Cookbook:Cuisine of Belarus

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Cookbook | Recipes | Ingredients | Cuisines | European cuisines

Although Belarusian cuisine derives from the same common sources as those of its neighbours - Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Poles, and in later times Russians - it is sometimes considered as somewhat less rich and impressive than those of its imposing neighbours. In fact, however, this may result from the general lack of national identity which still continues to hold back the development of a nation and also led to the loss of many culinary traditions in the last 100 years. The history of gastronomy in Belarus reveals a highly exotic rather than a poor cuisine.

Aside from its predominantly Ruthenian roots, Belarusian cuisine is very close to Lithuanian. After the union with Poland in 1569, Polish influence became strong in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Though both the Polish elite and the Belarusian nobility borrowed much from Italian, German and French cuisines, this influence hardly made itself felt in the diet of the serf peasant majority until the abolition of serfdom. Some of the borrowed dishes, however, spread throughout the society, such as lazanki (a mixture of flour dumplings and stewed meat, related to Italian lasagna) and, above all, various dishes made of grated potato, typical for German cuisine.

Since wheat does not grow well in a cold and wet climate Belarusians were always fond of a kind of somewhat sour rye bread, and the most traditional hard drink, harelka, closely related to Russian vodka, was distilled primarily from a rye malt.

Belarusians can boast of a huge variety of bliny (pancakes) of various thickness, plain and filled, made mostly of wheat or buckwheat flour, but also using oatmeal (tsadaviki).

Various kinds of cereal especially barley, oatmeal and buckwheat were common. Belarus was the likely centre of Europe’s buckwheat culture, and dishes made with this healthy grain used to be very popular: various kinds of buns, cakes and dumplings which, except for the well-known "kasha", no longer exist today.

The main vegetables were cabbage (often made into sauerkraut) and beets, while turnips, swedes, parsnip and carrots both stewed and boiled (with the addition of a small amount of milk) were somewhat less popular. As elsewhere in Europe, legumes were the main source of protein, mainly in the form of kamy (puree of peas or beans with melted lard).


Haladnik, a cold sour soup of beet, beet tops or dock (a sour plant of the buckwheat family, growing everywhere in the wild) served with sour cream, boiled eggs and potatoes) for a long time was the subject of jeers from Belarus' Polish neighbours – until they borrowed this dish in the late 18th century, when it became a fixture in Polish cuisine.


Kalduny, small boiled dumplings related to Russian pelmeni and Italian ravioli, were produced in endless combinations of dough, filling and sauce. Especially popular were Count Tyshkevich’s kalduny (filled with a mixture of fried local mushrooms and smoked ham). In the late 19th century kalduny began to be made with grated potato rather than with a flour-based dough and, unfortunately, the former huge variety of fillings shrank considerably. Today, kalduny have to struggle vigorously to regain their former popularity, now overtaken by Russian pelmeni. Sadly, this is true of many traditional Belarusian dishes which lost their places both on tables and in minds to the standardized and faceless cuisine of the Soviet period.

The main dairy products include a kind of cottage cheese, once a common offering to pagan deities, and sour cream which is widely (if not ruthlessly!) used in cooking. Only in the mid-19th century was fermented cheese was borrowed from the Netherlands and Switzerland, and the local version of Edam was very popular for decades in the Russian Empire. Sour butter from the former Dzisna county was proudly exported to England, where it continued to be the most expensive variety up to World War I. Today, however, these traditions have become a thing of the past.

Traditional drinks include biarozavik, a fermented birch sap; thick saladukha, made of rye floor and honey; kisiel, the traditional jelly drink of all Slavonic peoples, previously made of oatmeal floor, now is made with potato flour flavoured with pulp of various forest berries.

Babka

Belarusian cuisine owes much to Jewish cooking, since for centuries Jews had a virtual monopoly on inn-keeping. In the 19th century Jewish influence was especially noticeable in bringing in potato dishes of German origin, such as babka (the kugel of the Jewish cuisine). This was a two-way gastronomic street, for the famous bulba latkes, the potato pancakes of the East European Jews, bear a Belarusian name, since Belarusians prefer to call them draniki; both draniki and bulba latkes are Belarusian words, but "latkes" is now primarily used to describe the dish in Jewish cuisine. The potato became so common in 19th century – there are some 300+ dishes recorded in Belarus – that it came to be considered the core of the national cuisine. In the Soviet Union, Belarusians were scornfully called bulbashi, potato-eaters; today this humiliating cliché of the Soviet times is beginning to fade. Another important minority ethnic group which influenced Belarusian cuisine were the Tartars, whose cuisine was especially strong in various cakes with fillings, mutton and vegetable dishes.

The political upheavals of the 20th century completely wiped out the former privileged classes, gentry and bourgeoisie, the bearers of more sophisticated and western-oriented spiritual and material culture. Many traditional upper and middle class dishes went down the path of oblivion. The very idea of a separate Belarusian cuisine was treated with suspicion. Only after World War II did it occur to the communist authorities that the proclaimed ‘flourishing of national culture’ (Stalin even thrust Belarusian puppet ‘state’ upon the founders of the UN in 1945) should also be evident in the cuisine. The only source which was permitted for such a culinary reconstruction, however, was the heritage of the poorest peasants as of the 1880s, a time when primitive rural lifestyle was already on the wane. Chefs were instructed by the Party, however, to create the new Belarusian cuisine from scratch. And so it was. Dish names, recipes, kitchenware – all were reinvented anew, as though ten centuries of history had never existed. Only the sudden and (for many) unexpected advent of independence in 1991 brought an opportunity to restore these lost traditions, and a great deal still remains to be done here.

Modern Belarusian cuisine is still heavily influenced by its recent Soviet past, and many local restaurants feature Russian, or Soviet dishes rather than true specialties of local cuisine. Belarusians are far are more concerned with getting to know Italian, Chinese, Japanese cuisine than with the careful restoration of their own culinary heritage. However, draniki (both plain and stuffed), boršč, haladnik, mačanka, zrazy, cold meat rolls, eggs stuffed with mushrooms, halubtsy, fried ‘shoved-with-a-finger’ pork sausage and bliny are likely to be found everywhere, as well as sour rye bread.

Typical salads are made of a fairly short list of ingredients: endless combinations of boiled beef or chicken, potato, beet, carrot, apple, herring, diced cheese, canned peas and corn, canned fish, ‘crab fingers’, onions and mushrooms, and are generously seasoned with mayonnaise or sunflower oil. Soups are much more authentic, both hot (shchi, boršč, sorrel soup) and especially cold sour soups which provide cooling relief during the hot summer. Pork dishes are usually fried or stewed, with cheese or mushrooms seasoning. Beef steaks are also quite frequent, but mutton, once very popular, is almost entirely limited to Caucasian or Central Asian restaurants.

Historically, Belarusians had little contact with fish from the sea, and this is still evident in the cuisine. The most common sea fish (after herring, which has been the most common appetizer all along the Baltic coast and its vicinity ever since the 14th century) are hake and cod and there are relatively few dishes with such fish. Much more traditional and common are lake fish, notably zander, cooked in endless ways, and carp (especially the famous stuffed carp, the gefilte fisch of Jewish cuisine). Eels, smoked or stuffed, are the specialty of the lake country in the northwestern part of Belarus, adjacent to Latvia and Lithuania.

Garnishes are usually boiled, fried or mashed potatoes, rice or pasta. Meat dishes are frequently served with bliny or draniki in rounded clay pots. While Belarusians consider kasha (cereals) as rather ordinary dishes and cook them frequently at home, they are more rarely found in restaurants.

Kvass is still the main local soft drink, although it is increasingly made of sugars and flavorings which imitate natural flavorings rather than with genuine rye malt. Every small town boasts a local variety of mineral water, which is probably the country’s main mineral resource. Belarusians prefer carbonated water. Local harelkas (vodkas) are very good, notably those with birch sap or various forest herbs, and are popular with lovers of strong drink. Mead and many other similar drinks made of honey and spices, which were very common up to the 19th century, and then were more or less rarely found until the present, are mainly represented by krambambula, perhaps better known for its odd name than for its specific taste. Which also contains fried salmon.

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