Lunch: A window to the Russian soul

Borsch is widely considered to be the king of Russian soups. Source: Lori / Legion Media

Borsch is widely considered to be the king of Russian soups. Source: Lori / Legion Media

A typical Russian lunch has as much a contradictory and enigmatic character as the Russian soul.

Borsch, pelmeni and three glasses of vodka: these are not just stereotypes but actually treasures which represent the soul and character of the nation of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

A nation’s cuisine can say a lot about the character of its people, more so than even its national dances, for example. Russian cuisine is no exception. Its character is as contradictory and as enigmatic as the Russian soul. For instance, many foreigners criticise Russian food for being too bland, that is until they try Moscow mustard, which is so hot it could bring a repentant tear to your eye, making even the hottest Dijon mustard seem like raspberry syrup. Then there’s the coriander and ginger bouquet in spicy, salted herrings!

Culinary historians have established that Russian cuisine is a tapestry of Eastern-European, Caucasian, Middle Eastern and even Chinese influences. Russian cuisine was known among ancient travellers for how quickly it would assimilate new foreign influences, making it an integral part of national identity.

In order to really understand this identity, let’s have a look at a typical Russian lunch - a note for English-speakers: traditionally, lunch for Russians is quite a hearty meal in the middle of the day. First of all, there is the soup, the most renowned feature of Russian cuisine. Soup is a fundamental part of a Russian lunch, featuring heavily on the menu of any kind of Russian restaurant as well as in Russian recipe books.

Borsch is widely considered to be the king of Russian soups. This complicated, beautiful and filling soup is made of beetroot and its enduring popularity through time and its texture make it an ideal example of the mysterious nature of Russian cuisine. The question of its origins is a highly disputed subject among various Slavic cultures. Ukrainians, Russians and even the Poles all claim to be responsible for the creation of this dish. They are all partly correct, as this dish most likely first appeared in Kievan Rus and the neighbouring regions, when neither Poland, nor Ukraine, nor Russia existed, making it impossible to determine its actual birthplace.

Apart from beetroot, other essential ingredients for borsch include cabbage, potato, onion, carrot and any kind of acidifier so that the beetroot doesn’t lose its colour as it is being cooked. Beyond that, there are countless regional varieties and, of course, every good housewife is able to make her own original version.

Borsch is normally made with meat (beef, poultry or pork), bone, and meat or vegetable stock. Its ingredients also include acidifiers such as tomatoes, apples, prunes, lemons, regular vinegar or wine vinegar, or specially made beetroot kvass (a rather mild kind of vegetable vinegar). To add to the texture, you can use beans, fresh or dried mushrooms, fresh or dried fish, goose, duck, chicken, any kind of meat, as well as perhaps rabbit or lamb, sausages, ham, turnip, kohlrabi, courgette and sweet peppers.

Nowadays tomatoes are used to help maintain the acidity. Until roughly the mid 19th century, beetroot kvass was used instead, but as this took three days to prepare, it became much easier to substitute tomatoes and as a result beetroot kvass is now only used by purists.

As for spices, there up to two dozen different varieties you could use – too many to mention here – but the essentials are black, red or vegetable pepper (usually paprika, but chilli can also be used), bay leaves, garlic, and parsley leaves and stems. There are also cold varieties of borsch, which contain beetroot leaves as well as the vegetable itself. Vegetarian borsch, which first became popular during the Soviet Union as meat was often unavailable, is nowadays a common healthy alternative.

The beetroot always has to be cooked separately and is only added when the rest of the dish is practically ready to be served. Whether or not to stew the beetroot, boil it unpeeled, or fry it in slices is up to the individual. Incidentally, everything except the meat, which some like to boil until soft, should be cut and shredded into different shapes and sizes: pureed soup is not popular in Russian cuisine, as this is considered to be a light meal given to people who are ill. The result is a unique sweet and sour yet also spicy taste, with a tropical, glowing colour.

The starter is followed by the main course, or as ordinary Russian families say, “the hot dish”. As the nation’s most popular meat dish, we have chosen pelmeni, which came to Russia from China thanks to the Finno-Ugric peoples who lived on Russian land. In Komi, pel’ nyan’ means “bread ear”: these boiled dumplings, made of thin dough and filled with meat or fish, are indeed roughly shaped like ears.

So what exactly makes pelmeni typical of Russian identity? And could it appeal to Italians who are so proud of their equivalent, the ravioli? Firstly, a compulsory step when making pelmeni the Siberian way is to deep freeze them – if not in a Yakutsk outdoor temperature of -40, then a simple freezer works just as well. Freezing the pelmeni beforehand gives the filling a distinctively dry yet succulent quality. This tradition of freezing the pelmeni dates back quite a few centuries, which is quite progressive, considering that at that time even the most developed countries had not heard of this technique.

We won’t go into the preparation of the filling here, as we risk going into too much detail, as we nearly did with the borsch. However, it is usually made with fatty pork (40%), lean beef (60%), onion and ground, black pepper. All that remains to be done is to put the freezing cold ‘bread ears’ into boiling water for about 5 to 7 minutes, cover with sour-cream and finely chopped greens. A word of warning: it is better to ask beforehand whether or not to add dill, as its taste can be a little sharp for unaccustomed foreigners.

Well as this is our first encounter with Russian cuisine, we should celebrate – and what Russian celebration would be complete without Russian vodka? Of course, moderation is the key: a glass as an aperitif, a glass with the meal, and a glass as a digestive – no more. There are entire volumes of books dedicated to the making of Russian vodka, but we will reveal two secrets known to every Russian yet unknown to foreigners.

The first secret is this: there is no such thing as ‘homemade vodka’. Vodka is exclusively produced in factories, made solely from grain alcohol. Homemade strong spirits, or ‘moonshine’, are known as samogon in Russian, and this is a completely different type of drink altogether.

The second secret is that high quality vodka is not necessarily the most expensive. The most popular choice for celebrations is usually medium-priced vodka. Nowadays, the latest distilling equipment is capable of producing higher quality vodka; however most popular brands tend to prioritise advertising over investing in equipment.

Cheers!

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