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How to Survive Without Rice and Beans, or a Cuban’s Vicissitudes with Russian Cuisine
Photos: by the author
Photos: by the author

Three years ago, when I came to study in Moscow, after a 12-hour flight I literally felt as if I had landed on another planet. And that sensation was not confined to the snow, the shops full of merchandise, the wonderful culture or the clean and enormous beauty of the Russian capital. No. My stomach was also registering the change every day.

There were times when I thought I would starve to death, despite the abundance. Since I didn’t know how to cook, my first options were limited to junk food and the university’s stolovaya (canteen), where quite a lot of surprises awaited me.

Photos: by the author
Photos: by the author
Photos: by the author
Photos: by the author

Day 1. After endless Russian lessons in which more than understanding I was guessing, it’s time for lunch. I look among the dishes for something familiar and there it is: rice and beans! You can imagine my surprise when I tasted the grechka (buckwheat), a cereal with a rather different flavor than I expected, but which I have learned to appreciate because of its high nutritional value.

Neither did I dare to eat one of those recently baked golden buns, which looked like they were stuffed with…ants. I later found out that they were poppy seeds and that they give the bread and pastries a very agreeable taste. When I was really in the grip of hunger I dared to eat the pelmienis, a sort of ravioli or balls of pasta stuffed with meat. Here in Moscow they are very popular and they are sold in restaurants, as well as in the supermarkets, sophisticatedly prepared in plastic bags. My first experience was bitter. Not only did I not like the flavor but in addition they gave me indigestion and I spent a week at home constantly going to the bathroom. Later, when I no longer was afraid of them and tasted them again, I discovered there are many types, according to the stuffing and the quality, therefore in the end I made my peace with the pelmienis and, since then, I eat them with a great deal of gusto.

But not all the first impressions were negative. I loved the borsch, a strong red-colored soup with vegetables and pieces of meat. I didn’t know that its ingredient is fundamentally beet, precisely the food I have hated ever since my day-care days, when the day-care workers, who we called “seños,” made me eat them. Well, now the borsch fascinates me. I don’t know how they make it, but the beets, cooked that way, are a delight.

Let’s talk about my favorite Russian recipe: the blini. It is a sort of pancake that is generally spread with marmalade, melted chocolate or condensed milk. It is also stuffed with ham and cheese, meat, apple or curd cheese. It is traditionally consumed during the masliénitsa Slavic fiesta (a celebration in homage to the end of winter and the start of spring), but I actually don’t mind eating it at any other time of the year.

Photos: by the author
Photos: by the author

There’s nothing more similar to the hamburgers I’ve always had than the typical Russian kotleta. Perhaps the most notable difference is its more elongated shape and the condiments that give it a peculiar taste. The truth is that these sliced meatballs have saved my life more than once. Among them, my favorite is the kotleta a la Kiev. Made with minced chicken and stuffed with butter, cheese or mushrooms, it is an authentic delight that I always ask for whenever I can.

The jolodets did go beyond my imagination. It is a dish prepared based on the gelatin from beef, to which condiments, vegetables (carrots, garlic and peas) plus small pieces of beef, chicken or pork are added. It’s very popular in family celebrations, but when I had it before me for the first time I couldn’t avoid wrinkling my nose. The Russians don’t even understand how it’s possible that foreigners don’t like the jolodets, so sometimes there’s no other choice but to taste them to not be rude. When you get used to them, they do seem delicious.

One day, when I was going out with my friends, they asked for something prepared with pork fat to accompany the vodka. I was expecting some crunchy pork rinds, but they brought the so-called “salo”: strips of bacon from the back or belly of the pig, marinated with condiments. The Russians consume it and have adored it for centuries, which is understandable since it helped withstand the crude winter. I must admit that I prefer a good coat.

The kvas is a traditional Russian drink produced through the fermentation of rye. With an appearance similar to our malt drink, the different flavor can surprise the foreigner. During the summer days, when it is found at any corner, it’s incomparable to refresh and recover your strength.

The typical Russian menu includes several dishes, starting with soup, so indispensable for it to be a veritable meal, like rice for the Cubans. Bread is a must, especially the Slavic gastronomy’s bestseller, brown bread.

In addition to the already mentioned borsch, other soups complete the catalog, among them the solianka, the shchi or the rassolnik. Or, during the warmest months, some soups are consumed cold, like the okroshka, which consists of diced vegetables with boiled eggs and ham. It is common to add kvas or kefir (a very popular type of yogurt) to this mixture.

Salads are also indispensable on the Russian table. I knew the most typical, called “Russian salad” in the entire world and which here is called Olivié. In its original version it is based on potatoes, cucumbers, peas, chicken or ham, with smetana (sour cream) or mayonnaise. But I was greatly surprised by the variety I found, from the mimosa, a salad crowned with egg yolk, or others with such odd names as seld pod shuboi – herring with coat -, prepared in layers and whose first ingredient is the salted herring accompanied by vegetables.

Among my favorite main dishes there is the shashlik, Caucasian meat kebabs that are always present in a worthy Russian rural party. Lastly, the unmissable dessert and there’s where I like all of them. From the most traditional tvorog or curd cheese with honey or marmalade, to the exquisite cakes. Many of these conserve the names with which they were known during the Soviet era, like the chocolate Prague, or the Kieviski, with crunchy meringue, cream and nuts. Not forgetting the mythical Ptichie moloko or Bird milk, delights only comparable to the yearning that Cuban French toast provokes in me.

And at this stage I have learned to value the varied and succulent Slavic food, but I continue going crazy when confronted with a plate of black beans, roast pork and fried ripe plantain.