Way back when I first met my Militantly Nerdy Boyfriend Alex, he saw my xenophilia and attempted to exploit it head-on when he offered to cook “a traditional Russian meal” for me. Ethnically and sometimes culturally, Alex is a product of the immediate fallout of the end of the Soviet Union, so I anticipated some complicated cooking in the works.
Unfortunately, my previous exposure to cuisine in a similar part of the world had left me more than mildly wary of this romantic gesture, so at the time, I politely refused in favor of Chinese.
I expected “a traditional Russian meal” to be about on par with “a traditional Finnish meal.” It seemed logical to me that Finnish cuisine and Russian cuisine would share some ethnic markers, since Finland existed as part of Russia for about a century. Russia released them in 1918, the end of the “autonomous time.”
Finnish cuisine is weird by American standards, to say the least. Where Western Europe has that infamous blood or black pudding, Finland has verilettu. Popular in school cafeterias across the country, verilettu is a nutritious pancake made of pig’s blood. You read that right. They actually take pig’s blood and fry it up.
Then there’s the matter of the mämmi. If you’ve ever heard the idea that Finnish food looks like poo, mämmi is what they’re referring to. It’s an Easter-specific dish served with cream and, if you don’t look too closely, resembles a chocolate brownie swimming in melted vanilla ice cream. That, or hashish. But mämmi isn’t made of any chocolate whatsoever, or weed, thankfully. Mämmi is made of wheat, specifically rye flour, which can make it either very delicious or very disgusting. Finland remains divided on the issue. I’ve never tried mämmi, so I don’t personally have a verdict on that.
I have tried salmiakki, though. Salmiakki is essentially licorice flavored with ammonium chloride. That is not a typo. Every Finn recalls those days in high school chemistry when they made salmiakki and got to eat it. My experience with salmiakki was so prominent, my very taste buds cringe and hunker down at the memory. The Finns’ memory of my experience with salmiakki was considerably less painful; they found my reaction to the taste hilarious.
Therefore, with these exposures under my belt, I anxiously had my first encounter with “a traditional Russian meal.”
It ended up being a casual thing one evening, when I had just stopped over around dinnertime. There was no weird fried blood, dangerous-sounding chemicals, or an overabundance of wheat. Just cherry dumplings, and they were delicious.
A few days later, I went with Alex to what he affectionately refers to as “the Russian store.” It’s a general Euromarket run by a Russian immigrant and the atmosphere in there is a lot like being in a Rosetta Stone language course. Everyone is babbling in Russian and the shelves are lined with products labeled in Russian. Needless to say, I felt right at home in there.
It’s strange now to see how Russian cuisine has influenced my personal food culture. I grew up in a French-Irish family heavily influenced by Italian cuisine. There’s a memorable video of me around the age of four singing about “manicotti toooo-night, manicotti toooo-night” for my birthday. Now, on top of making Italian, I can make Russian, and it’s frequently so much simpler and always delicious.
There’s usually a lot of overlap between foreign cuisines and Russian is no exception. One example of this is blintzes. If you haven’t heard them by this name, I’ll give you a hint as to what they are; the French have them, too, and they’re pretty flat. Yes, blintzes, by any other name, including the crêpe, do taste as sweet. I’m excited to learn how to make these.
So here I am, going off on a new culinary journey, venturing where no nerd girl has gone before, into the far reaches of Russian space — er, I mean taste — where I risk not only confusion but also food poisoning. Here’s to edible trails!
Captainess Kirk a column on Kate-book.com that runs every other Thursday at 10:30 am. It is written by the fascinating Kathleen Kirk. For more of her adventures, follow her on Twitter here and check in for future columns.