You’re listening to the Mark in Russia broadcast # 074, and I’m Mark.
Today I’m going to continue with my Life in Russia series and I’ll talk about food, specifically, pelmeni
You really should go to my website at: www.markinrussia.com to listen to this, or at least open the page to read the show notes, regardless of where you are listening to this. The reason for this is because the show notes also include several photos to help you get a better idea about what I’m talking about.
For my non-Russian listeners who don’t know what pelmeni is, it’s a type of perogi, but very specific. Perogi is a term in English we use to describe a family of foods which share some traits. Pelmeni is a meat filling wrapped with thin dough outer, which is boiled and then eaten. Look to the show notes and you’ll see some photos of pelmeni.
For my Russian listeners, let me help you with some words that you’ve learned that are really not correct. I’ve heard pelmeni translated as ravioli in English and this is not correct. The dough, or “tyesta” in Russian for ravioli is absolutely a pasta dough. The consistency and taste of the meat filling is absolutely different than pelmeni and ravioli are almost always served with a tomato sauce. There are no similarities between the two, apart from the fact that they are both “food”, so why in the hell would you use this word in translation? Pelmeni are also translated as “small meat dumplings” in English, but since many to most English speakers have heard of the word “dumpling” (usually in some old British poem or song), few of us have actually seen one, much less eaten one, so to use the words, “Small meat dumpling” does nothing to help us understand what you are talking about.
For an American English speaker, the best word to use might be “perogi”. This is something similar, which was originally brought to the U.S. by Polish people. They are quite a bit smaller (perogi I mean, not Polish people), but at least this description gets us in the correct neighborhood and a visual image is now starting to form in my head.
I’m speaking about pelmeni today because of all Russian foods; this seems to be the one that Russians most closely associate themselves with.
There are a lot of conflicting stories regarding the origins of pelmeni and frankly, it’s not actually important. Some say that this food came from China by way of the Mongol Hordes and there may be some truth to this, but again, pelmeni is famous as a Russian food and not as a Chinese food, so even if it did come from China, Russians made it popular and therefore made it theirs. Just a side trip for a moment to express why I think this way. One of the most, it not the most popular sport in America is baseball. Now, British will say that baseball was based on their game, “rounders”, but the problem with this is that baseball was around before rounders. Even my Russian friends have got to get in on this bandwagon and say that baseball was based on their game, “lapta”, which it also was not. I mean, just because a game is played with some sort of stick and a ball, doesn’t make one the father of the other. I mean really, how many different games involve these two elements. So, baseball is a billion dollar business with huge stadiums and millions of fans, and “rounders” and “lapta” are two sports you need to go to the internet to even learn about. So, in the same way that baseball is American, Pelmeni are Russian.
Some people, certainly not Russians, will also say that pelmeni and vareniki are the same thing, which any Russian person or resident of Russia understands is not correct. Vareniki are made with much thicker dough, are shaped differently and are typically filled with either mashed potatoes or curd (sort of like cottage cheese, only different). Vareniki are Ukrainian in origin.
Now, I mentioned that pelmeni are filled with a meat filling, but there are other variations; one is a mushroom filling and another is a cabbage filling. I’ve even heard of people using a cherry filling, but Russian purists will inform you that this would be vareniki, pelmeni are not fruit filled.
OK, let’s shift gears here. The first appearance of pelmeni in Russia was in Siberia and most likely was introduced by one of the groups of people that were native to that area. You see, pelmeni is a great winter food for people and winter in Siberia makes up the majority of the year. Most families had a house in which they lived and then a separate house in which their pelmeni was stored and kept frozen. I suspect that the making of pelmeni was a real family affair which occupied several weeks of days. Pelmeni was nice because it would keep frozen for long periods of time without losing any flavor. A Siberian hunter would throw a bunch of frozen pelmeni into a bag in his backpack and he would be all set for food for the time he was gone.
Most all Russians know how to make pelmeni and most to all will agree that homemade is much better than store bought, but because it is quite time intensive, most Russians do buy their pelmeni from a store. If a couple of family members work together as a team, you can form kind of a “pelmeni assembly line” and make quite a few of them, but herein lies the problem; the finished pelmeni, unless they are to be all eaten at that time, need to be frozen and they need to be on a nonstick surface without touching each other as they freeze. After they are frozen you can simply pack them into plastic bags with a meals worth in each bag. The problem is finding the kind of space to accomplish the freezing process. This requires a great deal more space, both flat space and freezer space than the average Russian has, unless you live in Siberia and have a separate house for storing your frozen pelmeni in.
If you are just making enough for one meal, then this really is a lot of work for this. This is the primary reason why Russian people most often buy them at a store already made. Now I’ll explain some drawbacks to this. For some inexplicable reason here in Russia, these companies that make pelmeni are not at all consistent, and there are hundreds of companies. I mean, you’ll find a brand that you like and several times later you’ll buy a bag that really tastes like crap, plus they are not cheap. It’s really quite aggravating. Another, usually unspoken reason for preferring homemade is that when you make it yourself, you at least know what goes into it, when you buy it, you do not. Trust me when I say that it could be filled with horsemeat, dogmeat or even human, that although I may be exaggerating to the extreme, it still is not out of the question. I’ve read some stories which make me not really in the mood for pelmeni.
Whether it is homemade or store bought; cooking it is done the same. First you boil some water in the same manner as if you were going to boil some pasta. I prefer to salt the water a bit. When it comes to a boil, add the pelmeni. Stir it fairly frequently at first to avoid them from sticking. After a few minutes you don’t have to stir it that often. When the pelmeni floats to the surface, continue to boil them for 3 – 5 minutes more. I then drain the water, but many people use the water as a kind of soup, and it does taste good. I’ll usually put the drained pelmeni back in the pan and add some butter to them. This adds a nice flavor and also prevents them from sticking together. Now you are ready to serve them.
It seems that as many people as you ask, you’ll find different ways in which people top their pelmeni. One of the common ways is to use Smetana (sour cream). I usually salt and pepper them a bit and then top them with sour cream. If I have more time and feel more creative I’ll add crushed garlic to the sour cream and a Georgian sauce called, “anjeeka”, kind of a red spicy stuff. I add these to the sour cream and let sit for about an hour in order to get all of the flavors diffused throughout the sour cream.
Others use mustard, and just a side note; Russian mustard is quite good and also pretty hot. Some use vinegar and others used mayonnaise, plus I’m sure that there are a lot of other variations. Having a shot or two of vodka along with your pelmeni is also not unheard of.
OK, now let’s talk about how to make this Russian taste treat. I’m going to talk about it, but there will be an actual recipe on my website at www.markinrussia.com
The dough is made from water, flour, egg and salt, although you can buy this dough already made in almost any food store here. The dough is “unleavened”, meaning there is nothing in it that will cause it to “rise”.
I make my filling from ground pork and ground beef, with about a 50/50 mixture. Additionally I add a lot of finely chopped onions, pressed garlic, basil, salt and pepper. The traditional Siberian pelmeni is made with a mixture of about 45% beef, 35% lamb and 20% pork, although I’m not so sure of this. I mean, I’m sure that the Siberian hunters who lived off of pelmeni used what they killed which could be deer (venison) or even bear. I somehow doubt that these hunters used the beef/lamb/pork method stated above.
The key to good pelmeni is to not have the dough very thick to start with after rolling it out, maybe half the thickness of a piece of cardboard. A purist will first roll the dough into a log-like form about 2 cm in diameter. They then slice off pieces and roll each piece into a thin piece about 5 cm in diameter. I use the “non-purist” method. I roll a large sheet out to its final thickness and then use the lip of a glass to cut the sheet into small circles. I just find for me that this method is faster. At this point about a heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture is added to the middle, one edge folded over to meet the other, so that it is now a semi-circle. I then go around the exposed edge and crimp it with my fingers. The final thing is to pull the two ends together and crimp them. Again, you really need to look at the photos on my website.
On my website you can actually see a lot of the process shown in pictures that were taken the first time I made pelmeni.
In the city of Izhevsk, which is somewhere in the Volga River region, in the year 1995 a sculpture celebrating pelmeni was unveiled. The sculture features a pelmen speared on the end of a fork. The fork itself is more than 2 meters high. I’ve got a picture of this sculpture on my website.
If you come to Russia, make sure that you try out this very Russian meal and it won’t be hard to find, even if you are a tourist. Pelmeni is served everywhere. If you have a chance to try homemade, then jump at this chance.
Sit around a table with some Russians, enjoy some pelmeni and also numerous shots of vodka. Before long you’ll be singing songs together and also speaking Russian better than you thought you could.
Well, I hope that you learned a bit about this traditional Russian food and if you are not Russian, that you have an opportunity to try it and if you are Russian, that you run to the store and have some. Between the audio file and the recipe on my website, www.markinrussia.com anyone should be able to make and enjoy pelmeni.
Thanks for listening till the end of my podcast and until next week I’ll say, GoodBye!