24 June 2008

Belarus' Bountiful Table

Frequent readers of this blog (all three of them) know that food was a favorite topic for consideration last year in Moscow (previous discussions of Russian cuisine can be found here, here, and here.)

Since most outsiders are not familiar with the diverse culinary delights that make up traditional Belarusian cuisine, I thought that I would offer readers a brief photographic introduction to these delicacies. I was hoping to present a fully spectacular multimedia event, but sadly I could find neither appropriate music, video, nor fireworks to complement the culinary wonders of Belarus.

I should first point out that in fact Belarusian food is heavily influenced by the cuisines of its neighbors – Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania. Not a huge surprise when you consider that Belarus has been Eastern Europe’s “Flying J” truck stop for much of the last 500 years – whenever you’re invading someone, you’re usually stopping in Belarus along the way to grab a bite to eat, fill up the tank, and maybe do some shopping at the cheesy gift shop. And so, it comes as no surprise that much of what you find in Belarus’ national fridge is similar to what cousin Wojciech and uncle Vladimir keep in their respective pantries, having brought them as “gifts” when they were just “passing through.”

And so, we open Belarus’s fridge and discover the following delights:

First off, holodnik, a delicious cold beet soup:

Of course, Belarusians are also fond of borshch, the delicious hot beet soup from Ukraine:

Moving on to the salad course, we have “peasant’s salad in the Belarusian style,” a mayonnaise-based favorite (in fact, all favorite things in this part of the world are mayonnaise-based, including socks*):

Sometimes this salad also comes with smetana (sour cream):

Moving on, we have the ever popular meaty gravy known as matsanka:

As well as tasty zrazy, which are (according to Wikipedia) “chopped pieces of beef twisted into a sausage shape and filled with vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, etc.”:

By now you may have guessed that this is all a painfully long setup for a tasteless potato joke (I’ll leave you to decide whether it’s the potato or the joke that’s tasteless, though). But stereotypes aside (during the Soviet era the kind-hearted Belarusian people were referred to as “bulbashi” – potato eaters – by their big brothers in the communal apartment that was the Soviet Union) they really do love their kartoshki. So much so that Belarus leads the world in per-capita potato consumption, ringing in at a whopping 376 pounds (171 kg) per person per year.

Think about that – eating over a pound of potatoes every day. And that’s just the national average – there are people that eat even MORE than that!

I had been in Minsk for less than 24 hours when I discovered how it is possible to consume so many potatoes in a year. The answer lies in the unassuming little potato pancakes known as draniki. Isn’t that a cute name? Almost makes you want to go up and hug them before scarfing down a dozen. When covered in smetana (sour cream) and maybe some sautéed mushrooms and onions, I assure you that there are few things so delicious in the entire Slavic realm.

I found myself constantly craving draniki, bouncing from meal to meal, café to café looking for a fix. When I told my Belarusian friends about my newfound love, they all declared with unwavering conviction that their babushka makes the best draniki in all of Belarus. Understanding the rules of transitivity, I can draw one of two conclusions: 1) that all of Belarus has descended from the same babushka; or 2) that regardless of who the babushka is, babushkas in general make pretty darn good draniki.

Fortunately, I was invited over for draniki by a real-live babushka while visiting the city of Brest. There I learned the magical recipe – finely grated potatoes, an egg or two, a little bit of flour (not too much), and some salt. Oh, and you have to drain some of the liquid when you grate the potatoes. Then it’s into the frying pan (along with at least a half inch of oil) until they’re crunchy, golden, and delicious!

When we sit down to the table, a bowl of smetana is placed in front of me. I gingerly take a dainty dollop and plop it down onto my little greasy paradise. I am immediately chastised by babushka: “No, not like that, you do it like THIS!” whereby she folds up a single pancake, plunges it into the bowl, and manages to scoop up a good quarter cup of smetana before tossing it all down the hatch. Babushka’s corresponding dedushka sits there and just smiles at me with his wonderfully endearing sparkling gold smile, a bit of renegade smetana dribbling down his chin.

Upon returning to Minsk I decide that I must make draniki for myself. After all, by this point I am on my way to being yanked out of the country, so I’ll need to take draniki skills with me if I am to survive outside of Belarus. I go to Mink’s massive Kamarovka market and wander through the aisles of fresh(ish) produce piled high. It turns out that potatoes warrant their own section of the market, so I set out in search of the superlative spud.

I soon find a woman whose countenance resembled that of the bounty she was selling – russeted, pock-marked, a little dirty, but firm. Oh, and she had nice looking ‘taters too. I ask the woman for half a kilogram of potatoes, not really sure how much either a potato or a kilogram weighs (don’t forget that I, like all Americans, am ignorant of metric equivalents).

“What can you do with half a kilo of potatoes?” she asks me (mind you, this is one day’s serving of potatoes in this country). I momentarily contemplate explaining how I’m here on a research fellowship but that my wife is back at home in the States so I’m single, plus I’m being withdrawn from Belarus for political reasons so I won’t be here long and won’t have time to eat my 171 kilos of potatoes this year so I only need a few….

Instead, I just shrug my shoulders and she weighs the tempting tubers on her scale before rolling them into a sack.

At home I discover why God created food processors on the eighth day: finely grating potatoes by hand (even just half a kilo’s worth) is a laborious endeavor. I’m sure that if your average Belarusian man were forced to grate a few potatoes himself he’d be a lot more appreciative of his wife/mother/babushka/food processor. As I reach the end of the potatoes, I notice that I have managed to grate my knuckles, the feeling of which doesn’t improve with potato water and salt mixed in.

Wounded though I am, I soldier on, ending with a plate piled high with the delicious treats. But not high enough – within a day or two I have burned through all the leftovers which, despite turning a grayish blue in the fridge, still taste like heaven. Potato-faced woman was right: I should have bought more potatoes.

Luckily, my dear friend Comrade Kartoshka (no, not her real name) comes to my rescue and feeds my addiction with an invitation for me to try her homemade draniki. While Comrade K is an amerikanka, she has married into a Belarusian family which is enough by way of potato credentials for me. I am on the metro to her apartment before she even finishes delivering the invitation.

What is most memorable about that day is not the draniki (though they were to die for - crispy, golden, and perfection on a plate). Rather, it is the three guys moving what appears to be furniture down the stairs as I step through the entryway to Comrade K’s building. Once my eyes adjust to the dim light I discover that instead of carrying a desk past me, they are carrying an open coffin with a dead woman in it. I cross myself even though I’m neither Catholic nor Orthodox – just seems like the right thing to do. As I look up the stairs I see K’s face poking out into the hallway wearing what I can only assume is the same look of shock that graces my own. The cortege clumsily passes – after all, she was a hefty Slavic woman (God rest her soul) and I dart into the apartment, looking forward to a bit more lively company (sorry, couldn’t resist a bad pun).

K and I are both a bit shaken by the experience, but K’s middle-aged sister in law matter-of-factly tells us that it’s a sign of very good luck. I don’t catch all of the explanation through her Belarusian accent, but I can only assume that it translates to something like, “better her than you.” Indeed.

All I can say is that I hope for her sake – and for my own someday – that they have draniki in heaven. With plenty of smetana, too…


*this is not actually true, Russian socks are not made out of mayonnaise.


Angelica said...

Absolutely glorious post, as are your past ones! You provide those of us who wish to study abroad a tremendous insight into the life of a student foreigner in another country (I’m hoping to go to northern Africa for Arabic). Oh, and I think you now have four regulars on your blog :)

Rubashov said...

Angelica, you are far too kind than I rightly deserve. But thank you for the generous compliment! Needless to say, I'm glad you enjoy it, and I hope you consider keeping a blog when you study abroad - it helps you stay in touch, keeps you sane at times, and will serve as a wonderful record of your experiences that you can look back on years from now.

Mongo said...

They all look like potatoes to me.

Alain said...

The answer lies in the unassuming little potato pancakes known as draniki. Isn’t that a cute name? Almost makes you want to go up and hug them before scarfing down a dozen. When covered in smetana (sour cream) and maybe some sautéed mushrooms and onions, I assure you that there are few things so delicious in the entire Slavic realm.