The Russian Grill: Shashlyk

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By Sharon Hudgins

The smoky smell of shashlyk makes every Russian’s mouth water.  Yours will, too, when you inhale the aroma of marinated meat cooking over an open fire.  An ancient dish, well known to nomads and herders across a wide swath of the Caucasus and Central Asia, shashlyk became popular in Russia in the mid-19th century after Georgia, Azerbaijan, and part of Armenia were absorbed into the Russian Empire.  Cubes of skewered, grilled meat-slightly charred on the outside and still juicy inside-are now a featured dish at many restaurants in Russia, including little hole-in-the-wall cafés called shashlychnaya that specialize in this savory fare.  Shashlyk is also a favorite food for picnics and for outings at dachas, the country cottages where many urban Russians escape the stresses of daily life.  And even in the depths of the Russian winter, you’ll find street stands serving up skewers of pork, beef, or lamb grilled over hot coals on portable iron braziers.

In Russia, shashlyk (pronounced “shosh-LEEK”) can be made from any kind of meat: pork, beef, lamb, fish, chicken, kid, venison, bear, game birds. Pork is favored by many Russians, although lamb and beef are traditionally eaten by Moslems and Jews living in the Russian Federation.  The marinade ingredients vary from region to region and from cook to cook: sunflower oil or olive oil, red wine or white wine, vinegar or pomegranate juice, the liquid seasoned with onions, garlic, herbs, and “any spices, whatever you like” as a Russian friend of mine says.

Most modern Russians prefer the convenience of charcoal for grilling, although hikers and hunters are more likely to cook their shashlyk over a wood fire.  In Georgia (once a part of the Soviet Union, now an independent country), shashlyk is often cooked over dry grapevine cuttings or green willow branches, and sometimes herbs or grape leaves are tossed into the fire to flavor the smoke.

Russian Charcoal Used for Grilling

I first tasted shashlyk several years ago at an open-air, “welcome-to-springtime” festival in Irkutsk, Siberia, when plenty of snow still covered the ground that month of March.  By late-May, however, the snow had melted, the mud had dried up, and the wildflowers were beginning to bloom, as if making up for lost time.  Taking advantage of the fine weather, Russians began flocking to the forests and fields to hunt mushrooms, pick berries, and forage for other wild foods.  So I was delighted when a Russian family in Irkutsk invited my husband and me to join them on an outing to gather cheremsha, the wild garlic that grows in abundance in southern Siberia. 

Vladimir, our host, provided a picnic lunch and we brought the booze.  But at first I was surprised at the spot he chose for our meal: the site of a former prison camp several miles from the city.  All around us, the landscape still held traces of the painful past: rotted fence posts, rusty barbed wire, and the forlorn remains of a railroad track leading to nowhere.

But those grim reminders of the old Soviet Union were offset by the warm Siberian sunshine, the bird-cherry bushes in full bloom, the flowering garlic, and the cuckoos singing in the trees.  Surrounded by these sights and sounds of eternal Mother Russia, we grilled pork shashlyk over an open fire, nibbled on fresh spring onions and pickled green tomatoes, and finished up with a Siberian specialty, a rich cake made from the ground-up pits of bird-cherries baked with sugar, eggs, and sour cream. Yet I could not escape the feeling that our presence in that place was somehow an affront to whatever spirits of the past still lingered there.

The next time I ate shashlyk on Russian soil was many years later, in a less spooky location, at a little wooden dacha in a lush green forest outside of Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East.  In the tropical heat of midsummer, we chopped cucumbers, potatoes, carrots, onions, and hard-boiled eggs for a cold soup called okroshka; nibbled on homemade meat-and-potato-filled piroshki (little savory pastries); and cooked separate skewers of pork, tomatoes, and new potatoes over chunks of charcoal.  The meat had been marinating overnight, in an enameled metal bucket, in a bath of vinegar, oil, onions, black pepper, coriander seeds, and bay leaves.  And as the lazy afternoon wore on, smoky aromas wafted from the little grill outside the cottage, whetting our appetites for hot shashlyk and evoking images of rustic scenes depicted writers and painters in 19th-century Russia.

Shashlyk Being Grilled at a Picnic in Siberia

A week later-and more than 2,000 miles away-I was sitting on the shore of Siberia’s legendary Lake Baikal, chowing down on shashlyk with 70 other passengers on a special Trans-Siberian Railroad tour across Russia.  (Full disclosure: I work as an expert accompanying these tours organized by National Geographic Expeditions.)  Our chartered train had pulled off the main line onto a separate track running along the edge of the lake. While some of the more adventuresome passengers took a quick dip in Baikal’s frigid water, the dining-car staff unloaded portable grills from the baggage car and prepared a shashlyk feast for our evening meal outdoors: pork and chicken shashlyk, grilled vegetables, fresh tomatoes, salted herring with onions, and an assortment of Russian-style salads, along with plenty of vodka and wine to ward off the chill.

A taste for shashlyk extends across the cultural patchwork of Russia, over 6,000 miles from Moscow in the west to Magadan in the east, from St. Petersburg in the north to Samara in the south.  In grocery stores throughout the country you can even find commercial spice blends for seasoning shashlyk.  The popularity of this dish has also spread well beyond the borders of the old Soviet Union.  In Germany I came across a “Shaschlik Gewürz” spice mix made from paprika, mustard powder, turmeric, ground coriander seeds, clover seeds, cayenne pepper, black pepper, cumin, caraway, and dried garlic-with information in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Turkish printed on the container.  And a recent catalog for Penzeys Spices in the United States offers a spice blend called “Tsardust Memories-Russian Style Seasoning,” containing salt, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, and marjoram, along with a recipe for “Tsardust Kabobs” made from skewered-and-grilled ground lamb seasoned with this spice mixture and an added whop of cayenne pepper and fresh cilantro.  (Penzeys admits that this “Russian” spice blend is a re-named version of a sausage-spice mix they sold in the past.)

A Basic Shashlyk Grill North of Moscow

Russians who leave their country-only on vacation or to settle permanently somewhere else-never leave behind their love of shashlyk.  Galina, a friend of mine from the Russian Far East, recently flew to the United States for the first time, to visit her grown daughter and son who now live in San Diego.  For her daughter’s birthday party a few days later, Galina-an excellent cook, even when she’s jet-lagged-immediately set about marinating chunks of lamb shoulder for shashlyk, baking piroshki, salting fresh cucumbers, preparing beef tongue with horseradish sauce, and putting together an astounding array of Russian-style cold salads.  On the big day, the whole family-grandmother Galina, her children and grandchildren, and a group of their friends-all headed to a San Diego park to grill skewers of shashlyk and stuff themselves with Galina’s fine foods, washed down with bottles of Russian vodka, champagne, and California red wines.  An elaborate cake from a local bakery topped off this Russian-American shashlyk feast.  As the Russians would say, anywhere in the world, “Priiatnogo appetita!” (bon appetit!).

Skewered on a (S)word?

Some sources say that the Russian term shashlyk comes from shashka, a word from the Caucasus meaning “sword,” since the meat was originally skewered on swords and held over an open fire to cook.  Another source claims that the “shash: in shashlyk is derived from the Arabic, meaning that the meat “is cooked over a spit”–and that it’s “a myth that shashlyk was originally served in the Caucasus on a sword.”  Yet another says that the “shash” in shashlyk is like the “shish” in shish kebab, meaning “meat on a skewer,” as the dish became domesticated and skewers replaced swords.  And Charles Perry, a linguist and food writer, tells me that “Shashlyk comes from some language in the Caucasus, not clear which one; could be directly from a Turkic language such as Nogai or Karachay, or indirectly through some Caucasic language, or just plain misheard by Russians.  It’s a nonstandard pronunciation of the Turkic word shishlik, meaning “that which is intended for the skewer.”

Russian Pork Shashlyk

Although shashlyk can be made from any kind of meat, pork is a favorite in many parts of Russia.  Some Russian cooks alternate the cubes of meat with squares of pork fat on the skewer, which keeps the meat moist as it grills. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of most of the fat and cut into 1-1/2- to 2-inch pieces
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1/4 cup white vinegar (or 2 tablespoons white vinegar and 2 tablespoons sour dill pickle brine)
1 large onion, sliced crosswise into thin rings
4 large garlic cloves, minced
4 to 6 whole cloves or whole juniper berries, crushed
2 dried bay leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

Make 2 or 3 small cuts in each cube of meat, so the meat doesn’t “seize up” while grilling.  Combine all the ingredients in a large non-reactive bowl.  Stir to mix well.  Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours, turning the meat 2 or 3 times while it marinates.

Before grilling, let the meat-and-marinade sit, uncovered, for about 30 minutes or until the meat comes to room temperature.  Heat your charcoal until a fine gray-white ash appears on the top.

Thread the meat cubes onto skewers, placing the cubes tightly together to keep the meat from drying out while cooking. (And don’t pat the meat dry before skewering it.)  Discard the marinade. Grill the meat about 4 inches above the hot coals for approximately 15 minutes, turning the meat 2 or 3 times as it cooks, until it is no longer pink in the middle.

Serve immediately, accompanied by chilled vodka or a hearty red wine.  Traditional side dishes include skewered-and-grilled onions, bell peppers, whole or halved fresh red tomatoes, and pickled green tomatoes.  A summer favorite in Russia is new potatoes-whole, small, firm potatoes-first boiled and peeled, then skewered and reheated over the fire to give them a smoky flavor.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scate: Mild

Grilled Vegetables to Accompany Shashlyk

Since vegetables and meats cook at different rates, most Russians prefer to grill them on separate skewers, instead of alternating them on the same skewer. You can also thread whole cherry tomatoes, firm ripe tomatoes (such as Romas), or pickled green tomatoes onto skewers and grill them separately from the meat and other vegetables, since the tomatoes will cook more quickly than these other ingredients.  Some Russians also like to boil small new potatoes in their skins, peel them, and grill them on skewers over charcoal or wood embers, for an especially tasty addition to the shashlyk meal.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
18 small boiling onions or bulb onion bottoms (the fresh green tops of bulb onions can be chopped and used to garnish the grilled meats and vegetables)
2 large green bell peppers, cut into 1-1/2-inch squares
2 large red bell peppers, cut into 1-1/2-inch squares

Whisk together the olive oil, thyme, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.  Add the onions and bell peppers, tossing them with the seasoned oil until they are completely coated.  Thread the vegetables onto 6 skewers, alternating onions and peppers on each skewer.  Grill over hot coals for about 5 minutes, turning the skewers once during that time.  (Watch out when you put the oil-coated vegetables on the grill, because the dripping oil will cause the fire to flare up.  This helps give a slightly charred taste to the vegetables, which is exactly what you want.)

Serve as an accompaniment to any kind of shashlyk-pork, beef lamb, etc.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Russian Cole Slaw (Salat iz Kapusty i Morkovi)

Accompaniments (Coleslaw in the Center)

Cooks on the Trans-Siberian Railroad prepared this Russian version of cole slaw to accompany grilled pork shashlyk for a picnic on the shore of Lake Baikal.  Sunflower oil is essential for a real Russian flavor. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

2-1/2- to 3-pound whole green cabbage, shredded
2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely shredded
1 white onion, chopped medium-fine
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper

Put the shredded cabbage into a large bowl and pour a kettle full of boiling water over it.  Let the cabbage blanch in the hot water for 3 minutes, then pour the cabbage into a colander, run cold water over it, and let it drain thoroughly. 

Toss the cabbage, carrots, and onion together in a large bowl.  Whisk together the oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper until the mixture is emulsified (thick and cloudy).  Pour this dressing over the vegetables and toss to mix thoroughly.  Cover and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours.  Before serving, toss the salad and dressing together again, taste, and add more salt and pepper if desired.
Yield: 8 servings.

Georgian-Style Grilled Beef or Lamb (Basturma)

This recipe comes from the country of Georgia (south of today’s Russian Federation), where the dish is called basturma.  If pomegranate juice is unavailable, you can substitute unsweetened cranberry juice in the marinade.  Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

2 pounds boneless beef sirloin or lamb shoulder, cut into 1-1/2- to 2-inch cubes
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 medium onion, finely grated
1-1/2 cups pomegranate juice (or pure, unsweetened, 100% cranberry juice)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves, crumbled
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Garnishes:  Lettuce leaves, lemon wedges, whole green onions, whole cherry tomatoes (or quartered large tomatoes), pickled hot peppers, cucumber slices, fresh basil or mint, and sprigs of fresh cilantro or parsley

Make 2 or 3 small cuts in each cube of meat, so the meat doesn’t “seize up” during grilling.

Whisk together the oil, red wine, lemon juice, and grated onion in a large glass bowl.  Whisk in the pomegranate juice, salt, pepper, bay leaves, garlic, and cilantro.  Put the meat cubes into the marinade and stir well.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours, turning the meat 2 or 3 times while it marinates. 

Before grilling, let the meat-and-marinade sit, uncovered, for about 30 minutes or until the meat comes to room temperature.  Heat your charcoal until a fine gray-white ash appears on the top.

Thread the meat cubes onto skewers, with the cubes barely touching each other.  Discard the marinade.  Grill the meat about 4 inches above the hot coals for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the size of the meat cubes and the degree of doneness you want), turning the meat 2 or 3 times as it cooks.

Place the skewers of grilled meat on a large serving platter lined with lettuce leaves.  Garnish with lemon wedges, green onions, cherry tomatoes or quartered tomatoes, pickled hot peppers, cucumber slices, fresh basil or mint, and sprigs of fresh cilantro or parsley.

Serve with plain or seasoned white rice, accompanied by Georgian Plum Sauce (Tkemali), Spicy Orange-Pomegranate Relish, and flat bread such as pita or naan.

Yield: 4 servings

Spicy Orange-Pomegranate Relish (Caucasian-Style Fruit Salsa)

Pomegranate seeds give this fresh relish its sweet-tart zing.  Since pomegranates are in season only in the autumn and early winter-and not always easy to find at the grocery store, any time of the year-you can substitute dried cranberries for a similar flavor.  Serve as a spicy relish to accompany Georgian-style grilled beef or lamb.

2 medium seedless oranges
Seeds from 2 medium pomegranates (approximately 1-1/4 cups of fresh seeds), or 1/2 to 3/4 cup dried cranberries
2 green onions (white and tender green parts), thinly sliced crosswise into rings
2 fresh red jalapeños or other fresh hot red peppers (2- to 3-inches long), sliced into thin slivers
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Peel the oranges, remove all the white pith, and separate the oranges into sections.  Slice the orange sections crosswise into 1/2-inch chunks. 

Combine the orange pieces with all the remaining ingredients in a glass bowl, stirring to mix well.  Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 12 hours, stirring occasionally, to let the flavors meld. 

Yield: Approximately 1 cup.
Heat Scale: Medium

Georgian Plum Sauce (Tkemali)
This plum sauce is a traditional accompaniment to Georgian-style grilled beef or lamb.  Its name comes from the type of wild plums used for making it in Georgia.  You can substitute Santa Rosa plums, underripe Italian plums, or any other kind of sour plums.

1 pound tart or sour plums (such as Santa Rosa)
2 large garlic cloves, quartered
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil or mint

Put the plums in a medium saucepan and add enough water to cover them by 1 inch.  Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer the plums, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes.  Drain the cooking water into a bowl and reserve the liquid.

Pit the plums when they are cool enough to handle, but do not remove the peel.  Purée the plums and garlic together in a blender or food processor.  Add the reserved liquid, 1 tablespoon at a time, processing until the mixture is the consistency of thick cream. 

Transfer the purée to a clean saucepan.  Stir in the salt and cayenne pepper.  Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice, cilantro, and basil (or mint).  Let the mixture cool to room temperature before serving.  The cooled plum sauce can also be stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator (up to 3 days) until needed.  Bring to room temperature before serving. 

Yield: Approximately 2 cups

Heat Scale: Mild

Sharon Hudgins is the author of The Other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East (Texas A & M University Press, 2004) and an expert on Russia for National Geographic Expeditions’ Trans-Siberian Railroad tours.

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