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Donald R. Houston

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Donald R. Houston

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           >> View all

Rus Cuisines: Eclectic By Nature - Parts 1 & 2
By Donald R. Houston   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, November 12, 2011
Posted: Saturday, March 04, 2006

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Rus cuisines are by nature eclectic, natural & individual depending upon the cook to make a dish distinctive as well as unique. Cooks use whatever is available when they are cooking. What you have to day may have the name as you will next week but may be very different each time it is prepared & served.

Rus cuisines are by nature eclectic, natural & individual depending upon the cook to make a dish distinctive as well as unique. Cooks use whatever is available when they are cooking. What you have to day may have the name as you will next week but may be very different each time it is prepared & served.

Many varied and sundry historical events have influenced this Rus cuisines as we know them today. Influences from such diverse originations as France, Germany, Ukraine, Turkey, China, Mongolia, Armenia, Hungary, the Baltics & more has all had direct influences upon modern Russian cuisine. Even the Americas have contributed to Russian cuisines with such things as tomatoes, potato’s & corn.

The origin of what is now Russian cuisine is & always has been Slavic. What we consider Russia began in Ukraine in the Kyivian Rus late in the 9th. Century. Tribal groups such as the Slavs, Khazars, Circassians, Pechenegs, Huns, Tartars, Turkic-Mongols all contributed relevant inclusions in the historical shaping of Rus cuisine. The most noticeable is the Slavic tastes particularly in the first courses for meals, usually soups.

Borscht is a Ukrainian contribution that has been expanded upon, mutated, altered & changed but no matter what remains. . . borscht! Dumplings such as pelmeni, chibureki, varenyky & kulibiaka all have their origins in Manchuria & Mongolia. Fermented vegetables, most notably cabbage, in the guise of kapusta & others make up a large part of the Winter diet when fresh vegetables are in short supply and originated with the Gothic tribal groups. Long before Marco Polo brought pasta back from China in the 13th. Century peoples of the Rus were eating pasta in the form of stuffed dumplings and had been doing so for since the same were introduced to them by caravan traders on the old Silk Road. The Huns under Attila, the caravan traders, later the Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbekh, Turkmen, Uigur & other Turkic-Mongols all contributed such notable additions to the diet of the Rus as kababs/shashlik, pelmeni, chibureki, varenyky & kulibiaka just to name a very few. All of these are now considered to be primary examples of Rus cuisine in Russia, Ukraine & Belorussia today.

Fats, starches, dairy products, red meats, smoked meats, dried meats, wild game & fresh, smoked & dried sea foods make up the major portion of the animal protein consumed in the Rus. Not everything is considered healthy today. In Ukraine pork lard or fat is called salo & is used as a flavoring, a cooking grease, a condiment & a taste expander. The amount of fats, triglycerides, cholesterols, etc. is horrendously high but the fact that very little foods are chemically augmented, chemically preserved & and thus are full of natural fiber, minerals, vitamins, other vital nutriments seems to alleviate the problems associated with such a diet in the Western countries such as the USA & Canada. This is not to say that coronary disease, hypertension, diabetes & other chronic & syndromic health problems do not exist. They do indeed exist but do not seem to be as exacerbated by the diet as they are in the West Particularly important is the exceptionally high fiber content of the natural foods. Fiber is a most important preventative asset in any diet.

Dairy products are essential & important in Rus cuisines. The most important are sour cream called smetana, farmer’s cheese akin to cottage cheese called tvorog & keffir which is like buttermilk without the butter in it. Secondary to be truthful but essential in the diet and thus the cuisine cheeses are lumped under the catchall term of sir but have specific designators referring to their taste, texture, color, etc.

Fruits play an important, critical & integral part in the cuisines. Eaten as they come from nature, added to salads, made into compotes, dried, pickled or as a main ingredient in a soup fruits are often the source of sweetness or tartness in a dish. Raspberry soup served cold is an excellent Summer sidedish or even a dessert soup. The traditional lemon soup of Ukraine is served cold & is a wonderful addition to any menu in Summer. Cherries dried or fresh make a simple stew something special.

Unlike Western countries the folk of the Rus have no specific “breakfast” foods. Whatever is made or leftover along with whatever the cook decides to make is breakfast. This holds true for almost everything. There are few cereal dishes that are served cold with milk that may be relegated mainly but not exclusively to breakfast.

In the Rus appetizers are deemed every bit as important as the main meal. The zakuska table is usually loaded down to the point of collapse with delicious offerings. A perennial favorite is pickled herring in sour cream with minced onions. Caviar is part of the zakuska. Fresh fruits & dried fruits along with smoked meats, smoked fish, fried dumplings, sauces, vegetable crudites, cheeses, breads and much, much more will completely cover the zakuska table at any gathering in the Rus. One can simply eat their meal at the zaksuka table This is not advised as you will then nit be able to enjoy the sumptuous repast that will follow the zakuski.

Soups of all types are synonymous with Rus cooking. The borschts of Ukraine, the chowders from the Baltic, clear broth based soups of western Russia, meaty stews of the Trans-Caucus, & others abound. Soups made from vegetables, made from fruits, made from grains & more are something that must be experienced to believe. Delicious & healthy as well as interesting to look upon.

Eateries of all types abound in all urban areas of today’s Rus. Every village has at least 1 place to eat & drink. In Kyiv, Ukraine, there are a number of restaurants serving individual cuisines from all over the Rus; Bulgarian, Albania, Armenian, Georgia, Ukrainian, Russian, Kazakhstani, Uzbekhi, Turkmeni, Taijikh, Baltic, Hungarian, etc. the same is also true of other Rus cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Rostov, Odessa, Sofia, Prague, Budapest, Kallingrad, etc. Whether it is a small café, a bistro, a table-café, a cafeteria, or a real restaurant the food will be plentiful. Shashlik open-air cafes abound in Summer but leave the scene when the Winter begins. Specialty eateries a such varenyky eateries, pelmeni eateries, shashlik eateries, etc. can be found by looking around. Traditional cuisine restaurants featuring food from the region are becoming popular because of the increased tourist trade since 1990.

Custom demands that a guest be offered food, drink & a place to rest in safety. Since the dawn of time these tenets have been the cornerstone of Rus hospitality. Despite the falsely negative information taught to children during the Soviet period the folk of the Rus remained openly hospitable to guests & visitors. Whether you go just pick someone up to go elsewhere or to just visit for a few minutes you will be offered something to eat & drink. Refusals are much better accepted by younger folk than the older folk. Refusing something offered by an old babushka is tantamount to severely insult her. About 4 years ago my car broke down just outside of a small village near Zhitomir. A farmer came by and began to speak with my driver & I. He was called Slava & offered to take us to the village about ½ a kilometer away on his tractor-drawn wagon. We went with him. Upon arriving at his home his wife, a pleasant woman who told us to call her Lena, began to ply us with tea, black bread, cheese, fruit compote, some excellent cookies, keffir & some fabulous pickles. Slava got his friend, Pavel, to look at the car while we ate. They came back after about an hour to tell us that the problem was fixed. We tried to pay them but were refused. I went back about a week later with some wine & some chocolates for them & once again was feted to a feast of good foods.

Preservation of foods is rarely done with chemicals as it is in the West. Drying, smoking salting, fermenting (pickling), sugaring & canning are the methods used to preserve foods. Throughout the Summer as vegetables & fruits become ripe they are harvested, used fresh, dried, sugared, compoted or canned either whole or as jam. Compoting is the simple process of taking equal amounts of fruit & sugar then adding this to boiling water & slowly boiling this, adding water if necessary until the fruit is soft to the point of disintegration. The resultant liquid is flavored with the fruit, is sweet & is used as beverage or more sugar added reduce to a thick syrup. The fruits are used to cook with or as desserts. Smoked fish & smoked meats are so integrated into Rus cuisines that one cannot see a feast with at least several smoked items. Fermentation & salting are sometimes used jointly as in the case of kapusta a kraut made all over the Rus. Jams are so well liked that you cannot go anywhere without being offered excellent homemade jams. Every home has someplace that is used to store the numerous jars & bottles of canned vegetables. If the family has a connection in village they go there to get their fresh vegetables, if they have a dacha they probably grow their own. Along ditches & small waterways anyone can grow their own vegetables. Food stuffs are purchased at gastronoms (small groceries), renoks (bazaars) & in urban areas supermarkets. I personally enjoy the renoks best. It is fun to shop for vegetables, meats, dairy products & even canned goods at the renoks where haggling is the only way to buy. Sampling is allowed & indeed is encouraged. Granted, there is less sanitation than in the West but by simply washing your hands, the produce & refrigerating the meats quickly after purchase you will satisfy the sanitation needs.

Beverages are varied & usually plentiful. Tea (chai) of course, coffee (much stronger than most Americans are used to drinking), keffir (much like buttermilk), peeva (beer), vino (wine), kompot (fruit juice in water with sugar), & last but not least sok (fruit juice). No mater what you will be offered drinks. Americans are so used to icing drinks that they will be amazed to be served a room temp Coke or juics.

Visiting the Rus is a gustatory experience not to be believed until & unless you visit there so you can experience it fristhand. Hopefully this article along with the previous article as well as the future articles will enable to vicariously experience & enjoy the cuisines of the Rus.


A Taste of Russia
By Darra Goldstein

The Georgian Feast
By Darra Goldstein
ISBN: 0060166460

Table Foods of Ukraine
By Galina R. Kosziuk,
In Russian & Ukrainian
Published in Kyiv, Ukraine 1999

The Goldens Feast of Russia
By Svetalana M. Pushkinova
In Russian
Published in Moscow, Russia 1998

© Donald R. Houston, PhD 2006-2011

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