Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.
Moscow chef Oleg Porotikov called cooking, “the culture of people,” in a Guardian of London newspaper article about Russian food. Many factors, like flavor and the availability of certain ingredients, lead to the development of national cuisines.
Cultivation of corn in Latin America, from which tortillas are made, sparked the creation of tacos that sizzle in Tijuana street food stalls. And fresh seafood caught in U.S. coastal communities inspired a creamy concoction called New England clam chowder. Likewise, Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe have made a well-known soup called borscht from beets and potatoes for centuries.
Recipes become exchanged over time liberally as hugs between relatives. The movement of people, or ebb and flow of an empire, leaves culinary influences behind. Today, Chinese restaurants are found worldwide and Tex-Mex restaurants serve tacos throughout the U.S.
After riding a bicycle 5,500 miles across Russia, I have discovered that Russian foods behave similarly.
Most people answer “borscht” when asked what food they associate with Russia. Borscht is a hearty soup usually made of meat stock, beets, potatoes and cabbage. A sprinkling of dill often tops the soup along with a generous dollop of sour cream.
Borscht is still served throughout the former Soviet Union, from chic Moscow restaurants, roughneck cafeterias on the Siberian plains, to bubbling pots on warm hearths inside the log cabins of coastal villages along the Sea of Japan. From the Tsarist days to the Soviet era, borscht followed the footsteps of the expanding Russian empire and today graces tables and menus from Europe to eastern Asia.
After cycling on a cool fall morning, nothing feels so good as pulling into a Russian village, leaning my bicycle against a small cafe and retreating within a warm building to eat. The interiors of Russian cafes are almost identical: a wide room filled with chairs around small card tables meets your eyes as you open the door.
A woman wearing a blue apron stands behind a large wooden counter. She is either a stern Babushka who jots down your order on a scrap of paper and adds up the sum of your bill with an abacus on the counter, a smiling and inquisitive Russian girl or a friendly immigrant from a nearby country like Azerbaijan.
The menu is printed on paper or handwritten. Russian, a complicated language, becomes more difficult because many handwritten letters take a completely different form than they do in print. I rarely see or use the handwritten alphabet and have trouble remembering it. The cursive script on a menu in a rustic cafe swirls insig-nificantly before my eyes like cumulus clouds. When I cannot quickly decipher the menu, I order a trusty favorite which I always know steams away within the kitchen.
“Adin borscht [one borscht],” I tell the woman before me.
“Hleb skolka? How much bread?” she asks.
Sliced bread holds such a significant place upon the Russian table, the question is simply, “How much?” not, “Do you want bread?”
The second question invariably concerns tea, often served with lemon, and considered the final accessory to a full meal.
“Piat hleb e adin chai sa limonom [five bread and one tea with lemon],” I say.
The steaming borscht and tea are served with thick slices of fresh bread. A spoonful of sour cream rests in the soup’s center like a shipwrecked sailor. The best borscht, in my opinion, is made chiefly with beets, giving the soup a deep plum hue expanding around the bowl’s edges like a burgundy skyline where chopped cabbage and potatoes appear like dark storm clouds submerged within the broth.
You begin by stirring the sour cream, watching as the white nucleus of borscht melts away, reducing the deep mauve tones of the broth to a light cherry red. I stir the cream and broth together fully; like a master artist mixing two paints, I know just how to blend the colors to get the desired effect.
Russian food is more than just cabbage, meat and potatoes. The breadth of Russian cuisine is as diverse as the landscape, cultures and people contained within this massive country.
I recently learned how much Russian food is an amalgamation of dishes from Eastern Europe and Central Asia while dining with an American named Chris who works for the U.S. Consulate in Ekaterinaburg, Russia. Chris suggested we try an Uzbekistani restaurant, an eatery serving food from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
“Have you ever eaten Uzbek food?” he asked on the way there.
“No,” I replied, “what is it like?”
“Well, have you eaten laghman?” Chris asked.
“Yes,” I replied with instant recognition.
Laghman is a delicious soup of meat, vegetables and long thick noodles served in a rich broth often made from tomatoes.
“I love laghman,” I confirmed. “I first tried it thousands of miles away from here at a small cafe in Far Eastern Russia.”
“Really?” Chris replied. “Well, do you know what plov is?”
I smiled. Plov is a dish of fried rice, meat and vegetables, which, in appearance, almost resembles Spanish paella. I had eaten countless plates of plov all across Russia.
While most bicycle tourers camp in fields and cook with small camp stoves, my cycling partner Ellery and I almost exclusively dine (and sleep!) at Russian cafes. After consuming a big meal, we tell the owners about our trip and ask if we can pitch tents outside. Often the family who owns the cafe lives nearby. Cafe camping al-lows us to meet interesting people, try new foods, be safe and save time. One can rise at daybreak, pack up the tent and order a heaping plate of blini, small Russian pancakes which resemble crepes, from the cafe before hitting the road.
Russian cafes have become the lifeblood of our bike trip. They are also often the best place for us to find nutritious food. Because most Russian villagers grow their own vegetables and raise livestock, stores in small Russian towns have little to offer a traveler wanting to cook a full meal. On the road, cafes are the best place for us to acquire foods like vegetables, although they often come in salads covered in mayonnaise.
“Adin salat bez maionesa [one salad without mayonnaise],” I routinely tell the cafe waitress.
Russia is not the land of meager food resources many foreigners imagine it to be. Small cafes dot the roadside and supermarkets now abound in cities and towns. I easily satisfy the dominating hunger that overtakes one after cycling 80-100 miles each day here.
Russia has slowly altered my taste buds. Rich broths and dill now replace my affinity for spices and hot sauce. The appreciation of new foods and flavors seems more easily acquired than foreign languages and customs. Perhaps cooking really is the culture of people, the appreciation of good food something universal you can share with others anywhere.
As time passes, I feel more at home here. My ability to read handwritten Russian has slowly improved, allowing me to order almost perfectly from any cafe. Seeing someone in a restaurant eating a particularly good batch of plov or rich beety borscht now excites me. But my appreciation for Russian cuisine makes me feel es-tranged from my own culture and former tastes — like I am losing my identity and becoming someone else.
The food I eat and language I use to order it now are both Russian. And an ambiguous example that you are what you eat.