BRIEF NOTES ON RUSSIAN CUISINE FOR SINGAPOREAN GOURMANDS
The Opening of an Authentic Russian Restaurant called Buyan in Singapore
By His Excellency Mr. Andrey N. Rozhkov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Singapore
Ambassador Andrey N. Rozhkov having lunch at Buyan
A national cuisine is a significant part of any national culture. The gastronomic constituent of both Singaporean and Russian cultures brings to their bilateral relations incredible opportunities for communication on a very personal level, which is difficult to achieve through any other means and under any other circumstances.
As the Russian Ambassador, whose role is to facilitate, for all intents and purposes, the development of relations between Russia and Singapore, I welcomed with great joy the opening of the first and so far only restaurant in the Lion City that has made itself known as a place with outstanding Russian food, as well as marvellous and diverse interiors in its four dining halls.
In Russia, when a fine dining restaurant proposing Russian cuisine is conceived, a lot of attention is paid to the beauty of its interior, thereby costing its owner an arm and a leg. This is because without a cosy yet conceptually ornate décor, a Russian restaurant can hardly establish itself and compete with other similar eateries. Getting away with a boring although highly economical modern style is out of the question; a high-tech approach and Russian cuisine are incompatible.
To those who may know a little about Russian food but would like to learn more, I could highlight some other significant factors for the proper understanding of historical aspects, as well as specific Russian foodstuffs that have the status of national, or even sacred, symbols. Russia is a country of huge climatic diversity; it is the embodiment of nature's self-sufficiency. Her forests are abundant with game, wild berries, mushrooms and nuts; her steppes and fields are cultivated with various grains and vegetables; her rivers and seas are full of fish; the country's livestock sector supplies the domestic market with meat and poultry. All this is naturally reflected in the peculiarities of Russian cuisine.
On Lenten Fare
The adherence of Russian people to Orthodox Christianity has greatly influenced the shaping of Russian national dishes. A Russian church year consists of a number of quite long fasting periods in addition to Lent, during which Orthodox Christians avoid consuming any meat or dairy products, as well as eggs and even fish. The significance of any fasting period is spiritual cleansing and improvement, which are facilitated by staying clear of animal proteins. I doubt that foreigners are aware of the fact that the total number of fasting days for Orthodox Christians varies between 178 and 212 annually, depending on the year.
During Lent, dishes are prepared from dehydrated mushrooms, potatoes and buckwheat. The latter differs from its Japanese and European counterparts by its dark brown coloration and more intense flavour imparted to it by the high content of health-beneficial iron. Also, salted vegetables such as cabbage and cucumbers and salted mushrooms are enjoyed during the fasting period. There are, of course, wild forest berries, too. These delicious yet simple and basically organic ingredients assist in solving the rather complicated task of full-value vegetative-only nutrition in the context of Russia's cold northern climate.
The Russian saying "Bread is the staff of life" is akin in spirit to the famous maxim of the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, which, when paraphrased in the context of Russian food, would mean that "Bread is the measure of all things".
Bread – baked from both wheat and rye flour – is present at all times on a Russian table. Bread in Russia has an indelibly sacred status, in a similar vein as the line from a prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread". Russian children are strictly prohibited to play with bread, toss it around or sculpt figurines from its soft inner part. Incidentally, such sacrilegious manipulations with bread are widespread among criminals and are part of prison culture.
Vodka is an indispensable component of a lengthy, hours-long Russian feast. There is an interesting theory about the three European alcohol belts, each of which corresponds to a certain climate, agriculture and national mentality. The southern belt is associated with wine and is represented by Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. The middle beer belt runs through Germany, Belgium, England and the Czech Republic. The northern belt are the lands of strong spirits, such as Scotland, Scandinavia, Finland, Poland and Russia, the latter being Europe's spiritual base and the realm of cold that moulds strength of spirit.
I'll take the liberty of suggesting several recommendations for the initial appreciation and proper consumption of vodka, the characteristic drink of Russians. It should be drunk in one big gulp – not necessarily the entire glass, though – followed by some starters (zakouski). I strictly advise you against drinking water or any other drink after you have just had vodka. Vodka is enjoyed throughout dinner up to dessert time, when it gives way to tea and sweet liqueurs. Vodka must have no taste or smell; it should be pure and transparent like the truth, to which people drinking it tend to aspire under its magical influence.
In the course of a lengthy Russian dinner with vodka, a peculiar atmosphere builds up conducive to bringing up rather extraordinary topics such as what is true reality, what are the foundations of one's existence, what is the meaning of life. These discussions result, at times, in unique intellectual discoveries and breakthroughs allowing one to peek behind the bleak curtain of daily routine.
Russians adore mushrooms. They love not only to eat or pick them in forests but they love them in their own right, as a natural phenomenon. At the end of summer and during autumn, Russia's forests turn into arenas in which "mushroom hunting" takes place – a genuinely Russian passion that unites people regardless of their position or class. One must have a flare for words in order to describe the real and spontaneous connection between a human being and nature, to paint a vivid picture of the sensations of a person wandering through the forest, basket in hand, inhaling the cool, crisp air suffused with the smell of grass, soil, the upcoming autumn and, naturally, mushrooms.
I myself belong to the glorious cohort of mushroom fans. I start mushroom picking as early as April, when the Moscow suburbs sprout with absolutely delicious saddle fungi (relatives of the less abundant and more expensive morels). I finish the mushroom season when the first snow covers the ground, in early November, by picking saffron milk caps – rare mushrooms with a marvellous, distinctive taste, which one must know how to salt properly for preserving.
Mushrooms collected from the forest are sorted by type as each requires different preparation methods: some are dehydrated, others are salted, and what remains is pan-fried with sour cream and consumed on the spot. The best Russian mushroom is the cep (Boletus edulis), a cousin of the Italian porcini. Also famous are milk caps and chanterelles – these are but the above-water tip of the Russian mushroom iceberg.
Such is a far from complete list of important things to consider when attempting to understand Russian cuisine. I do not mention caviar on purpose since its astronomical price of late forces one to view it as a symbol of luxury rather than as a nationwide foodstuff.
On Soviet Cuisine
Multinational Soviet cuisine has more right to be called imperial than its strictly Russian predecessor, despite the fact that the USSR – the country that shaped the Soviet menu – was not an empire at all, while old Russia, on the contrary, was known as the Russian Empire. Speaking about Soviet gastronomic heritage, one may draw parallels with delightful Peking cuisine based on the pretentious selection of the best things from numerous and diverse styles of provincial Chinese cooking. Soviet cuisine differs from its mono-ethnic predecessor due to a wider range of gustatory sensations thanks to the addition of spicy dishes in which lots of oriental and southern spices and herbs, unknown to the Russian culinary tradition, are used. In this sense, absolute favourites are Uzbek, Georgian, Kazakh and Ukrainian dishes.
When discussing the modern state in which the majority of national cuisines affected by the multicultural trend find themselves today, I would like to tread lightly on the subject of global integration. Its beneficial influence is highly disputable when applied to aspects of people's traditional affairs such as cooking and meals.
Fusion is, by all means, a creative process but, at the same time, it is also a sign of general decline and vote-of-no-confidence of sorts in one's national culinary traditions and their self-sufficiency. This symptom, in my personal opinion, is rather deplorable and unsettling as it is indicative of the sad exchange that has taken place right before one's own eyes, an exchange in which healthy gustatory combinations proven over the centuries have been substituted with artificial and mostly commercially justifiable concoctions. I guess it is yet another simulacrum that permeates our times, times in which the novelty criterion has been elevated to the heights of self-supporting and self-contained factors, quite undeservedly.
Interiors of Buyan, the Russian restaurant in Singapore
I do not object to the creative process per se or the search for new flavours. However, I am against absurdity, the obsessive pursuit to match the unmatchable in defiance of nature, when, for instance, a cucumber is served with chocolate or foie gras with shrimp.
Wrapping up my notes on this highly disputable theme, I'd like to comment on the novelty of the excessively extravagant manner in which some dishes are served today. This is when a minimum of edible ingredients are arranged in a picturesque pattern on a plate and the description of the dish takes more time and effort to read than the dish itself to eat. I believe that when one wishes to quench one's thirst for beautiful things and delight one's eyes with pieces of art, one should go to a museum or art gallery, not a restaurant.
Due to what I have just mentioned above, I am so happy to congratulate both Singaporeans and the local Russian community on the opening of a real Russian restaurant in Singapore: Buyan. I hope that its owner, Julia Sherstyuk, who has been a friend of the Russian Embassy for many years and also publisher and editor-in-chief of the Russian-English magazine 103rd Meridian East will live up to our expectations and continue, with her distinctive energy and perfectionism, to successfully popularise Russian cuisine in Singapore.
Text and photos Natalia Makarova