26 April 2007

Food for Thought

I have a complicated relationship with food in Russia. Which is to say that I have a complicated relationship with Russian food.

It's not that I don't like Russian food. It's just that when I'm in America, I usually crave Russian food about once a year. On that day I pull out the Russian cookbook, make some pelmeni by hand and a pot of borshch, after which I'm set for another year.

I've found that I crave Russian food at about the same frequency when in Russia, which is problematic due to the fact that I'm eating it every day, not just one day. Thus, there seems to be an oversupply problem, not something you find in Russia very often...

I wake up every morning to find my breakfast waiting for me on the table (meals are included in the rent I pay my host family). I sit down and stare at the bowl of porridge in front of me. 75 percent of the time it's kasha. The rest of the time is split between millet, oatmeal, and rice porridge. It's already been sitting on the table a couple of hours because host mother usually leaves for work fairly early. So I pick up my bowl and stick it in the microwave for one minute twenty seconds. Every morning.

When I get back to the table with my steaming bowl of kasha, I sit down and pour in some milk to help wash things down. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to do this, but I tried it once without the milk and once was enough. Then I get up to search for the sugar, which has a habit of wandering all over the apartment. I don't know why. Eventually I find it and am ready for my daily dose of fiber. Sometimes there is other fare to accompany my kasha - cheese, salami, yogurt. Sometimes the other things aren't there. I'm not sure why host mother decides to serve me the extras some days and not others. Maybe she thinks to herself, "hmm, R is looking a little chubby today. Maybe he shouldn't have any cheese." Actually, since she's a Russian woman reaching babushka stage, she probably thinks, "hmm, R is looking a little thin. Maybe he needs some extra cheese today." Most likely she simply doesn't think about it at all, as she's not exactly the doting type...

On weekends there are usually these thick pancakes (not blini) that have a deliciously crunchy crust thanks to the fact that they're practically deep fried in the massive quantity of oil that goes into the pan. One time I tried to complement my host mother by telling her how good they were and how I'd like to get the recipe.

"I don't understand..." (this is how she starts most conversations with me). "I make these all morning and you just sit in your room reading when you could come out and write this all down. I don't understand" (this is how she ends most conversations with me). But a bit of sugar, some smetana (sour cream), and jam on the pancakes makes everything OK.

Because host dad and I both work from home, we usually have lunch together. My friends at home will attest that you could set your watch to my lunch schedule - when the clock strikes 12:00 I become one of Pavlov's dogs. European readers will be comforted in knowing that I have managed to push this back a couple of hours in accordance with host father's preferred dining schedule. However, the call, "R, are you having lunch?" can come anywhere from 2:00 to 4:00. Lately I've been keeping a jar of pickles on the balcony just in case it's a late lunch day...

Lunch always always begins with the soup of the week. Host mother usually makes a big pot on Sunday night, which lasts us the week and lives out on their balcony. Sometimes it's shchi (cabbage soup), sometimes it's borshch, and sometimes it's a soup with pickles called rassolnik. One time the rassolnik had bits of liver in it, which was not a good week. And of course, readers are familiar with the trauma of the dreaded ukha (fish soup). Fortunately the ukha has not returned since that terrible week. If it does, it may not be enough to slip out for the afternoon; I may have to head to Kiev for the week...

When they don't contain offal meats and second-grade fresh fish, the soups are actually quite good. Though I have to admit that soup every day gets a bit...repetitive. I try to vary things by adding smetana to my soup in the Russian tradition some days but not others. But then host dad inevitably asks why I'm not putting smetana in the soup, "since it's much better with smetana." Given his enthusiasm for the stuff, it's usually more appropriate to describe it as "sour cream with soup added" rather than vice versa.

The second course for lunch always consists of mashed potatoes (made from flakes). This is not a joke. I have not had a single lunch at home that doesn't include mashed potatoes. There is also usually some sort of meat to go along with it. Most of the time it is an underseasoned and patty of ground meat known as kotlety. Sometimes the kotlety are undercooked and pink on the inside, which is why I now insist on taking a short detour to the microwave between courses. I, for one, don't have a lot of faith in post-Soviet meat quality standards and prefer to avoid medium-rare mystery meats.

A generous dollop of mashed potatoes and several kotlety go into the frying pan that hasn't been washed in ages. Now, I know the nonstick wonder that is well-seasoned cast iron cookware. But when black flakes from bygone meals end up in every bite, I think it might be time to give it a good scrub. Along with the potatoes and kotlety goes at least a quarter cup of oil for good measure. Just in case the non-stick layer developed over decades of not washing decides to go on tekhnicheskii pereryv... And so, eventually the potatoes, kotlety, and most of the grease end up on my plate and into my stomach.

In contrast to the predictability of breakfast and lunch, dinner is anyone's guess. Its timing depends on when host mother arrives home - sometimes as early as 7:30 or as late as 11:30 if they go to the theater, but usually somewhere in the middle. The problem is that nobody ever tells me which it's going to be. If it looks like it's going to be a late nighter, I'll make something for myself (usually eggs, as they tend to be the only thing in the fridge amenable to culinary transformation) or I'll go out and get something at a cafe or restaurant. It never ceases to amaze me when, at 11:30 at night, my host mother returns home and is surprised when I tell her that I already had dinner and won't be joining them. Did you really think I was going to wait that long?

While we're on the subject of the fridge, I suppose I should address its contents. First of all, it is packed to the brim, as is the freezer above and the separate standalone freezer nearby. In fact, all three containers are so full that anything behind the first row or two of food items is literally inaccessable. I've dug around back there a time or two looking for a pickle (I guess I've developed a taste for the things) and have become quite unnerved upon seeing some of the occupants of the fridge's depths. I'm sure some of the contents still have fond memories of the Brezhnev era...

Also, it would appear that host mother isn't a fan of things like plastic wrap for covering dishes and wrapping up opened items. So we end up with a lot of dried up cheese and moldy vegetables that go quite some time before being noticed (by her, not me). The result is that cornucopia of odors known as "fridge funk," which in turn permeats all the open packages in the fridge. I sometimes wonder which is worse - the moldy food in the fridge or the milk that they left out all night and the kotlety that stay in the frying pan from one day to the next. And I wonder what my last thoughts will be as I keel over dead from food poisoning.

You may wonder why I don't say anything about it. Well, the fact of the matter is I'm afraid of my host mother. But that's another story... In the meantime I just cut off the crusty parts of the cheese and I put away the milk that they leave out.

Now, where were we? Oh, dinner. Usually there's more soup of the week. If she's feeling ambitious there might be something that's actually cooked - frozen pelmeni (dumplings), pan-fried meat (with plenty of oil), butter-drenched pasta, along with some kind of marinated or pickled vegetables. Oh, and don't forget the potatoes. On nights when she's tired, the best you can hope for is a plate of tvorog (cheese curds), which are to be covered in sugar, sour cream, and jam. Not exactly the meal of champions, but I don't complain.

This isn't to say that she can't cook. In fact, I've seen her put out truly impressive spreads of zakuski (appetizers), "salads", and tasty treats like fresh-baked pirozhki when guests come. While on the subject of salads, those of you not familiar with the Russian "salad" might be somewhat disappointed with such a "salad" if you ever have the opportunity to eat said "salad." I use "salad" in quotations because it is not the leafy bed of greens you've come to expect in the West. Rather, most Russian salads consist of cooked and chopped vegetables and sometimes meat tossed (drowning) in mayonaise or a similar "dressing." One version even contains pickled herring; you can imagine how I feel about that one.

Did I mention the dill? Apparently this is the only herb that grows fresh in Russia because it has found its way into damn near every dish on the table. I once loved dill. Now it too falls in the "once a year" category.

Of course, I eat everything in front of me because my mother taught me to be polite. Perhaps too polite. Sometimes they set a place for me, with soup and food already served before asking "R, do you want lunch?" Despite the fact that I had lunch at a cafe 2 hours ago and it's somewhat strange that they're eating lunch at 5:00 on a Saturday, I don't want to be rude, so I reluctantly eat lunch again. I also don't know when dinner will come again, so I hedge my bets and dig in for the long haul.

Now, none of this is to say that I dislike Russian food. Ok, I don't like the ukha. Or the liver. Or the things growing in the fridge. Or all the grease that soaks into the kotlety and potatoes. It's just that I don't really love Russian food. Which is why I only need it once a year.

My host mother thinks otherwise:

"I can tell you love Russian food, R., since you eat everything we give you."

I smile and nod, partly out of politeness, partly out of fear...

1 comment:

W. Shedd said...

I recognize some of these details that you offer, but it somewhat sounds to me like your host-mother isn't a particularly good cook.

On eating at 11:30 at night - I've noticed that Russians tend to keep a later schedule, so I'm not too surprised by that. Mostly I'm surprised that you are surprised by it.

My wife is Russian and getting her to throw out old food (especially old bread) can be quite a task. It stems from some mistaken superstitious belief that throwing away food is a sin that will be revisited upon you sometime in the future. Basically, I clean out the fridge of old items when she isn't home.

I'm not sure what the problem is with ukha, which can actually be quite excellent. I'm guessing just was some bad fish.

Yes, a tablespoon of smetana does improve the taste of most soups by adding fat, which carries the flavors better than water.

Fresh dill, fresh parsley, bay leaves, and whole kernels of allspice are staples of Russian seasoning. Can't really help you there.

Salads in Russia come in a much greater variety than the green leafy ones here in the West. Think potato salad, chicken salad, macaroni salad, and you'll have a better idea what Russians might imagine for salad. I haven't seen too many salads consisting of cooked vegetables, although mayonnaise is over-abundant. Usually zakuski has quite a few chopped fresh vegetables, sliced meats, etc. arranged on plates as a first course.

I've never known any Russian cook to use instant potatoes from flakes.

Sounds to me like you mostly got the worst of it. I've always had pretty great meals in Russia and Central Asia. In fact, we're making mante tonight.