Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Russian Food from an American Perspective

Hey everybody! It's been a while since my last post, in which I promised you a post about food, so here it is! Before I get into it, a quick update on my life:

I have started working at my internship and I LOVE it! I work for an organization called "Deti Peterburga" (Children of Petersburg) which teaches Russian language and culture to children of immigrants, generally migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus. I get to work with the most adorable little kids, I learn new Russian phrases (giraffes have spots, zebras have stripes, etc.), work on translating, and I am passionate about the mission. I'll go into more detail on that at some point.

Unfortunately, classes still have not started yet...I have been out of school for nearly two months now and I'm going a little bit crazy. I've been taking private lessons the past two weeks, and classes were supposed to start this Monday, but they got pushed back again, so hopefully I will actually go back to school next Monday!

On Saturday my SRAS group took a tour around Saint Petersburg. It was chilly and a long ways to walk, but I really enjoyed it! Our guide was great, he gave us lots of facts about the history of buildings and areas and showed us some more off-the-beaten-path sights that I hadn't seen before.
I also went to the top of St Isaac's Cathedral for the first time, and that was great!

This one's my favorite))

Now: FOOD...the problem is I could talk about food forever, and there are plenty of resources online that describe Russian food in detail, so I will just try to hit the basics and then tell you some of my observations on what I found interesting!

Russian food in general is delicious. There is a lot of diversity because of the country's long history, enormous land area,  diversity of climates, and the influx of other national cuisines during the Soviet period. Popular flavors include: dill, mayonnaise, beets, sour cream, and meat cooked for a really long time!

Soups are very popular to start a meal, but I haven't yet been fed soup, even the heartiest of borsch, as a meal by itself. Borsch is something you've most likely heard of- it's a kind of vegetable soup that has as many different varieties as cooks, but it's basically beets, tomatoes, potatoes, and pork or beef topped with dill and plenty of sour cream to give it a pinkish color. The first time I ate borsch I had to force it down, then a few hours later I found myself wanting more, I think that's part of getting used to new foods, you just have to take it slow. Now I absolutely love borsch, I would eat it everyday!
Cold soups are also a thing, but mostly seem to be cabbage and sour milk based and are really only eaten in the summer so I'm holding off on that as long as I can...

Russians don't typically eat salads like Americans do. In the States we generally get a salad of lettuce and other raw vegetables topped with dressing before or accompanying a meal. Here, the word "salat" has a few different meanings. First, it's the word for lettuce, which is confusing as all get out-
-What do you like in your salat?
Salat also refers to both more American-style raw veggie mixes and Russian style mayo-festivals. Russian salat olivier and stolichniy salat are both very popular, especially on holidays, and basically consist of mayonnaise, tiny chopped up vegetables, peas, little ham cubes, and of course dill. Some people find this delicious. Not me.
Stolichniy Salat

Russians really love their bread. Pretty much all meals are accompanied by bread, and not some delicious warm flaky rolls or a garlic smothered baguette, but room temperature sandwich bread without butter or anything. I guess you're supposed to dip it in soup and bite into it after vodka and so on but while it's not unappetizing, I don't really find it necessary- this gets me a lot of strange looks.
There are two types of bread- black and white. Black bread is really hearty, thick, and made with rye, and white bread can range from Wonder Bread to whole grain. Generally the bread is oddly small, in the US when I buy sandwich bread it's about 8" tall (this definitely exists here, it's just not that popular) and bread here is usually only 3" or so.

There are lots of types of meat available- beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, rabbit (NO). Generally I've noticed that meat seems to be kind of thrown into a meal just because. I guess as a source of protein, which is great, but it's never really cooked to intentionally highlight the flavors or whatever chefs do. I think availability of good cuts of meat is not great here (people often drive across the border to Finland to buy fish). Kotletti (cutlets) are popular, I think they're kind of flattened balls of ground chicken and spices- sounds better than it actually tastes.

Sweet stuff: my favorite! Russians are really excellent at pastries. There is a perfect balance between savory/bready/cheesy and sugary that creates the most satisfying desserts! Homeade or storebought, piorzhki (little pies) are delicious- they are generally thick bread shaped like a football and filled with either savory fillings like cabbage, eggs, and potatoes or sweet fillings like cherries and tvorog.
Blini rolled up with tvorog and berries!
Tvorog: the lost dairy product of the east. I am obsessed with this stuff! It's somewhere between cottage cheese and quark (so I've read- never actually tried either of those). It can be mixed with raisins and used to fill or top pastries as a sweet treat or mixed with garlic and dill as a tangy dip or spread.
Another sweet favorite are blini. This is the one Russian dish I've ever attempted making and although I am a disaster in the kitchen, these are so easy I get it right probably 70% of the time! Kind of like crepes, blini are very thin pan-cooked dough circles. You can eat them with gooey, sweet condensed milk, tvorog and fruit, nutella, peanut butter (really hard to find in Russia) and bananas, or anything else you want! I suggest making a big batch because you're going to want to eat about 10.
Ice cream is worth noting because in addition to all the regular flavors, a Soviet-era nostalgic favorite is plombir. "Regular" or "milk" flavored is how it's often described, very mildly sweet and creamy.

When it comes to drinks Russia has it down (although Azerbaijan set a really high bar). Alcohol: well, yes, the rumors are true, Russians love to drink! Not everyone drinks vodka almost every night, but my host mom does, and most people enjoy vodka much more frequently than in the US, where I think adults whose goal is not to get drunk will generally prefer wine or beer on a week night at home. "Napitki" (drinks) are varied here. Every type of soda you could want, Georgian "dushes" (pear soda so delicious when it's fresh), flat and sparkling water in abundance, "tarxhun" (some kind of grassy green soda that I can't stand), aloe vera juice, kvass (slightly alcoholic fermented bread juice that most Russians really love) and anything else you can think of!
Of course tea is extremely popular. I hear "chai budesh'?" (will you have tea?) several times a day- with breakfast and after dinner usually. Tea is more popular than coffee I think. It's not some fancy eastern style tea, generally it's just Lipton tea bags with some sugar and lemon, but I've really grown attached!
If you plan on visiting Russia, though, note that there is rarely, if ever, free water in restaurants. Drinks are expensive and come in tiny glasses with no free refills, so drink sparingly!

Anyway, I know I left a ton of really great Russian foods out, so if you come across something interesting, feel free to ask me what I think of it or encourage me to try it if I haven't yet!
Please tell me your thoughts, I look forward to hearing from you!

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