By Sharon Hudgins
Location Photos by Tom and Sharon Hudgins
Nobody thinks of Siberian foods as spicy-hot. And in general that’s true. But delve beyond surface impressions and pallid Russian restaurant fare, and you’ll soon encounter some surprisingly spicy elements of this northern cuisine.
In the past, the traditional hunter-gatherer-herder cuisine of native Siberian nomads was based primarily on wild game and fish, domesticated reindeer, and plants such as berries, wild garlic, and the roots of wild lilies. But today 95 percent of Siberia’s population is of European Slavic descent, and three-fourths of all Siberians live in urban areas.
Residents of Siberian cities get their food from three main sources: grocery stores (still not as modern as those in the West); city markets, farmers’ markets, and street vendors; and their own dacha gardens where they grow fruits and vegetables on little plots of land surrounding the cities. Grocery stores stock domestic and imported products. Farmers’ markets sell fresh meat and produce, as well as some processed foods, local and foreign. But most Russians still believe, rightly so, that the best foods are home-grown and home-preserved.
The Siberian side of the Russian Federation covers all of Asian Russia from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. (The easternmost part of this vast geographical area is known as the Russian Far East.) Extending over eight time zones from west to east, and 3,000 miles from north to south, Greater Siberia (including the Russian Far East) encompasses 5.3 million square miles of territory, most of it located above 50 degrees latitude North, more northerly on the globe than all the United States except Alaska.
Where would you expect to find spicy foods in such a place? For a start, in the southern part of Siberia, where I lived for sixteen months–in the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, near the converging borders of Russia, China, and North Korea, and in the city of Irkutsk, situated in Siberia’s heartland, about 100 miles north of Mongolia. That might not seem “south” to most Americans. But it sure does to Siberians. After all, Vladivostok is one of Russia’s southernmost major cities, on approximately the same latitude as Monaco, Madrid, and Milwaukee. And you can certainly get spicy foods in all those places.
Since the nineteenth century, Korean and Chinese immigrants and traders have brought their tastes for spicy foods to the city of Vladivostok. And farther into Siberia, Chinese and Central Asian merchants have come north to the markets of Irkutsk to sell the sweet and hot peppers that grow more easily in less frigid climes.
When I lived in Vladivostok in the mid-1990s, Russia’s new market economy offered a wide variety of food products, domestic and imported. From September to mid-October, the farmers’ markets of Vladivostok were filled with fresh peppers: green, red, and yellow bells; large green and red tomato-shaped peppers, with a mild but rich flavor; long, sweet peppers much like Hungarian ones, pale yellow-green or bright yellow in color; very dark green peppers, similar to small bells but pointed at the base; triangular-shaped peppers like Spanish pimientos de piquillos, ranging in color from pale green to dark green to bright red; long, wide, red and green peppers, similar in size, shape, and taste to New Mexico ones; long, thin, very hot, medium-green peppers; and long, pointed, bright red or jalapeño-green peppers, very much like de Aguas.
A Great Variety of Peppers
Russians sometimes thread ripe-red hot peppers onto strings, then hang them up to dry in kitchen windows and on apartment balconies. Once I also saw a potted Thai pepper plant for sale in the market–and another on someone’s balcony–but these were rare, grown mainly for their ornamental value, since the peppers’ taste is far too hot for the typical Russian’s palate. In fact, the Russian aversion to very hot-spicy flavors can be seen in the Russian idiom, zadat’ pertsu–“to give pepper”–which means to berate someone soundly, to punish him, to “make it hot” for him.
In the markets, when I asked vendors the names of all these fresh peppers, they just looked blank, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “peppers.” Some distinguished between sladkii (“sweet,” mild peppers) and gor’kii, which actually means “bitter,” but which many people also used as the word for “hot-spicy.” Product labels on cans or bottles of commercially preserved peppers sometimes identified them as zhguchii (burning or stinging) or ostryi (sharp). Russian cooks whom I knew in the Far East just called all mild-tasting, fleshy peppers, “Bulgarian peppers,” and all hot ones, “Korean peppers.”
In the open-air markets, small kiosks, and newly privatized food stores, it was also possible to find a wide variety of preserved peppers, most of them imported from Hungary, Bulgaria, and Moldova. Preserved peppers included whole, very hot, red and green peppers (much like hot New Mexican); long strips of fleshy, bright red Macedonian peppers, mild to medium-hot in taste; long, thin, hot green, red, and orange pickled peppers; and Bulgarian letcho (sort of like a Slavic version of ratatouille) made from red and green sweet peppers, onions, tomatoes, and tomato paste.
Russians home-preserve much of the produce they grown in their own gardens. Especially popular for canning are cucumbers, ripe red tomatoes, and green tomatoes (unripe ones picked before the first frost). These are packed into 3-liter jars and preserved in a salt brine or vinegar marinade. Several whole cloves of garlic, sprigs of fresh dill, whole coriander seeds or mustard seeds, and one or two long, thin, hot red peppers are often added to the jars for seasoning. And after the tomatoes or cucumbers have been consumed, the pungent brine is drunk as a hangover cure.
I was surprised to discover that Asian Russians make a kind of salsa from sweet and hot red peppers, tomatoes, garlic, salt, and sometimes other ingredients such as carrots, onions, sunflower-seed oil, and coriander seeds. I bought some mean homemade salsas that were hot, garlicky, and definitely not for the faint-hearted–from the granny-ladies selling them in the markets of Vladivostok and Irkutsk, where this spicy condiment was called adzhiga. Later I learned that adzhiga (also spelled adzhika, ajika) is a hot-pepper paste originally from the country of Georgia in the Caucasus. Although the Georgians use it as both a cooking ingredient and a garnish for grilled meats, the Russians I knew used adzhiga mainly as a flavoring agent to enhance the taste of soups and stews.
But Russians in general do not cook hot-spicy dishes. They prefer to add zing to cooked foods by using condiments at the table. Condiment sets (for dry spices) are sold in groups of three–for salt, black pepper, and paprika. Whenever black pepper isn’t available, hot paprika is often substituted. Glass cruets contain strong, sharp-tasting, white vinegar and, in the Russian Far East, soy sauce. Bottled ketchup and hot, garlicky, red “chilli” sauces (the latter usually from Vietnam) are often put on the table, even in the fanciest restaurants.
Native Siberian Woman with
Red Chile Powder
On the Russian table you’re also likely to find a pot of brownish-yellow mustard. Don’t let its color fool you into thinking that the taste is similar to German sweet mustard, which it looks like. Russian mustard is one of the hottest foods in the whole country, with a pungency approaching Colman’s strongest. Used sparingly–as an accompaniment to cold beef, ham, turkey, and tongue–this condiment definitely adds kick to an otherwise not-so-spicy cuisine.
In October and November, freshly prepared horseradish makes its way into the farmers’ markets. Most is standard ivory-white in color, made from peeled and shredded horseradish root combined with water, salt, vinegar, and a bit of sugar. Pink horseradish gets its hue from beet juice added to the mixture; pale-orange horseradish is tinted with carrot juice. Contrary to their aversion to most hot-spicy foods, the Russians love horseradish, using it both as a table condiment and a cooking ingredient. Once when I was shopping for horseradish in an open-air market, a vendor described his product’s pungency by quickly pulling his fur hat straight up off the top of his head–the perfect pantomime of “it’s so strong it’ll blow your hat off!”
Another Russian product that has a similar effect is pertsovka, pepper-flavored vodka. One version is made by steeping whole black peppercorns in vodka. But a stronger type is made by infusing very hot small red peppers in the clear liquor, producing a drink that tastes much like alcoholic jalapeno juice.
Both black pepper and capsicum peppers were probably introduced to Asian Russia via the trade routes from China. During the 300 years that Mongols and Tatars ruled much of what is now Russia, from the mid-thirteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century, trade between China and the West greatly increased. Across the Asian land mass came such exotic spices as ginger, saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, and black pepper. Both capsicum peppers and tea arrived later, also from the warmer climates south of Siberia.
But in those areas conquered by the descendants of Genghis Khan, the local Russians and other non-Asian ethnic groups adopted few of the dishes and cooking techniques of their Asian overlords. An exception was pickled, fermented cabbage, known in the West as sauerkraut. The technique of preserving cabbage with salt had been developed by the Chinese and later carried westward into Europe by the Tatars. In turn, it was carried back into Asian Russia by the Europeans (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, and others) who eventually settled in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Today in the markets of Vladivostok you can purchase homemade European-style sau kverkraut (mild-tasting, slightly soured white cabbage known as kislaia kapusta, and stronger, more fermented white cabbage called kvashenaia kapusta), as well as sauerkraut’s ancient (and much more pungent) close cousin, Korean kimchi.
After the Russians regained power over their lost territories and began pushing their borders southward toward the Caucasus and eastward into Siberia, they also began to adopt some of the foods and cooking techniques of the Asians they had conquered. In the mid-sixteenth century, during this early period of Muscovite expansion, the Russians learned how to make pasta from their Tatar subjects. Since that time, noodles and filled dumplings have been a popular part of Russian cuisine. Today macaroni, spaghetti, and vermicelli are common foods on both the European and the Asian sides of Russia.
Pel’meni–filled dumplings made of egg-noodle dough–are considered to be the quintessential Siberian pasta dish. These bite-size, meat-filled pockets of dough, shaped somewhat like Italian tortelloni, are consumed in great quantities by Russians throughout the country. An old tradition in Siberian villages was for the entire community to gather in the late autumn for a massive pel’meni-making fest, where the labor of mixing, rolling, and stuffing the pasta was divided among many hands. Often the work culminated in pel’meni-eating contests, much like hot-dog- or jalapeño-eating contests in America. The remaining pel’meni were packed into bags or barrels, left outdoors to freeze, and then eaten during the long harsh winter. Some food historians even claim that Siberian pel’meni were the world’s first “frozen convenience food.”
Traditionally pel’meni are filled with a mixture of minced beef and pork, or beef alone, seasoned with onion, salt, and pepper. Some cooks also add a little garlic or a pinch of hot paprika. Reindeer, elk, and bear meat–and occasionally fish–are also used as fillings. The pel’meni are boiled in seasoned water or beef broth, then drained and tossed with butter before serving. Sometimes the pel’meni are served swimming in the broth–in shallow soup bowls or in deep-sided ceramic or porcelain pots.
Pel’meni served “straight” (without broth) are often garnished with additional butter and globs of rich Russian sour cream. But they’re just as likely to be eaten with a smearing of super-hot Russian mustard, or a sprinkling of vinegar, or a mixture of the two–once again reflecting the Oriental influence on Asian Russian cuisine. And now that imported products have become more available in Siberia, I’ve seen Russians douse their pel’meni with spicy American “Chili Ketchup” and much hotter Vietnamese “Chilli Sauce”–giving lie to the stereotype that Russians eat only bland foods.
Editor’s Note: Sharon Hudgins is an award-winning cookbook author and culinary journalist who has written extensively about Russian foods. Her book on Russia is The Other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East (Texas A & M University Press, 2003).
Photo: Norman Johnson
Called pikantny syr (spicy cheese) in Russian, this is a popular appetizer in Siberia and the Russian Far East. In restaurants it is usually served as a stuffing for ripe red tomatoes, or as a spread for chewy-textured Russian bread. The combination of cheeses used in this recipe approximates the taste of the cheese used in Asian Russia. Plenty of garlic provides the kick; you can also add some cayenne pepper to make the cheese even hotter. Russians make this dish by putting all the ingredients through a meat grinder–but you can shred the cheese by hand or even use a food processor.
1/2 pound (8 ounces) medium-sharp white cheddar cheese, finely shredded
1/2 pound (8 ounces) Emmentaler cheese, finely shredded
1/4 cup pure sour cream (containing no additives)
1/4 cup full-fat mayonnaise
8 to 10 large garlic cloves, put through a garlic press
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper or hot paprika (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Toss the shredded cheeses by hand in a large bowl. Mix together the sour cream, mayonnaise, pressed garlic, hot pepper (optional), and salt in a small bowl, then add to the cheese, stirring to mix well. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours (and preferably overnight) to let the flavors meld. Let the cheese mixture come to room temperature before serving. Use as a stuffing for small firm ripe tomatoes or cherry tomatoes, as a topping for baked potatoes, or as a spread for dark bread.
Yield: Approximately 3 cups.
Heat scale: Medium
This sauce is an excellent accompaniment to grilled meats, including sausages, as well as cold meats (beef, tongue, pork, ham) and smoked fish (salmon, sprats). Don’t even consider making this sauce “lighter” by using American “lite” sour cream and mayonnaise. Rich, creamy, pure sour cream (with no additives) and full-fat mayonnaise are essential for the best flavor and texture in this recipe.
3 tablespoons prepared horseradish (drained before measuring)
1/2 cup pure sour cream (containing no additives)
1/2 cup full-fat mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and shredded
1/4 teaspoon sugar (optional)
Put the horseradish into a sieve and press as much liquid as possible out of it before measuring it. Combine all ingredients in a small glass bowl and whisk them together until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving.
Yield: About 1 1/2 cups of sauce.
Heat Scale: Mild
Korean Carrot Salad (Russian Far East)
This is a popular appetizer in Primorskii Krai (Russia’s Maritime Territory), reflecting the Korean influence on the cuisine of that region. Korean vendors in the markets of Vladivostok and Ussuriisk sell this spicy salad, ready made, in clear plastic tubes and Russians who live in proximity to Koreans have incorporated this recipe into their own culinary repertoire. There are several variations of this recipe and some are more spicy than others–using ingredients such as black pepper, ground coriander seeds, bay leaves, parsley, vinegar, and sugar, as well as foraged foods such as wild onions and wild garlic.
1 pound (16 ounces) carrots, peeled and grated lengthwise into long thin strips
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sunflower-seed oil
2 large garlic cloves, put through a garlic press
1 green onion (white and tender green parts), finely chopped
Put the grated carrots into a medium-size heatproof bowl. Make a well in the center of the carrots, pushing them aside so you see the bottom of the bowl. Put the cayenne pepper and salt into this well. Heat the oil in a small skillet until it is very hot. Pour the hot oil over the spices in the bowl, stirring rapidly to mix them into the oil. Stir the pressed garlic into the oil. Then stir the seasoned oil into the grated carrots until all the ingredients are well combined. Add the chopped green onion and toss the ingredients to mix them together well.
Cover and refrigerate until needed. This salad tastes best if you make it a day in advance, for the flavors to develop fully. Let the chilled carrot salad sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 small servings as an appetizer or 4 servings as a side dish to accompany a main course.
Heat scale: Medium
This fresh red pepper paste is popular among those Russians who like spicy foods.
3 large red jalapeño peppers (about 1/4 pound), coarsely chopped
2 red bell peppers (about 1/2 pound), seeded, deveined, and coarsely chopped
8 large garlic cloves, quartered
1/2 teaspoon salt (or more, to taste)
Put all the ingredients into a food processor and use the pulse control to process them into a coarse, thick paste. The mixture should not be pureed or liquified. Transfer the adzhiga to a clean class jar, cover tightly, and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days to let the flavors ripen. Taste and add more salt if desired. (I usually add up to 1/2 teaspoon more of salt, to make this condiment taste like the ones I ate in Siberia.)
Use as a condiment to accompany grilled meats, or stir a tablespoon or two into soups and stews, as a flavor enhancer. Adzhiga can be kept in a tightly covered jar in the refrigerator up to 1 week.
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
Heat Scale: Medium