MiR 071 – My Life in Russia Stories – A Russian Picnic

You’re listening to the Mark in Russia broadcast # 071, and I’m Mark.

Today I’m going to continue with my Life in Russia series and I’ve finally moved beyond the podyest from the last two episodes. While there was nothing positive to report about the podyest, today’s episode will be 100% positive.

Today I’ll speak about a Russian picnic or barbecue, which by the way have been some of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had. It isn’t just the food, or the company, or even the scenery, but a rare blend of all three which creates a rare synergy and great memories. You should really look at the show notes for this episode at www.markinrussia.com because for today’s episode there will also be a number of photos to help you get a picture of my story.

Are you tough enough to attend a Russian barbecue?

Are you tough enough to attend a Russian barbecue?

One of the points that always impressed me with the average Russian ever since I first arrived is their ability to separate work and play and always make time for the latter. There is a Russian saying which expresses the attitude toward work, which translates into English as follows: “Work in not a wolf and will not run into the forest”. This pretty much means that when you leave work, you can forget about work and it will still be there when you return.

I had the pleasure shortly after I arrived in Russia to do some private English tutoring for a husband and wife who were preparing to immigrate to Canada. At that time people did not submit the results of an international exam, but were actually tested as part of their interview. The longer I worked with this family, the more friendly we became and I saw that they were some of the nicest, down to earth people I’ve ever met. My wife also became very friendly with them and we did many things together. Some of these things I’ll save for a later broadcast, but today I’ll speak about the first time we went on a picnic together.

First we had the experience of going to an outdoor, well actually part of it was under roof, market. We needed to buy lamb and some special spices because today we were going to have a special treat, Uzbekh plov, or what we might call in English, rice pilaf, although what we make is a poor joke compared to the real deal.

We drove out of the city into the country until we spied a likely spot for our picnic. For a Westerner, this seems so freaky, but over here land ownership laws are still being developed, so for purposes of recreation, almost all land as far as you can see is “everybody’s land”. Pull your car off the road, into the woods, and set up your cooking fire. Need wood for the fire? Just break off the dead branches that you find or pick up wood from the ground. Nobody will bother you and nobody will chase you off the land with a shotgun. Pretty Cool! We set up our picnic spot on the edge of a birch grove. Something else different here is that these birch groves will go on for mile after mile without interruption, plus the birch trees are rather large in diameter, not crowded together and what really impressed me was that there was not really any undergrowth or shrubs all fighting for space, just these large birch trees with nice soft grass between them. Kind of a natural park space.

I live in the Urals Region of Russia, actually the South Ural Region ( for those that don’t know, the Urals are a mountain range about the same age as the Appalachian Mountain range in the Eastern U.S., but where I live there is little evidence of mountains, in fact it is rather flat. The sky here in Russia even has a different look than where I grew up in the States. The color on a nice sunny day seems to be a lighter blue than what I’m used to and because it is quite flat and often very open, the sky is huge! I mean, the sky here seems to go on forever, if people would take the time and look up at it. It’s really beautiful. Perhaps there is just a different quality to the light here, but even the greens of vegetation seem to be a lighter green than what I’m used to. When I travel to the States, the first couple of things that strike me are the darker blue of the sky and the darker greens that I see. I recall speaking in my youth to older brothers of my friends who had served in Vietnam. When asked what they remember most, many would say the absolute brilliant greens of nature there, so I know that it isn’t just my imagination; these two colors differ a lot depending on where you travel.

Well, back to my picnic. The first order of business was to clear a spot for the fire and gather firewood. Both men and women helped find the firewood, but when it comes to the actual barbecue process over here, it is the man’s domain to do the cooking. Actually, not that different than when I was growing up in the States. My friend learned how to prepare plov from an Uzbek friend of his, and was also told that in Uzbekistan, only a man is allowed to prepare this dish, although I’ve heard conflicting stories about this. I can believe however that when it is cooked outdoors, that the man does the cooking. I think that it’s kind of a primal thing all over the world where people don’t cook outdoors often. I’m sure that in all of these societies that women are in fact encouraged to do the cooking if it is always done outdoors.

The pot for cooking this plov has a bullet shaped bottom and is made to sit in a ring supported by three legs, over the hot coals.

Frying the onions

Frying the onions

You won’t be able to make this dish from my description, and frankly, though unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the process, but I’ll just cover the highlights. I do remember that the white fat from the base of a lamb’s tail is what is heated to create the oil that you need to start the process. After the lard melts and reaches a frying temperature, we threw in cubes of lamb about 1.5 inches square into the oil to brown. Along with the meat were also put some different spices, though I really can’t recall all of them, I do remember cumin, pepper and even some red berries, which I seem to recall were called barberries in English. When the meat was browned all over, it was removed and onions were then thrown in to the pot. When these were properly sautéed, although I’m sketchy here, I’ll explain approx. what happened next. He added several liters of water, which was then brought to a boil. The meat and onions were added back into the pot and then a “layering” started to take place, consisting of thinly sliced carrot sticks (many) and then a layer of rice, which had been soaked and starch poured off. Then another layer of carrots followed by another layer of rice. In the end a whole garlic was thrown in, skin and all. I think that the water was added as needed, not all at once. When the last layer of rice was put on, the water was brought to a level about 2 inches above the rice. I don’t recall if the pot was covered, but I don’t think it was.

When the plov was prepared and was cooking, we put a pile of potatoes (not peeled) into a conical shaped piece of metal ducting about 20 inches tall. We then piled hot coals all around the sides to bake our potatoes.

Baking the potatoes

Baking the potatoes

During this prep time we were drinking beer and sharing stories. On this day of autumn the weather was nice, but the air was crisp, actually a really nice day for a picnic.

Vladimir, like many Russian men had a nice organization to his life outdoors. He had milk crates, which were filled with the different things necessary for different activities. In this case about three of them. But I’m sure if I asked him if we could go on an outing where we would fish, play Frisbees, view the planets with telescopes and play darts, that there would already be milk crates which contained these very activities.

Let’s leave the plov and potatoes to cook for now and I’ll take you on a small Russian Barbecue tour. In the States we also love to grill our food outdoors and in fact cook many of our summer meals on the old gas grill. Gas grills here are not so common and also extremely expensive, so most people either own, or kind of build a small specialized grill called a mangal, which is typically on legs, made of sheetmetal and although different lengths, it is usually about the same width; about 16” wide. This is about 4 inches less than the standard skewer length here, or shampore. You see, the most favorite barbecue meal here, and also the most common, is also from Uzbekistan originally and is called Shashlik. Often this is translated into English as “shish ka bob”, but apart from process, they really are not the same. Although I’m American, I’ll have to be unpatriotic here and say that shashlik is a lot better than shish ka bob. This again is prepared by men, but I’m quite sure that if a group of women were in the forest with the necessary ingredients, that there is no law, written or unwritten, to prevent them from making these.

Cooking Shashlik

Cooking Shashlik

The design of the mangal and the shampore just makes sense and especially with the skewer (shampore), it makes me wonder what we were thinking when we designed the skewers that we use. The shampore is made from one long piece of narrow sheetmetal, maybe a half inch wide. One end is cut at an angle, forming a sharp point, the other end is curled into a loop for hanging during storage. Although the center section is flat and straight, both ends, for about the final three inches are spiraled. You learn why as soon as you start cooking with them. You are able to rotate them to any position and they will stay in place, which certainly makes it easier to produce evenly cooked shashlik. OK, now for how the actual shashlik is made. Pork, typically from the neck is bought and cut into cubes of about 1.5 inches. The neck is used because it is tender with a good meat to fat ratio. Onions are also cut up into about eighths, first into half and then each half quartered. Both the meat and the onions are then marinated for several hours, and even better overnight, before being cooked. The marinade is quite acidic and actually starts to cook the meat. I can’t tell you how the marinade is made; although I’ve been here for more than 11 years, it’s still not long enough to be trusted with the recipe, but no fear, I can buy this mixture with the meat and onions already marinated in a small sealed pail of sorts, from the supermarket. Although the recipe seems to be a secret, the folks here are nice enough to at least share the finished product.

OK, you skewer the meat and onions onto the shampore, alternating between the two. Look, I know that it sure seems that I’m describing the process for making shish ka bob, but although the process has a lot of similarities, the finished product is different. You then lay the shampore across the mangal (remember the small grill?), usually laying about ten to 20 at a time. Like with an American charcoal grill, you wait until the flames are gone and you have a good bed of coals. If flames start to jump up due to the dripping juices, a water sprayer is used to extinquish the flames to prevent burning. It doesn’t put out the coals. If you don’t have a sprayer handy, then take a plastic soda or water bottle and poke small holes in the plastic cap with the jackknife that every real man should have with him when he barbecues, wala! Instant water sprayer! Keep rotating the shampore to prevent burning and before you know it you have a delicious pile of shashlik. Prietnovo apitita!

OK, back to our plov and baked potatoes which are now just nearing completion. Something that I forgot to mention earlier is that you never mix or stir the plov when you are cooking it. Well, a trial taste of the rice near the top tells us that the dish is now finished and a fork stab into the potatoes tell us that they are also done. Dinner is now ready and it’s time to eat!

Scooping out Plov

Scooping out Plov

At this point it’s OK to stir the plov and mix it up a bit. We also search for the garlic bulb and discard it; it has done its job already. Scoop it onto some plates and now it’s time to enjoy it. I will say that this was perhaps the most delicious food I have ever eaten. I ate and ate and even took some home with me, it was that good. The wonderful taste was a product of the ingredients, plus the process and could not be attributed to any one thing. I ate that plov nearly eight years ago and the taste memory still makes my mouth water.

Enjoying the plov!

Enjoying the plov!

Before the meal and during the meal we were also drinking some shots of nice Russian vodka, but doing this in a very civilized manner as people are taught to do, yet don’t always remember to do. In my years in Russia I have never had vodka in any way other than straight. I prefer the bottle to be cooled down a bit, but room temperature also works. The key is to always eat while drinking and drink only in answer to a toast. These two things will help you to regulate the amount and speed. It should never be some kind of drinking contest where you realize after a short time that you are wasted, only to have the full effect hit you 20 minute later. No, this should only enhance your good times, not try to create them out of thin air. My Russian language improves at these times and my Russian friends find the same with their English language. We all also after a short time feel the need to sing some songs, and I’m not speaking about some drinking songs like “ten bottles of beer on the wall”, no these are actually nice songs. Actually, my Russian wasn’t so good back then, so perhaps they were drinking songs and even theme songs from Russian TV shows for all I knew. Regardless, we had fun.

One last outdoor cooking aid I’d like to mention, although I don’t know the name, was some sort of smoker used for smoking fish. It looked like some sort of sheetmetal round duct which had been flattened a bit into an oval shape. The starting size before being made oval was probably somewhere around 10” in diameter. There are oval shaped sheetmetal caps which fit over each end. We would put small branches from perhaps an apple or cherry tree inside the oval tube, along with some fish, loosely wrapped in foil. This was put near the coals, but not on them. The object was to smoke the fish with these aromatic branches and not to cook it with the heat. The resultant fish was great! What impressed me was the simple, yet very functional design, which lent itself to traveling on picnics. Here it is often function over form, but this actually possessed both.

There are probably a lot of details that I’ve left out here and with the info I’ve given you, you still really have no way to catch or recreate the mood and the surroundings.

Our friends and their children immigrated to Canada almost 7 years ago and they are doing very well there, for which I’m really happy for them. But I would be a liar if I didn’t say that we miss them a great deal, but are happy to have and hold the memories of the fun times we had together.

Thanks again for listening to the end of my broadcast. I’ve had 100s of quite unique experiences since I first came to Russia and I hope to share some of these with you on a regular basis. Again though, I need feedback from my listeners, without which I don’t know if you are enjoying this series, or think that the series sucks. So, please go to my website at www.markinrussia.com and leave a comment in the comments section of the post page.

Well, until next time, GoodBye!

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2 Responses to MiR 071 – My Life in Russia Stories – A Russian Picnic

  1. Janey says:

    Ha ha ha! I just wrote a post about ‘crazy Russians’ swimming in ice water for крещение on my blog http://russophilia.wordpress.com I’m sure you earned everyone’s eternal respect for taking the plunge with them.

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