21 Nov 2009

Russian: Trans-Siberian Express

russian_2It’s been my dream to take on a trip on board of the retro route of Trans-Siberian Express from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. I’ve been postponing it summer after summer, waiting for the right year to execute it. And I thought it’s only fair for me to take a baby step by indulging on the gastronomic element first.

Russian cuisine derives its rich characteristics from the vast expansion of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of rural population in an often harsh climate, with a combination of fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Flavorful soups and stews are centered on seasonal produce, fish, and meats.

Russia’s great expansions of territory, influence, and interest during the 16th-18th centuries brought more refined foods and culinary techniques. It was during this period that smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, chocolate, ice cream, wines, and liquor were imported from abroad. At least for the urban aristocracy and provincial gentry, this opened the doors for the creative integration of these new foodstuffs with traditional Russian dishes. The result is extremely varied in technique, seasoning, and combination.

From the time of Catherine the Great, every family of influence imported both products and personnel – mainly German, Austrian, and French – to bring the finest, rarest, and most creative foods to their table. This is nowhere more evident than in the exciting, elegant, highly nuanced, and decadent repertoire of the Franco-Russian chefs. Many of the foods that are considered in the West to be traditionally Russian actually come from the Franco-Russian cuisine of the 18th and 19th centuries, and include such widespread dishes as Veal Orloff, Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Kiev, and Sharlotka (Charlotte Russe).

Two notable mentions of Russian cuisine are Pirozhkis and Blinis. Pirozhki are small stuffed pies filled with different fillings, either baked (an ancient Slavic method) or shallow-fried (known as “priazhenie,” a method borrowed from the Tatars in the 16th century). One feature that sets them apart from, say, English pies is that the fillings used are fully cooked. Chopped hard-boiled eggs in fillings is another interesting take. Six traditional pirozhki fillings are: fish, boiled meat, rice, mashed potatoes, cabbage, and mushrooms.

Blini are thin pancakes (similar to French crêpes), often served in connection with a religious rite or festival in several cultures. The word “blin” (singular of blini) comes from Old Slavic “mlin,” which means “to mill.” Blini had a ritual significance for early Slavic peoples in pre-Christian times as a symbol of the sun, due to their round form. They were traditionally prepared at the end of the winter to honor the rebirth of the new sun during Maslenitsa (Butter Week, also known as Pancake Week). This tradition was adopted by the Orthodox Church and is carried on to the present day, as the last week of dairy and egg products before Lent. Blini were once also served at wakes, to commemorate the recently deceased. Blini can be made from wheat, buckwheat, or other grains, although wheat are most popular in Russia. They can be served with butter, smetana (sour cream), fruit preserves or caviar.

Fish was important in pre-revolutionary cuisine, especially on Russian Orthodox fast days when meat was forbidden, similar to the Catholic custom of eating fish instead of meat on Fridays. Strictly freshwater fish such as carp, sudak, and anadromous sturgeon were commonly eaten in inland areas, and salmon and trout in northern areas. A greater variety of fish, including saltwater species, were preserved by salting, pickling or smoking and consumed as “zakuski” (hors d’oeuvres).

Welcome to the gastronomic Trans-Siberian Express, please unfasten your belt!!!

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