manner that would tease the palate. To do this various colours can be noted, and a lack of colour in dishes are usually a minus. Russians eaters seem much less concerned about this aspect. I ate a dish yesterday which comprised entirely off white ingredients, spaghetti, potato and fish. It's not an official dish, just something thrown together to make a meal. But where many Antiguans would add a carrot, or some other anything the lack of colour is acceptable for a Russian. But its addition is noted by Russians, when it is present, and sometimes praised.
Embracing it all
These differences and similarities together have made the experience of Russia by food a more intriguing one. It has been fun eating borsch, a soup starring a vegetable, I detest and never thought I'd eat willingly, and herring under a fur coat, which includes beet yet again was another tasty surprise.
Throughout all of my firsts I was confident because of the shared seasonings. I knew that there would always be a similarity to the food I call my own, even if the similarities were, at times, fleeting. And I have been pleased to find it so. By using the commonalities between our cuisines I've been able to experience more of the Russian culture.