I have the unfortunate habit of biting off more than I can chew. This is true in a literal sense – this week’s meal is rich enough to break all your January diet resolutions. It left us well and truly stuffed – did you really think we were able to stick to the fairly sedate portions pictured above?
But I also over-committed myself slightly in a more figurative sense, making three different dishes for Belarus. You can pick and choose between tangy pork and sour cream stew, crisp potato pancakes or the legendary Slavic beverage kvass. Or you can go the whole hog like I did, and treat yourself to a full Belarusian trio!
From a culinary viewpoint, Belarus was an enigmatic country to get to grips with. On the one hand, its culinary heritage has been through a lot, and whats left is often very simple and rustic. According to one guidebook, the ideology of the Soviet era had a lot to do with this, effectively wiping out any food innovations seen as “middle class” but also questioning any notion that Belarus even had its own traditional food. Accordingly, it is difficult to even separate Belarusian cuisine from that of its larger neighbour to the East, or from its recent past. One lesson rapidly emerging from this cooking project is that communism is bad for your tastebuds!
To make matters worse (for the revival of a the Belarusian food heritage, if not necessarily for the overall eating habits of Belarusians), the country’s inhabitants have recently discovered curries, pizza and other international food.
But all is not lost. Although ‘traditional’ Belarusian food revolves around three or four key ingredients, they manage to do some pretty tasty things with them. Ingredient number one must surely be the potato – the king of the Belarusian table. Back to the Bradt guide for an amusing anecdote of just how important this unassuming little tuber is around here:
The closest reference that I have been able to find on my travels in Belarus to anything approaching adoption of an ethnic Belarusian foodstuff is that, quaintly, when people refer to the potato, they tend not to use the Russian word, but instead a term which is unique to Belarus, ‘bulba’. Whenever I use that word at table, I am always slapped roundly on the back and treated to broad grins, accompanied by enthusiastic nodding of the head on the part of my fellow diners. It’s clearly more a term of fond affection than a simple noun!
Belarusians particularly love to turn their potatoes into crisp, golden-brown draniki, or small pancakes topped with sour cream and dill. What makes these pancakes different from others found in Scandinavia or Germany, for example, is their fine texture, where the potatoes are completely liquefied before cooking. Early on, it was pretty obvious I’d be making these as a side dish.
Ingredient number two is pork. I’ve heard all kinds of stories told about the link between Ottoman occupation and pig-farming by peasants who knew that their Muslim conquerors–not being able to eat pork–would not confiscate their animals. I’ve got quite a lot of time left to research this before I get to Ukraine, the Slavic country that has done most to make pork (and particularly pork fat) into an art form. For now, though, let’s say that the Belarusians and their neighbours definitely get their main protein fix in porcine form!
As far as I could tell, only Belarus makes machanka, a rich stew of pork, beef stock and and sour cream (Slovaks also have a dish called machanka, but that one’s a mushroom-sauerkraut soup). That was the main dish taken care of, then.
Speaking of mushrooms, wild mushrooms are another staple ingredient in Belarus. It’s the one I didn’t manage to use in my culinary wanderings, but instead I made a special Slavic thirst-quencher to go with all that salty and rich food. It’s called kvass, and it, too, holds a special place in the heart of many a Belarusian, Ukranian and Russian. At around 1% alcohol, Kvass is halfway between a beer and a soda. Its basis is usually rye bread, which lends its subtle flavour to a liquid that is then sweetened slightly and fermented. It’s immensely popular in these countries, where little kids grow up drinking it and where it is a multi-million dollar industry. It’s usually sold on the street in special carts like this:
Kvass was this blog’s first foray into home-brewing, and, as such, involved its fair share of adventures. Bottles left unattended at friends’ houses nearly exploded in the night, dripping cheesecloths filled my kitchen for almost a week, and I’m now the proud owner of several more bottles of fizzy rye drink than is strictly necessary. It was fun, though, both for the chance to create alcohol with my bare hands – I felt a bit like Dr Frankenstein – and for the chance to see what all the fuss was about.
What Did I Need?
For the kvass (rye drink), I modified this recipe:
- 500 grams day-old rye or pumpernickel bread
- 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 litres plus 1/3 cup lukewarm water
- 2 tablespoons raisins
For the machanka (pork stew):
- 500 grams stewing pork
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 200 ml sour cream
- 1/3 cup flour
- 5 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon lard or olive oil (lard is more traditional)
- a generous pinch of freshly-ground pepper
- 1 cup beef stock
- 2 cups water
- salt to taste
For the draniki (potato pancakes):
- 5 large potatoes (the floury kind are best)
- 1 large egg
- 1 medium onion
- a pinch of black pepper
- salt to taste;
- 5-6 tablespoons of lard or olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic (optional – smoked garlic is especially good though!)
How Did I Do It?
To make the kvass:
- Preheat the oven to 100 celsius. Place the bread in the oven for about 1 hour, or until thoroughly dry.
- Cut and chop the bread coarsely. Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan and drop the bread in. Remove from heat, cover loosely with a kitchen towel, and set it aside for at least 8 hours.
- Strain the contents of the casserole through a fine sieve or cheesecloth, pressing down on the soaked bread with the back of a large spoon before discarding it.
- Sprinkle the yeast and 1/4 teaspoon of the sugar over the 1/3 cup of lukewarm water and stir to dissolve the yeast completely. Set aside in a warm, draft-free spot for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture almost doubles in volume.
- Stir the yeast mixture and the remaining sugar into the strained bread water, cover with a towel, and set aside for at least 8 hours. Strain the mixture again through a fine sieve set over a large bowl or casserole.
- Use a funnel to pour the mixture into bottles, putting a few raisins into each. Cover the top of each bottle with plastic wrap, secured with a rubber band. Place in a cool — but not cold — spot for 3 – 5 days, or until the raisins have risen to the top and the sediment has sunk to the bottom.
- Carefully pour off the clear amber liquid and re-bottle it in the washed bottles. Refrigerate until ready to use.
To make the machanka:
- Cut the pork into 4 cm cubes and pat dry with a paper towel.
- Heat the lard or olive oil in a saucepan and fry the pork in two or three batches until brown. Remove from pan and place to rest on a paper towel.
- Fry the onion over a medium heat in the same pan, adding a little more fat if necessary. When onion is translucent (3-4 minutes), add the pork cubes, stock, bay leaves and one cup of water.
- Dissolve the flour in 1 cup of warm water. Add this mixture to the saucepan.
- Simmer the stew over a low heat for 1-2 hours, or until the pork is almost soft. Add more water is mixture becomes too dry.
- Add the sour cream, pepper and salt. Simmer for a further half hour.
- Top with chives, parsley or dill, and serve with draniki (potato pancakes).
To make the draniki:
- Finely grate the potatoes, garlic (if using) and onion – you can also puree all these together in a blender.
- If the mixture is very wet, strain using a fine sieve, or add some flour to make a moist but not runny mix.
- Add salt, black pepper and the egg. Stir well.
- Heat the lard or olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium temperature.
- Drop spoonfuls of the potato batter into the hot fat and fry until golden brown and cooked through.
- Transfer cooked draniki to a warm oven on a dish lined with paper towels while the others cook.
- Serve with machanka or simply with dollops of sour cream and some dill, parsley or chives.
So How Did It Taste?
So tasty that I’m sitting here licking my lips in anticipation of leftovers tonight. First up – the draniki. These were easier to make than I’d imagined, and well worth the effort. The potato flavour is subtle but distinctive. I’d used smoked garlic in the batter, and this made them even more lip-smacking. Our favourite was the machanka, though. Sour cream makes for such a rich, tangy sauce, and I’d definitely recommend using real stock to bring out the flavour of the meat, which was soft and moist. A great combo, of which Joe had this to say:
Delicious! The Ottomans didn’t know what they were missing!
The kvass was definitely the most interesting of the bunch. Its yeasty fizz gives it a taste a little like old-fashioned ginger beer, but without the ginger. It’s quite refreshing, and I can see how a thirsty farmer could long for a bottle after a hard day in the field. The original recipe I used didn’t call for enough bread, and I would have liked to taste more of the rye flavour – so I’ve fixed the ratio in the recipe above. You can also add mint or other herbs, and a bit of honey to sweeten the end result.
As I feature alcohol so rarely on this blog, it’s only right that I should end this post the way that most meals begin in this part of the world – with a toast. Nazdorovje – to your health!