Russian Cuisine


Russian cuisine isn't all that exciting. It's what I call "evolved survival food". Basically, in times past, the people who lived in the Moscovy-Novgorod region didn't have very good farming soil and dealt with a very short growing season. Life was precarious and food supplies scarce, so the national cuisine that arose as a result is very much a meat-and-potatoes one with few variations on flavour. 

Contrast that with the cuisine that came out of the rich dark-earth regions of Ukraine, like cabbage rolls and pirogies, or the fierce and adventurous dishes of the Caucasus, such as plov' and shashlik, and Russian dishes just plain-old suck.

In the household that Katya grew up in, she was never introduced to any other cuisine except for Russian. Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian; all these styles and flavours were unthinkable to her. Her mother taught her a few simple Russian dishes but she grew up in the late 80's, when Soviet bread lines were the norm, and the early 90's, when chaos and Mafia wars raged on the streets and the economy was rocked by scandal after scandal. In this atmosphere Katya's family stuck to the basics: a piece of meat and and something starch-based. Mmm. Eat.

So as not to give the reader the wrong idea, I need to point out that Katya's mother is a great cook, and she has a storehouse of culinary knowledge in her head passed on to her by her mother. She can create sensational foods such as veriniki (pirogies in North America), Uzbekhi plov', Finnish pastries and other delights. Unfortunately for most of Katya's life her busy working mother and an uncertain economy meant that the bulk of the food made for Katya was Russia's "evolved survival food".

This means that today Katya can only cook Russian food, although she has mastered her mother's delicious plov' and her grandmothers fantastic chicken oladi' (more on that later).

Contrast that with myself. My mother was a free-spirited hippy in the sixties and seventies, and as a result I grew up trying pretty much every type of cuisine on the planet. I loved food so much that I wanted to be a master chef for my childhood and into my teen years. In my late teens I finally started a chef apprenticeship and learned Italian, American, British, Thai and Mediterranean dishes before I bombed out after two years when I realized I absolutely hated working in a restaurant!

Nevertheless the foundations for food creation were laid and I can not only reproduce some excellent ethnic foods from around the world, but I know how to assemble different ingredients and spices to create a particular flavour I'm aiming for. I was trained to cook steaks to perfection, and I recently created my own roast beef and Yorkshire pudding recipe that rivals my grandmothers. Give me a gas-fired stove and a convection oven and I can give you a mouth-watering feast.

This means that, in our home, I'm the cook. Which sucks for me. Katya doesn't like it, either.

I work at 4 am (I'm currently in aviation security), have a few hours off in the afternoon, and then work again until 8 pm. I have a mere hour and a half when I get home before I need to go to bed and wake up again. I don't have time to cook much of a meal and I'm frankly exhausted. Katya would like to cook, in fact, she would love to cook, meals for us (Russian women are proud of traditional roles and think feminists are insane), but her knowledge is limited to a few dishes. I'll eat what she cooks and make the necessary "Mmm" noises, but she knows I don't really enjoy a bowl of buckwheat porridge for supper.

So what do we do? We haven't figured it out yet. Katya can't check out some recipes from other cultures because she doesn't even know what the dishes are or what they are supposed to look and taste like. She does have a big book of Russian and Ukrainian recipes, complete with beautiful pictures, but she hasn't attempted to cook anything from it yet. I've been introducing her to different foods from around the world (she's taken a real shining to Mexican and Chinese food, but she's not big on Italian or American cuisine) and she even managed to create her own Chinese dish which is actually really tasty (we call it simply "Asian Food" as in "Would you like Asian Food tonight?").

So far, with my work schedule and her culinary abilities at loggerheads, we're basically eating sporadically and our diet includes a lot of Subway. It's something we will work on. Maybe I can buy her a couple of fun cooking classes, or learn to enjoy the flavourless mulch that is buckwheat. Time will tell...

Russian buckwheat porridge

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