I cannot leave this without talking about Russian food. Along with walking several miles a day, it is one of the reasons that I have lost 15 pounds this month.
Most of the calories in the Russian diet come from bread (“kleb”), potatoes, and cabbage, and it colors a lot of what they do.
You could never get a Russian to understand the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread!” Sliced bread has been available in the supermarkets for several years and almost no one wants it. Russian bread comes in two sizes, a small loaf and a big loaf. The big loaf is twice as big as the small loaf and about half of the size of loaf of American bread – and weights about the same. They don’t add preservatives, coloring, vitamins, minerals or fillers. It comes out heavier, slightly darker, and delicious. This has been a poor county, and the attitude toward bread reflects the fact that the bread is not a garnish, but a major source of the calories in the meal.
They refer to American style bread as “air bread” and wonder how Americans can eat all that stuff that the bakeries add to what might have been perfectly good bread.
Since the bread is stiffer than “air bread” and as everyone has at least one good sharp bread knife, they get slices when they want them – sort of. I’ve seen uncle Victor cut slices that look like they came out of a machine. Me, I’m lucky if I don’t cut my fingers.
Order a meal in a Russian restaurant and they will always serve a substantial basket of bread with it. It’s not for looks, people eat it. The typical Russian man eats with two hands. One hand works the fork and the other holds the bread. Bite of goulash, big bite of bread, bite of goulash, drink of beer, bite of bread… He eats with gusto, like a hungry man should. Seems more natural than the sissy way American men eat. Women are more delicate. They usually put down the bread between bites.
There are sandwiches on the menus, but not on the plates. Order a sandwich and you will get slices of meat and a basket with hand cut slices of bread.
There is meat, but it is mostly “farsh”. Now farsh would be your mother’s meatloaf – if farsh tasted better and had more meat in it. There’s pork farsh, lamb farsh, beef farsh, and chicken farsh, but you don’t always know what you’re getting. Sometimes they just tell you that it is “meat farsh”. To make farsh, you grind the meat up into an unrecognizable paste, add rice and/or flour and/or cabbage and/or onions and/or eggs and whatever else you have handy. Sorta like the hobo stew of meats. It exists both because meat is very expensive for the average family in Russia, and the animals are NOT corn fed. The difference between a beef steak and the sole of your shoe is mainly shape and color. Once you grind it up and add a lot of filler, it is both edible and tasteless.
One of the first things that my mother in law wanted when she visited us was a grinding machine to make her farsh. I couldn’t convince her that American meat was actually edible and she ground EVERYTHING. She even reground the hamburger to make it a finer farsh paste. She ground chicken meat, pork steaks, roasts, and damned near got to my porterhouse steak before I stopped her. Even the cat was hiding its tail and looking worried.
Aside from farsh, most of what you find in the stores is sausage or salami. In chunks of course, there isn’t such a thing as “sliced lunch meat.” When I asked Larisa to bring home some bacon, it was Canadian bacon, which looks like sausage. When I asked for ham, it was a tube of ham about the size of Canadian bacon, which looks like sausage.
There is a lot of fish, but the other major meat is the answer to the great American mystery, “Where did the dark meat go?” Most Americans drink light beer and prefer white meat when we eat chicken. As a result, Campbells makes its chicken noodle soup with all white meat and every fast food restaurant has “all white meat” chicken nuggets. Now, if McDonalds sell millions of chicken’s worth of white meat, what do they do with the dark meat?
A lot of it goes to Russia, where they call it “Bush legs.” Russians like the dark meat, and we ship thousands of containers of legs and thighs to them every year. It’s tasty, cheap protein and Russians love it. It’s been the subject of regulation, trade war, and discord, but Bush legs are still a major trade item.
Of course, they fix it differently, and boiled chicken is just not to my taste. In America, we boil the chicken carcass, strip the meat from it, and then add vegetables to make soup. My mother in law skips the stripping step. She, like a lot of Russian housewives, adds the chicken parts whole – bones and all. My wife gets upset when I call it “chicken bone soup.”
By the way, Russians are real careless about bones and cartilage. When cooking, they attack a piece of meat with a cleaver and more gusto than care. Even in restaurants, the shish kabobs and goulash will choke you if you get careless. Watch for bones and stay alive.
Occasionally, some people do eat real meat, mostly pork. There are a few stores that carry cuts of meat under plastic on foam trays, but the normal way to order meat is to point at the area of the carcass that you want and watch while the vendor hacks it off with a saw and a cleaver. Not for me. I have pictures, but I won’t send them.
When people think of exotic foods and different cuisines, they usually think of something really different, like the French love for nasty, slimy, aquatic bugs (snails) or weird spices like the hot stuff from India. However, economics and history can make significant changes in simple, common, ordinary foods.
I’ve already touched on how bread is treated differently in Russia and there is more to the bread story. In America, a meat pie is a thin bottom crust, a thinner top crust and a lot of meat and potatoes and gravy and carrots and peas in between. In Russia a meat pie is a lot of bread with just enough meat filler to see but not actually taste. Russians love pirogues (fried bread with meat or cheese as a filler), but you have to look close to find the filler. It’s real cheap and tastes real good and is made that way because flour was most of what you had.
Due to the lack of modern food processing plants in the past, they still eat mayonnaise, not Miracle Whip. It is real mayonnaise made from egg yolks, lemon juice, and oil. It’s creamy and a little yellow and not at all like the pasty white sandwich spread we use in the States.
They also use about 50% less sugar than Americans do in everything. I don’t know if it started because sugar was expensive or is just a cultural preference, but cookies, cakes, candy bars and even ice cream are different.
Russians have always loved chocolate. Even during socialism, there were lots of brands of chocolate bars in the stores, wrapped in beautiful foil with great pictures on the box. The standard Russian candy bar was, and is, about the size of kitchen bar of Hershey’s dark chocolate and, unfortunately, almost as bitter. Yuch. New Russians prefer Mars bars.
The cookies, cakes and ice cream are better. At first biting into an almond cookie with low sugar is a little like biting into almond cardboard, but it grows on you. After a while I began to realize that American sweets are just too damned sweet. The sugar overpowers everything. Most Russian ice cream is much better than its American equivalent because they don’t add as much sugar to the already rich creamy base. After a while I even began to prefer the cookies.
The Russian word for cake is “tort” and torts are very important. In the worst of times, you might not be able to afford a diamond ring, but a little flower, a few eggs, and a little sugar will get you a cake. It’s probably another example how culture and economics effect food, but who cares? The cakes are great, and pity the poor bastard who neglects to bring his wife or girlfriend a tort on “Woman’s Day”. I remember getting on the tram in Tver on Woman’s Day and seeing every man over the age of 16 sitting there holding white cake boxes in their laps.
The best Russian cakes are layer cakes. They make a dozen thin crisp layers of cake and tie all together with some kind of sweet syrup and top it with chocolate flakes and frosting. It’s a work of art and my mother in law is a great artist. I laugh at her chicken bone soup, but I crave her cakes.
In the mean time, I am now back in the States for a couple of months and I fully intend to stay on a salad diet broken only occasionally by trips to the Hometown Buffet, Chinese food, Taco Bell, and McDonalds, but mostly salads. I swear.