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."