11 January 2011

Russian Food: Things Wrapped in Dough

Merlin made this observation, quite astutely, after I had compiled photos of the three traditional Russian dishes we have tasted or encountered. Yes, they are all some variation of something wrapped in dough, but the somethings and the doughs definitely make each dish its own thing.
These are pelmeni, which means "ear shaped bread." They are basically Russian dumplings, made popular first by Siberians who would make large batches to keep frozen outside for months in the winter. Mine had mushroom and onion and Merlin's had the same combination, but with the addition of meat. While mine were shaped like crescent moons, Merlin's were pinched together like tri-cornered hats. It seemed like a pretty brilliant way to tell the dumplings apart. We've also had some Georgian pelmeni, which looked (and acted) like Chinese soup dumplings and we've seen some others that were folded into tiny rings like tortellini. The dough was almost paper thin, making them less starchy than wontons and more delicate than pierogi.
Not to be confused with pirozhki - which is the Russian dish above. Cafes and bakeries have large rectangles of these that they slice up into servings. It's sort of the savory pie equivalent of a sheet cake. The most popular varieties seem to be spinach, mushroom, ham and cheese, meat, potato and salmon. This was a potato-mushroom slice. It tasted exactly like a stuffed kettle-boiled bagel. The dough was sweet and chewy, toothsome yet undeniably silken. Then, of course, it surrounded mushroom-onion-potato mash, so it's really hard to go wrong. Pleasantly surprising was the fact that it was warm, handed to us in a plastic bag right from the bakery counter.
All the blini I've ever seen have looked like miniature pancakes, about the size of a hockey puck but thinner. However, all the ones we've seen advertised here -and the ham and cheese one Merlin ordered- have looked indistinguishable from crepes. What sets these apart is the fact that they are most often made from wheat, as opposed to just white flour. Other than that, it's like any crepe or pancake we've seen in every country. There's a reason this concoction is so popular. 1) it's easy 2) it's quick to cook and 3) it's super versatile. The dough doesn't really affect the filling, the filling doesn't really affect the dough. It can be sauced, dry, cheesy, sweet, savory. The only thing wrong with blini is the fact that they, unlike pirozkhi or even pelmeni, necessitate utensils. My feeling is, if I'm going to eat something wrapped in dough, it should be hand held.
In Saint Petersburg, if something is not wrapped in dough, it is wrapped in seaweed. Sushi is everywhere. Every block has a sushi restaurant, every casual or 'fast food' place has sushi on the menu. It's like walking around New York City and counting the pizza places. It's like hot dogs in Berlin. Posters, like this one, are plastered outside of almost every establishment showing off their colorful creations. As you can see, cheese factors highly into the art of Russian sushi. Look closely and you'll see a roll filled entirely with cream cheese and then topped with more cream cheese and roe. Nigiri doesn't escape the dairy wand either, as a majority of the pieces have melted cheese on top. Past the posters, through the windows of the sushi restaurants, you see tables of happy diners sipping clear liquid which, of course, is not sake.


  1. That is a very apt observation, Merlin! Although not exclusive to Russian cooking, wrapping food in dough is an essential food preparation method in Russian cuisine. Cases in point are the examples you provided: pelmeni, pirozhki and blini. A discussion of Russian cuisine would not be complete without these three. :)

    Hamish Liddell

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