Friday, December 18, 2009


Many people know the Russian word "ikra" as "caviar," but in fact, it is also means vegetable puree/pate. I have not been able to figure out the reason for the use of the same word to mean both things, but I'm guessing it has something to do with "ikra" being a spread of some type (?).

I like several versions of vegetable ikra very much. One is made with eggplant and the other with squash. The pictures in this post are of the squash version. The ingredients are squash, onions, carrots, tomatoes, vegetable oil, and a little cayenne pepper.

Many people make homemade ikra, and I used to love my host mom's baklazhannaya ikra (eggplant ikra) in Uzbekistan. The process of making ikra basically involves stewing a mixture of vegetables. Most people make a large batch and then can the extras for use during the wintertime, when fresh vegetables are more expensive.

Store-bought versions of ikra are also quite good, however, and usually do not contain many extra preservatives or artificial ingredients. The "Veres" version in these pictures is relatively inexpensive but good. As you can see below, it is basically a puree of vegetables with a rich flavor.

Ikra is good on bread or crackers, and I enjoy it on top of rice or pasta. I have heard that many people also use it as a sauce or type of marinade for meats. Although the picture below may not look too thrilling, the vegetable ikra itself is delicious!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Qovoqli Manti

When I lived in Uzbekistan, my host mom used to make me delicious homemade qovoqli honum (is this the correct spelling??), which is a steamed, rolled dumpling filled with pumpkin. I recently had the chance to eat at an Uzbek restaurant in Tatarstan and was excited to see that they served qovoqli manti, pumpkin-filled dumplings that are similar to honum.

These qovoqli manti were delicious and tasted very authentic, minus the chunks of beef fat I sometimes found in pumpkin manti in Uzbekistan. I am used to eating manti and honum with qatiq (a type of plain yogurt) on top. Here they were served with an herb yogurt, which was also delicious.
In addition to manti, we had Uzbek flatbread and black tea that the server poured into a teacup and back into the pot three times, as is a tradition in Uzbekistan. The food was served on traditional blue-and-while Uzbek china, and in the background there was Uzbek music playing. All of this made me miss Uzbekistan and my friends there!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tatar Pies

While in Kazan for a week and a half, I've been exploring Tatar food again. Tatar food includes elements of Russian and Central Asian cuisine, as well as unique regional dishes.

One of my favorite aspects of Tatar food are the many pastries. I've already written about gubadiya, which is a pie filled with rice, kort (a curd cheese), and raisins. I've also written about kystybyy, which are like tortillas filled with potatoes. In addition, there are pastries filled with chicken and rice and other assorted elements.

For an American, however, one of the most exciting elements of Tatar cuisine is that there are pastries that look like American pies! The slice above is from a pie made with dried lemons, apricots, and prunes. The tartness of the lemons mixes with the sweetness of the apricots and prunes for a sharp but sweet dessert. Delicious! There are also pies made with sour cream (and sometimes cranberries) that look and even taste somewhat like cheesecake.

Monday, November 30, 2009


I have recently discovered "bitochki." Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a good translation for bitochki; my favorite online dictionary says they are "round rissoles" or "minced collops," which means absolutely nothing to me. My guess is that the word comes from the Russian verb "bit," which means "to beat, strike, or smash." In fact, this is what bitochki are: pancakes made of flour and some kind of smashed/grated vegetable. They are very much like potato pancakes, which most Americans are familiar with, but are often made with vegetables other than potatoes.

The plate of bitochki above are cauliflower bitochki. I have also tried broccoli and squash bitochki, which are both very good. All have a mild flavor and basically taste like a mildly flavored pancake. However, they oftentimes have a very strong scent! The first batch of broccoli bitochki I bought to take with me to a group gathering smelled so strongly of onions and garlic that I thought maybe they had gone bad! My friends assured me that they hadn't, and we all gobbled them up.

Traditionally, bitochki are eaten warm with sour cream, but I personally like them just as much cold and plain, eaten like a piece of bread! They make for a fast and filling snack when I'm on the go!

To my surprise, I have seen some things labeled "bitochki" that I did not expect, like the potato pattie below. I have seen these thicker patties, which usually are made only or primarily from potatoes rather than a mixture of the vegetable with flour, labeled both "bitochki" and "potato cutlets." They are also delicious but are much thicker and more of a pattie than a pancake. I'm not sure the way I eat them is traditional, but I enjoy them with fried vegetables like you can see in the picture below and often some sour cream on top.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Today I want to write about a fruit that is popular in this part of the world but difficult to find in most parts of the United States. Khurma (persimmon) is easy to find and regularly eaten here in Russia, but many Americans have never tasted it.

According to Wikipedia, the English word "persimmon" comes from Powhatan, an Algonquian language related to Blackfoot, Cree, and Mohican, and means "dry fruit." Unfortunately, I do not know the origin of the Russian word "khurma," but I know that in Uzbek the word is very similar -- "xurmo."

"Dry fruit" is a good way to describe persimmon. It is a very dense, stiff fruit that looks a little like a tomato on the outside but is not at all as soft and watery as a tomato on the inside. In fact, you might say it is even dry, hense the Powhatan word. Being dry is not a common quality for fruits, so this makes the taste unusual. The consistancy is more like a potato than like most fruit, and the flavor is very sweet but in a dry way -- like dry red wine almost.

If you eat persimmon when it is too ripe or too unripe, it has a way of coating your mouth with a strange film. However, if it is eaten when perfectly ripe, it has a pleasant, rich, and deep flavor. Below is a picture of how I eat mine -- cut into slices. Dried persimmons are also fairly common worldwide, and some cultures such as Korean and Japanese make fruit punch using persimmons. Here in Russia -- as far as I can tell -- it is most popular just to eat persimmon raw like I do.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Armenian Lavash

I have found two types of "lavash" in Russia -- Georgian and Armenian. Georgian lavash is more or less like Central Asian flatbread -- relatively flat leavened bread. Armenian lavash, on the other hand, is like a giant tortilla. The picture I have here is of Armenian lavash made in a tandir (clay oven), so it has darkened spots from the high heat of the oven. Lavash not made in this way is more homogenously white and looks exactly like a tortilla (although larger)! In fact, it is made with flour, water, and salt, just like a tortilla! Versions of lavash are also eaten in Iran, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

Although lavash is often eaten with kebabs as a kind of wrap, I personally enjoy mine by itself with a little melted butter spread on top. They could also be used as tortillas to make Mexican food, but I haven't tried that here, since my favorite part of Mexican food is cheddar cheese and is pretty difficult to come by in Russia. The lavash dries out quite quickly, though -- faster than tortillas -- so you have to eat it fast!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sparzha -- Asparagus

I have discovered that sparzha (asparagus) is eaten in a different way in Russian than it usually is in the U.S. Here the more popular version is white asparagus rather than green asparagus, and it is frequently put into salads in a way that makes it almost have the consistancy of meat. This, of course, is ideal for a vegetarian!

The picture on to the left is of a popular salad that sparzha is added to. The salad is often called "morkov po-koreysky" (basically, Korean carrot salad). Korean salads in general are a very interesting subject. They are very popular in Russia and in Central Asia and are usually made with a vegetable of some type (most commonly carrots or cabbage). They seem to me to be a version of kim-chi that perhaps has changed slightly outside of Korea or perhaps was made differently by the Koreans who brought it to Russia and Central Asia.

Personally, I have never succeeded in making these salads as well as the ones I've bought, so I'm not sure what the secret is, but I think they are delicious. The carrot salad is usually made with carrots, onions, and garlic mixed with vegetable oil, vinegar, sugar, salt, and red pepper. If you speak Russian (and even if you don't -- there are good pictures), check out this recipe.

Recently, I have found versions of this carrot salad with sparzha added to it like the one above (the white vegetable on top of the carrots is the asparagus). The sparzha has a chewy texture and a very mild taste that is pleasant. If anyone can tell me how to make the asparagus taste like this, please let me know! I think it is just sliced lengthwise and perhaps flash-cooked in boiling water or steamed. Delicious!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I have been sick the past couple of days, so I've taken advantage of this opportunity to eat lots of kasha and drink lots of Kalmyk tea. I've also tried a mix for Russian kisel that I bought a while ago. Kisel is a semi-thick juice that is eaten as a dessert or can be a drink if diluted with milk.

I did not make homemade kisel but instead used a mix from the grocery store that reminded me a little of Kool-Aid. The directions say to mix it with cold water in a small portion and then mix that cold water mix into hot water and boil. This is what I did to create a sort of thickened gel dessert/drink. It is sweet, smooth, and refreshing. When I was in Elista about a month ago, I also tried the more liquid version mixed with milk and enjoyed it. This is more like a berry milkshake almost.

Homemade kisel is made by mixing and heating berries, water, and sugar to create a syrup and then adding potato start to thicken the mixture. The process appears to be relatively simple (see the recipe here), but until I feel a little better, I'm going to be making mine using a packet!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Kalmyk Tea: More Detailed Information

A Kalmyk friend of one of my friends passed along a very interesting and informative article about the history and rituals associated with Kalmyk tea. I wanted to pass along the article so you could read it also.

My translation from Russian is below. I apologize that parts are not particularly smooth, but I think you will get the basic idea. I tried to make parts as colloquial as they could be in English but still retain the main ideas from the origin. (Natalia and Andrei, please correct my Russian translations from the original! Thank you again to both of you.)

Kalmyk Tea

"Kalmyks konw of a legend in which the origin of their tea is related to the religious reformer Tszonkhava (Lama Tsonkap). The legend was put into writing by the author of an article in 1980 based on information from Ovshin Ernzhen (1918-1988).

A variant of this legend is available in the anthology "Khalmg Tuuls" (published in Elista, Russia). It says that one day, Tszonkhava fell sick and appealed to a well-known healer. The healer prescribed him a certain drink that he called "divine" and recommended that Tszonkhava take it for seven days on an empty stomach. Following the advice of the healer, Tszonkhava was cured of his illness on the seventh day, which corresponded with the 25th day of the lunar calendar month Bars. Because of this event, on this day Tsvonkhava commanded all believers to light a candle to honor the Buddha, add one year to his age, and prepare his healing drink, later called "Khalmg Tse" ("Jomba") by the Kalmyks.

After this time, Kalmyks began to celebrate the holiday Zul in dedication to this event, and on this holiday the most esteemed dish became Kalmyk tea. Also in memory of the healing miracle, they began to daily carry out the tea ritual of presentation to the divine.

Another source (Khamg Tuuls, 2, Elista, 1968) says that Kalmyk tea was known long before the time when the Kalmyk's ancestors began to eat meaty food. At that time, there was a prohibition on eating food with meat.

This source reports that one Lama decided to create a vegetarian dish that would provide the same calories as meat dishes. With this goal, he recited a special prayer for 30 days. According to the legend, thanks to the prayer invocation, a miraculous culture arose to the Lama on the 30th day. This is how the Kalmyks got the tea that became their most esteemed food. From this time forward, the average day for a Kalmyk started with tea, and not a single holiday passed without it.

Special relations related to tea as a "divine drink" came to define the specific tea ritual of the Kalmyks. Many customs exist related to ceremonial preparation and presentation of Kalmyk tea. We have settled on a few that are presented below.

It is considered a good sign when a person has the luck to find someone at morning tea. In this situation, the hosts of the home say, "Sen kuune amn tosta" ("A good perosn always finds nourishing food") and invite the visitor to take part in the morning tea-drinking. As a rule, Kalmyks never refuse this kind of invitation because a successful solution to the start of work begins with morning tea, which is confirmed in the proverb: "Orun tse uupad iarkhla, kerg kutskh" ("If you drink tea from the morning, work is fulfilled").

Offering unfresh tea, even in the most constraining circumstances, is considered extremely improper. This is why the preparation of tea is performed in the presence of a guest. If in the process of tea preparation, the hostess commits a blunder, this is interpreted by the guest as disrespect to him.

What kind of rules should the hostess follow when preparing and presenting Kalmyk tea?

1. First, it is forbidden to prepare tea with simple boiling water; tea leaves should be added to it. Plain boiled water is used only in exceptional circumstances such as a time of sickness, extreme poverty, etc. Anticipating the possibility of this, people will boil water and add one of the ingredients of traditional tea (salt, tea leaves, drops of milk).

2. All movements during the tea preparation and ritual of tea presentation are done from the left to the right, like the path of the sun. In the foundation of this rule, one can see remnants of the sun cult, which had enormous significance for Kalmyks. It is thought that carrying out circular motions, people hope that life and all good intiatives will irreversibly move forward in agreement with the laws of the dialectic.

3. After the tea is well brewed, it is salted, milk is added to taste and so is nutmet, which has been ground with butter. Then the tea is carefully mixed with a ladle.

4. The first serving of prepared tea is presented to the Buddha. The tea is poured into a sacrificial teacup, which should be permanently located on an altar. After a certain period of time has passed, this tea is given to children, especially to boys.

5. It is known that Kalmyks traditionally worshipped the sun, moon, and earth. For this reason, they regularly performed ceremonies of sacrifice to the heavenly bodies and the earth and related in a special way to forms that were reminiscent of the objects of the cult. For example, for Kalmyks it was forbidden to pass through the threshold of a caravan wagon with a round frame or to carry into the home a cup with broken edges. Dishes intended for guests should correspond to the canon of traditional etiquette. A Kalmyk proverb says: "Give the best food to a guest." The quality of the serving dish should match the quality of the food. A guest could entirely refuse tea if it is served in a cup with broken edges or if while presenting it, the index finger dips into the cup of tea.

6. The person presenting tea should carry the cup with both hands level with his chest, so as to specially demonstrate his respect and heartfelt affection to the guest. In the past, the presentation ritual was carried out in a kneeling posture, since the Kalmyk's ancestors drank tea sitting on the ground or at a low table.

7. During the presentation of tea, the hierarchy of those presentation is strictly observed: tea is served first to the eldest, whether or not he is a guest, relative, or someone else. If the addressee is a member of the clergy or an important government official, then the presentation ritual is carried out by the host of the home.

8. The receiving presentation should take the cup in both hands, perform the ritual of aspersion (tsatsl tsatskh) with the ring finger of the right hand, and pass on wishful thinking, in which good wishes are addressed to the drink itself, the person, the tea being served, and to his family. The speaker, as a rule, also mentions himself.

9. Having drunk the tea, Kalmyks return the empty dish to the host. It is forbidden to turn an empty cup upside down. This is akin to a curse.

The tea ceremony is only one of many ceremonies and rituals of the Kalmyks. However, in it reverberates the Kalmyk national character, their religious devotion, their enviable continuity, and their allegiance to the traditions and practices of their ancestors."

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tatar Dairy Products

As you can tell, I'm a big fan of dairy products of all types. In Tatarstan, I've tried a few dairy products than are different from the products in other parts of Russia. One is Katyk (pictures above), and the other is kort (below).

I first became familiar with katyk in Uzbekistan, where it is called qatiq. I thought that qatiq was simply the Uzbek word for kefir, but now I have learned that the two products are actually different. In Tatarstan, kefir and katyk are sold side-by-side but are not the same. Kefir has a much more bitter, sharp flavor, while katyk is milder and is basically like plain yogurt. Like kefir, however, it is usually drunk rather than eaten with a spoon.

I have been unable to figure out exactly the difference in how kefir and katyk are made and why they taste different. If anyone has the answer, please let me know! I think that katyk is simply a less sharp version of kefir more like yogurt.

Another interesting Tatar dairy product is kort, which I also heard of in Central Asia but do not remember having tried. Kort is similar to tvorog and but is cooked. It is a curd cheese that is drier than tvorog and a little less sweet. One explanation I have found for how kort is made is that a starter culture is added to milk as it is boiled down to form kort, which is darker in color than tvorog, probably because it has been cooked. It's flavor is very mild, and it is traditionally mixed with butter, baked with honey, and eaten with tea. As I explained in an earlier post, it is also baked into pastries like gudabiya.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


A traditional Tatar dessert that is also popular in other parts of Russia and in nearby countries is Chak-Chak. In some ways, I can liken it to a giant rice-krispie treat. The dessert is made with a dough of flour, sugar, milk, and eggs that is cut into small pieces and then fried. Next the pieces are coated with a honey/sugar mixture and formed into a shape. Here in Tatarstan, you can find different shapes of chak-chak sold as gifts and party desserts. Usually they come in the form of large pyramids wrapped in festive paper with bows.

The picture below shows a less festive square-shaped mass of chak-chak. Although it may appear that you could eat the pieces of chak-chak individually, in fact, they are all bound together by the honey/sugar mixture, much as the rice krispies in a rice-krispie treat are bound together with marshmellow. To eat chak-chak, you need to pull off a piece or cut it with a knife. The flavor is pleasantly sugary and doughy without being sickeningly sweet.

For a recipe, see this link.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gubadiya: More Tatar Cuisine

Yesterday I said that had not been able to find Gubadiya anywhere, but today I ran across it at a local grocery store here in Tatarstan. It is a small pie -- a little larger than your hand -- that has melted "kort" on the top of it. Kort is a traditional Tatar dairy product made from tvorog and milk that is similar to sweet cottage cheese.
Not having had gubadiya before or knowing what to expect, I thought that perhaps it would be filled entirely with kort, like a Tatar version of a Russian pirizhok. However, when I bit into it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. As you can see below, it was filled with a layer of kort at the bottom with a mixture of rice and raisons on top. According to one recipe I have seen, it also sometimes contains dried apricots, but this version had only raisins, rice, and kort. It was a delicious combination of sweet and salty flavors and makes for a filling and nutritious snack or small meal.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tatar Cuisine: Kystybyy & "Nauruz"

This week I am visiting Tatarstan and as a result have the chance to taste some traditional Tatar foods. A few foods I will not be taste-testing because they have meat in them, but they sound interesting:

- Duslyk: A cold appetizer of smoked horsemeat topped with boiled potatoes and pickled onions.

- Elesh: a small pot-pie like dish filled with chicken and potatoes

- Ech-pochmak -- a triange of dough stuff with beef, potato, onion, and butter

I have tried several other foods, however. One of these is kystybyy, which I have had several times and enjoy very much. They half-moon-shaped fried pastries made with unleavened dough not unlike a tortilla and stuffed with mashed potatoes. I have had them with melted butter and a little salt sprinkled on top for a very delicious warm appetizer or a main dish.

Another dish I have tried and enjoyed was simply called "Appetizer Nauruz." Nauruz is the Central Asian New Year celebration held in March. I'm not sure whether this dish is usually eaten at Nauruz or not, but it is quite good. It's a cold appetizer of raw tomatoes stuffed with thinly sliced apples, shredded cheese, and walnuts in a mayonnaise sauce. I am usually not a particular fan of raw tomotoes, but the slight sweetness of the apples combined with the acidity of the tomato mixes extremely well.

There are a few other Tatar dishes I hope to have the chance to try while here. One of these is Gubadiya "Uyenchek," which is supposed to be a pie of unleavened dough not too different from kystybyy but stuffed with rice, raisins, dried apricots, kort (a dairy product similar to tvorog), egg, and butter. I have not been able to find a place that is serving this, however.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Flavored Milk

A reader of the blog, Irina, mentioned that when she was last in Russia, she noticed the phenomenon of "flavored milk." I decided to take a look and taste some if I could find it. I did not find a huge selection but did see two different brands of flavored milk for sale at the grocery story: Chudo (which is a popular maker of flavored yogurts) and Neo/Mazhitel.

Both brands sell small boxes of flavored milk that come with straws, probably aimed at children and perhaps adults on the go. I decided to try to Neo/Mazhitel version because it came in more original flavors. The Chudo brand came in predictable flavors like vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, while Neo/Mazhitel sold a peach/passionfruit version.

I tasted the peach/passionfruit version and found that it tasted like juice with a little milk in it. It was much thinner than I expected and much less milky. The box promotes the product as "vitamins, milk, juice." This seems to be a pretty good description of the taste, although in that case, I would change the order to "juice, milk, vitamins." It tastes like sweet peach/passionfruit juice with a little milk flavor and a vague sense that you might be getting some Vitamin C by drinking it. Healthier or more tasty than regular milk? I think I will stick with unflavored milk and have my juice on the side! Nonetheless, an interesting product.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tvorozhniki: Another Tvorog Creation

Since I bought 400 grams of tvorog the other day and am leaving for a trip this weekend, I have been eating a lot of tvorog this week. One of my favorite ways to eat it with simply with honey or cranberry jam and smetana drizzled over the top, but today I decided to try a new recipe: Tvorozhniki Po-Suzdalski (or Suzdal-Style Tvorozhniki). Suzdal is a historic city located about 20 miles north-east of Moscow.

The photo of tvorozhniki in my Russian cookbook shows a bowl of white amorphous balls of tvorog that look sticky and are sitting in a small amount of water. It didn't look the most appealing, but the recipe sounded easy, so I thought I would give it a try. The end result was a little different than the picture in the book and different than I expected, but I enjoyed it.

Tvorozhniki Po-Suzdalski (Suzdal-Style Tvorozhniki)
Makes 1-2 servings

100 grams tvorog
1 egg
Flour (up to 5 teaspoons)
Pinch of salt
Honey and sour cream for drizzling on before serving

Thoroughly mix tvorog, a pinch of salt, and one egg. It will form a very wet dough. Add flour by the teaspoon to thicken . I mixed in 4 heaping teaspoons, until the dough reached the consistency of oatmeal (see pictures below).

Bring a pot of water to a boil and add a small amount of vegetable oil. Drop large spoonfuls of the tvorog dough into boiling water. When they rise to the top, remove them with a slotted spoon and put them on a plate. There will likely be small chunks of tvorog that escape, and you can add those to the plate as well. (They taste just as good as the larger chunks!) When all have been cooked, drizzle with honey and sour cream and enjoy.

The picture on the left is my final product. It is somewhat difficult to see, but there are several masses of tvorozhniki on the plate. Unlike the picture in my cookbook, I had many small chunks rather than large round masses. To get larger masses that stick together, you probably need to add a little more flour to the dough.

Nonetheless, my tvorozhniki tasted quite good. They were the consistency of very soft scrambled eggs and even tasted a little like them, but with a sweet tvorog flavor. Paired with honey and sour cream, they made for a warm, soft and slightly sweet brunch!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tvorog & Syrniki

Tvorog is one of the most interesting and, in my opinion, delicious Russian dairy products. It is literally "curd cheese," and is often translated as "cottage cheese," but it is very different from American cottage cheese. As you can see in the picture on the left, it looks like curds of cheese but can also be pressed together in a more solid block that slightly resembles cream cheese. It is slightly chewy but generally soft and a little sweet. It comes in several different versions. The one in the front of this picture is "skim," while the one in the back is "rich" (whole-milk). You can also buy it with raisins, apricots, and other dried fruits mixed in.

You can do any number of things with tvorog, from eating it straight or with sugar to putting it inside bliny (crepe-style pancakes) to baking it into cakes. You can also make "syrniki," which are patties of tvorog that are fried and usually topped with sour cream and jam or honey. I have tried these several times, having purchased them in premade from from the grocery store and reheated them, but today I decided to try to make my own.

I have two Russian cuisince cookbooks -- one in English that is aimed at foreigners and one in Russian aimed at Russians. I tried the recipe in the Russian version and have listed it below with recommendations. The syrniki turned out well, and I highly recommend the recipe.

Makes 6 medium-sized patties

200 grams (about a cup) tvorog
1 cup flour
1 to 1.5 TBSP sugar
1 egg
Salt to taste (about 1/2 tsp)
Oil for frying
Mix tvorog, flour, sugar, egg (beaten), and salt in a bowl. Form small balls with the dough by rolling it in your hands. Then smash these balls so that they form flat patties. Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Put two patties into the skillet at a time and fry on each side. When golden, remove and keep warm until all are prepared. Top with sour cream and honey or jam.

When I made mine, I added a little too much flour, and they tasted slightly too doughy, so I recommend starting with 3/4 cup of flour and working your way up to a full cup, possibly adding more if necessary. I also recommend not skimping on the salt. For me, this addition really makes or breaks the overall flavor.

There are some reicpes that call mixing in grated carrots, apples, and raisins, which would also be delicious.

If you are in the States, you can often find tvorog for sale at Russian and European grocery stores, and I hear you can make it yourself, but I don't have an exact recipe. I'll work on finding one and try it when I get back to the U.S. The biggest challenge in the U.S. is that most milk is pasteurized, which makes it hard to make your own curd cheese.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Syrok -- Russian "Mini-Cheesecake"

For weeks, I stared in fascination and fear at the small packages labeled "syrok" at the local grocery store. They were in the section with yogurt and appeared to be targeted at children and women. "Syr" means cheese, and so I knew they were little cheese snacks, but I could not figure out why the packages advertised flavors like cherry, caramel, vanilla, apricot, and even chocolate. I imagined these syrok to be like string cheese, and I could not imagine how string cheese would taste with such sweet flavors.

On my first business trip, I found myself standing in a grocery store in Tatarstan with my Russian partner, trying to figure out what to eat for a fast lunch. Suddenly, I noticed the syrok packages. "What ARE these?" I asked her in horror. She laughed and told me to try one, assuring me that I would like it. I picked out one with apricot and bought it.

Outside the store, I opened the package and instead of the string cheese I had imagined, I found a chocolate-covered nugget of tvorog! Tvorog is often translated into English as "cottage cheese," but I think this gives an entirely incorrect impression of tvorog. In fact, it's more like a cross between American-style cottage cheese and cream cheese. It's a slightly sweet curd cheese that reminds me vaguely of the cheese in American cheesecake -- sweet, rich, and smooth. Russians eat it with sugar and cream for breakfast, baked into squares for breakfast or a dessert, or inside bliny (crepe-like pancakes) and pirozhki (pastries). I will write more about tvorog in future blog entries because it's a fascinating dairy product and one of my very favorites.

The syrok is a perfect use of tvorog and reminds me very much of American cheesecake. There are numerous versions of the syrok sold in grocery stores here, as you can see from the picture above. Almost all are coated with a thin layer of chocolate. Inside, some have tvorog that has been flavored with chocolate, vanilla, or some fruit, while others have unflavored tvorog with a fruit jam or chocolate filling in the center. My personal favorites are the the ones with jam inside and a graham-cracker-like cookie on the bottom of the "mini-cake." I think that caramel filling, chocolate filling, and apricot are the best I have tasted.

Below is a picture of the inside of a syrok. This one was flavored with apricot but did not have a jam filling. As far as I know, these syrok are a new, mass-marketed creation, but the idea likely goes back historically. People often make baked bars out of tvorog, and there are patties called "syrniki" that are made of fried tvorog. I will write more about these and other uses for tvorog in the future.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Sampling of Two Russian Dairy Products

Dairy products are one of the highlights of Russian cuisine, and there are several products that are difficult to find in the U.S. that are very common here. Two of these are kefir and ryazhenka.

Kefir has become more popular in the U.S. recently, and I have seen in sold in some American grocery stores, but usually with fruit flavoring added. In Russia, kefir is sold as a natural dairy product without added flavoring. In fact, "all natural" is an important aspect for many Russians when buying products and especially when buying dairy products, although fruit-flavored yogurts are also quite popular.

Kefir looks like a cross between milk and yogurt, with an-ever-so-slightly chunky texture, and it has a sharp bite to it. It is made using a bacteria culture to ferment milk, and historically, people did this at home, but today most Russians buy kefir in a package at the grocery store. I have looked for fresh kefir at the markets here but have not seen any.

Ryazhenka is similar in flavor to kefir but milder. It is less sharp but still slightly sharper than plain yogurt, and it has a smooth texture. As you might be able to see in the picture below, kefir (on the left) is pure white, while ryazhenka (on the right) has a brown tint. This is because ryazhenka is baked fermented milk. this was historically made by baking fermented milk in an oven or on low heat on the stove for several hours, but again, Russians today usually just buy it at the grocery store.

Most Russians simply drink kefir and ryazhenka straight, but if you want, you can use them in other ways. They are good mixed with fresh or dried fruit and nuts, and I enjoy substituting them for milk with granola and muesli or pouring a little on top of oatmeal. I have also heard that ryazhenka can be used as a substitute for buttermilk when making pancakes, but I have not tried this myself. Let me know if you have any suggestions or ideas about how to eat kefir and ryazhenka!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Kalmyk Tea

Several weeks ago I visited the city of Elista, capital of the semi-autonomous Kalmyk Republic in south-western Russia. The Kalmyks are a Mongolic people and were historically Buddhist. They have a fascinating and sometimes tragic history (including deportation under Stalin's rule) that is far too long for me to elaborate on here, but I highly recommend reading more about the Kalmyks.

Although today most Kalmyks speak Russian and have adopted many Russian traditions, they have also retained many of their own. Traditional Kalmyk food is one arena where this can be seen. In Elista, I tried several Kalmyk dishes, but the one that intrigued me most was Kalmyk tea (Kalmytskiy chay). This is a black tea made with milk, butter, and salt. It was clearly developed for a nomadic people -- the salt was probably used to keep the tea from freezing in cold temperatures (and maybe for preservation?), and the butter and milk make it nourishing.

I found Kalmyk tea to be a real "comfort food." I can best describe it with the words warmth and nourishment. It's great when you feel tired, hungry, and cold. After I drank it, I felt like a had a stomach full of rich, warm calories that stuck with me for hours! I have to admit, however, that the predominate taste for me was butter, so it was a little like drinking a cup of butter.
Today I decided to try to make my own Kalmyk tea. I found a few recipes online. This is a good one for English speakers, and this one and this one are in Russian. They suggest that you might add nutmeg or bay leaves, which might give the tea a deeper flavor, but the version I have tried had neither of these, so I made mine without it.
The recipes give directions for making a large amount of tea, and I only wanted one cup, so I modified them a little, and my version turned out very close to the original. It is remarkably easy to make, and I highly recommend giving it a try.

Kalmyk Tea
Makes one teacup
1 cup water
1/4 cup milk (I recommend not using skim milk)
1 black tea bag (or loose tea -- this is the more authenitc way to make it)
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Pour the water into a tea kettle or saucepan and bring to a boil. When the water comes to a boil, add the tea bag or tea leaves. Boil for 2-3 minutes. Remove leaves or bag and turn heat down to low.
2. Add milk, butter, and salt. Heat until butter has melted. (If you want to try it with nutmeg, add some here.)
3. Pour into a cup and enjoy!
I think I added closer to 3/4 tablespoon of butter when I made it, and the taste was a little overwhelming. Aim for 1/2, and if even that seems like too much for your Western obsession with low-fat, start with 1/4 tablespoon and then taste the tea with a spoon while it's over the heat and add more to taste. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Searching for Flatbread in Moscow

It feels strange to start a Russian food blog with an entry about Central Asian flatbreads, but since Central Asia was my "entrance" into an interest in Russia, perhaps it makes sense. Having lived in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, I love Central Asian breads and pastries, and I have been in search of these since arriving in Moscow. Luckily, it has not been difficult to find them, since I have found that Central Asian and Caucasian flavors are very important here in Russia and are widely available and loved.

Finding flatbreads in the center of Moscow has proven somewhat difficult, but I have found several suppliers in outlying areas. Most are located at or near bazaars. I'm still in search of more places and welcome suggestions. I am in search of traditional Central Asian non (lepyoshka in Russian) and other pastries.

So far, I have found a stand in the perekhod at the Voykovskaya Metro station, two places at the Gorbushka market by the Bagrationovskaya Metro station, and a shop attached to a vendor selling shaurma (similar to a gyro) by the Ismailovskiy market near the Partizanskaya Metro station. The stand at Voykovskaya had Caucassian-style flatbreads: Georgian and Armenian lavash. Armenian lavash is widely available in grocery stores here and is similar to a very large tortilla, while the Georgian style is more difficult to find but closely resembles Central Asian non, which is thicker. At this stand, I bought a Georgian-style lavash and was pleasantly surprised. The last such lavash I tried tasted like loaf bread that was shaped in flatbread form and had too much baking soda added to it! This version was very good and very close to the Central Asian bread I'm familiar with.

The shop at Ismailovskiy market was a typical grocery with candy, dairy products, and drinks but also had some fresh bread products. As a result, I did not expect great things from the flatbread and was again pleasantly surprised. It was fresh, and the bottom was charred like it would have been if it had been cooked in a tandir oven. This lent it a sense of authenticity and a great flavor.

My favorite place for Central Asian flatbread, however, is Gorbushka market. Here I have seen two different stands with flatbreads. I have yet to try one of them, which looked more Caucasian than Central Asian. There they sell khachapuri (a Georgian cheese-filled pastry), round flatbread, and flatbread with a hole in the middle. The other place is completely Central Asian, serving non, patir non, and somsa (the Uzbek spelling). There were two young Uzbek men working there when I stopped by, and they were pleasantly surprised that I spoke Uzbek. I tried their non and patir, which are pictured above. Both are very good. The patir is not the style I am familiar with, which is very flat, white, and flaky. Instead, it is thicker and denser but nonetheless delicious. The non tastes just like it does in Central Asia and is cooked in a tandir oven just inside the stand, so if you can get it while it's hot, you are in for a real treat!