One of my friends adores Belarusian pancakes, traditionally known as draniki. These delicious pastries are made of potatoes, eggs and flour and are included in over 40 authentic recipes.
My friend can go on forever talking about draniki, but, one day, while he and I were traveling to Minsk (the capital of Belarus), he was just salivating over them. Two hours into the train ride, a woman from a neighboring car came over to us and said, “You’ve said the word draniki 20,000 times now. If you don’t stop, I am going to jump out of this moving train!”
My friend answered, “Yes, ma’am. The heart of a man contains a bit of everything: love, friendship, grievances, hopes and dreams. And since I was a child, draniki has occupied a special place in my heart. Do you want to know why? Because my mother made them – as did my grandmother, my grandmother’s grandmother, and all Belarusian mothers and grandmothers.”
One of the best ways to learn about a nation is to sample its traditional foods, and the roots of Belarusian cuisine date back to pagan times. In those days, people believed that everything had a soul, even grains of wheat or the heads of garlic, and cooking encompassed various religious and ritualistic preparations.
Thus, much of present-day Belarusian cuisine is rooted in the ancient past, even if it has been somewhat modernized.
Mmmmmm, I’m smacking my lips, but let’s talk about this a bit.
So, what’s on today’s menu?
My meat-loving, Belarusian ancestors hunted for elk, wild boar, beaver, hare, deer, bear and other native animals in the rich forests. In addition to hunting, they kept domestic livestock in order to have a ready supply of pork, lamb, beef and veal.
Pork has been a main ingredient in famous Belarusian sausages as well as viandlina. Viandlina, primarily produced in Po- land and Belarus, consists of smoked and cured bits of pork, ham, bacon, sausage, and pork belly, all diced and mixed together. It’s finger licking good! It is important to note that the proportion of the mixed meats in viandlina depends on local customs and traditions.
Two traditional meat dishes that have been passed down from ancient times include pechisty and zharёnka. Pechisty consists of boiled, steamed, or roasted boar, rabbit, chicken, pork or beef. Zharёnka is a meat stew with vegetables and mushrooms and requires both a fork and spoon to eat, in order to ensure that all of the juicy, natural meat and vegetable gravy is consumed.
Historically, meat appeared frequently on the tables of wealthy Belarusians, but it accentuated peasants’ meals as well. Peasants enjoyed a special fare called machanka – a thick sauce created by stewing meat or kvas (light beer) with hunks of ribs, sausage, flour, sour cream and onion. This rich medley was accompanied by famous draniki, which were dipped into the stew, much to the pleasure of Belarusians.
Another meat-based dish that is considered a national masterpiece is vantrobyanka. This dish, similar to sausage, combines boiled and minced pig lungs, livers, hearts, kidneys and other offal which is then stuffed into a pork intestine or stomach. This beautiful homemade sausage reminds one of head cheese or brawn but results in a much tastier product. Belarusians make their own brawn as well, pressing pork, bacon, tongue, liver and other organs into a type of layered product, and vary this ac- cording to local customs. The varied fillings can include tasty morsels like ham, ribs, shanks, pork ears and salt pork. Belarusians adore this dish even more so than the tastiest hamburgers.
As for fowl, Belarusians enjoy dining on chicken, duck, grouse, pigeon, and many
other native birds. Traditional specialties include smoked fowl, cured duck and baked or roasted goose served with mushrooms and grains.
Aside from meat dishes, there are also many more delectable Belarusian dishes, with every region putting its own spin on cuisine. The only consistent dish is draniki, which turns out to be mostly the same in every corner of the country.
Braslav Lakes is home to vast numbers of different freshwater fish, and it was from these lakes that His Majesty – Russian Tsar, enjoyed the royals’ favorite fish – sturgeon. Although Belarusians imported salted herring from the Baltic countries, thereby making it readily available to all, their favorite seafood meal was, is, and always will be fried carp marinated in sour cream.
The earliest alcoholic drinks that were available in Belarus included beer, mead, moonshine and, of course, krambambula – the Belarusian national drink. Through- out Belarus’s history, wild honey was cultivated by the people, and a famous Belarusian drink, mead, was developed from its natural fermentation. Krambambula is a liqueur that is also derived from honey and spices and can be served either cold or warm.
Beer was brewed in a small castle in large quantities and became the main drink of the nobility and commoners alike. However, locals also often mixed the beer with egg yolks, white cheese and sour cream, and the resulting brew was served as tea or coffee to the middle class. Importantly, there is kvas, which is a well-known light beer. In fact, it even has its own proverb: “A good kvas will knock your socks off!”
A non-alcoholic drink that is enjoyed in Belarus is berezovik, a rich drink, full of vitamins and minerals, which is made from birch trees and is actually beloved by all Slavs. Another non-alcoholic drink, klenovik, is a maple syrup brew and can
be served freshly made or fermented. Teas from various plants, compotes of apples and pears, lightly fermented beers, and fruit drinks also liven up many Belarusian tables.
Traditional Belarusian bread-based dishes consist of sachni, which are thick flour pancakes with various fillings, and skavarodniki, which are sour dough cakes used in place of bread. Buckwheat, wheat, oats, and rye bread – on its own or baked with barley – are all common staples of the Belarusian diet, while baked goods such as crepes, cakes and loaves of bread have also appeared on many tables, especially during holidays. Furthermore, you might be lucky to find delicious Belarusian dumplings on your table.
Though all unique, bread-based items are usually cooked up from a dough boiled in water, and then seasoned with milk, bacon, and lard-fried onion. What a smell freshly baked bread exudes! And how captivating is the loaf ’s crispy crust!
THIS AND THAT
Thick soups and stews dominate Belarusian cuisine. Polivka is a meat and vegetable blend, and krupenya is a sturdy stew comprised of boiled potatoes, pearl
barley, meats, bacon, onion and broth skit consists of fresh or pickled cabbage, which serves as the main ingredient in the thick mixture. Skit can also include onions, potatoes, carrots or tomatoes, as well as grains like wheat or barley. In addition these main ingredients, garlic, bay leaf, black pepper or juniper berries might also be added to the skit for flavoring.
Of course, one cannot forget to mention the regional cold soup of natural, organic vegetables. Like other Belarusian dishes, this soup contains nutritious ingredients that can be beneficial to one’s health. Furthermore, all the meats, vegetables and fruits are grown without chemicals or additives, just as they were 200 years ago.
Despite the prevalence of fine local ingredients, ancient Belarusian princes dined on many imported products, such as those from the Byzantine Empire and the southern countries of Western Europe. Most notable amongst the delicacies relished by this nobility were grape wines, dried tropical fruits, olive oil and spices. Outside of nobility, Belarusians sparingly applied spices to their cuisine since the natural taste of whole ingredients pleased the general populace. Even so, locally-grown seasonings included cumin, coriander, mustard, juniper, cherry and oak leaves.
Over the centuries, other delicious dishes have been made using boiled peas, such as those with bacon, peas and oatmeal, and porridge made with barley, peas and bean flour. Goat cheese and a type of soft-curd cheese, dried to a crumbling consistency, have always been considered a delicacy. Many Belarusians supplemented soups, cereals and grains with sour cream, milk and creamy butter. Flaxseed oil, hempseed oil, and, occasionally, olive oil, were used for cooking until the popular introduction of sunflower oil.
Some vegetables that are beloved in Belarus include turnips, beets, carrots, parsnips and cucumbers – in fact, there is both a famous song and fairy tale based on cucumbers. The sublime and fragrant cucumber ferments in a fragrant brine, and the pickling results in its preservation as well as the preservation of other vegetables and fruits such as berries, watermelons, tomatoes, and apples. In Belarus, local orchards have always provided fresh apples to the public and, also, pears, plums, cherries, currants, cranberries, lingonberries, blueberries and wild raspberries.
Commonly called a bulb, the potato remains one of the most treasured foods in the Belarusian kitchen. In fact, Europeans teasingly call Belarusians bulbashi, although no offense is meant or taken by this affectionate moniker. When introduced, potatoes caused a culinary revolution in Belarus, and, even today, the variety of potato dishes concocted by Belarusians is unparalleled. The country’s climate provides ideal growing conditions for potatoes, resulting in both a high quality product and delectable flavor. Many people, even those living outside of Belarus, claim that Belarusian potatoes are even better than Iowa spuds.
Nevertheless, cabbage forever holds the premier spot as the most popular vegetable in Belarus, and it is consumed throughout the year to help ward off seasonal diseases. It can be eaten raw, simply salted, or pickled in oak barrels. The pickling of cabbage begins in winter, early spring and late autumn.
Another staple of Belarusian cuisine is mushrooms. After being soaked, salted and dried for preservation, mushrooms are added to soups, gravies, and both meat and fish dishes. To discover the meaning of life, just sip on a chef prepared soup of dried porcini mushrooms with sour cream!
Belarusian cuisine occupies a special place in the culture, and foodies delight in the unique cookery. Although the ethnically-authentic meals consist of amazing flavor and variations, many Belarusian meals are made visually-appealing by the addition of native art to the presentation as well. Belarusian chefs cook exceptionally well, and, when offering national treats to foreigners, they go the extra mile to ensure that the cuisine will delight its consumers.
Despite the inclusion of fine ingredients and its exceptional preparation, the most important facet of Belarusian cuisine is the hospitality that locals display towards guests and visitors when offering both comfort and warm companionship. A beloved toast in Minsk is: “Here’s to love, strong and true, like our people!”
All people can toast to fantastic cuisine; it’s what binds people from all nations. And if America and Belarus were to share a generous table for common good, there is no doubt that our nations would be bound in friendship. The temptation of Belarusian food is, simply put, irresistible!
By Andrey Sinyak
Contact Information: Hotel Victoria 59 Pobeditelej ave., Minsk Republic of Belarus, 220035 (+375 17) 209-60-40 www.hotel-victoria.by firstname.lastname@example.org