Russian Cuisine: Stolovayas
Homemade Plov by Eloise Penman
From the first week to the fifth the Russian-language students of Piter have discovered the stolovaya. Due to the rather noticeable lack of fast-food chains such as McDonalds and KFC (these do exist, yet in much smaller numbers compared with the UK!), I conclude that these canteens are Russia’s answer to a student’s hunger and small budget.The numerous canteens around the city are, in my opinion, both cheaper and of better quality than any fast-food restaurant back in London; everything is made from scratch in the canteen, the choice is vast and very Russian. By this I mean there’s borscht, plov (rice with chunks of meat, usually lamb), pirogi (small pies with a filling of anything from cabbage and potato to mushrooms) and the most delicious honey cakes going. I was so impressed by the plov that I even made some at home! [See photo!]
However, the stolovaya dishes are ridiculously cheap by Western standards (a mountain of plov, slice of honey cake and a cup a tea cost me less than £4), and so it is definitely a battle between not being lazy and trying them for myself or just going to the nearest canteen!
--> Medovik ‘Honey Cake’ in the stolovaya
However, there is something to be said for going more upmarket and actually dining in a restaurant. This I did, and it was fantastic. I decided to take a friend to ‘Shinok’, a Ukrainian restaurant not far from Vladimirskaya metro station, inconspicuously situated on a corner between two random side-roads. The moment you step through the door you are transported all the way to the Ukrainian countryside - there is ivy creeping up the walls, sunflowers in every corner, decorations of dried sweetcorn and Ukrainian music playing inoffensively in the background.
My friend and I were directed by a waiter (in traditional Ukrainian dress, of course) to the garderobe, where one deposits coats and is given a number attached to a clay pig in order to retrieve the coat post-Ukrainian feast. This did confuse us, but when in Ukraine!
The menus were in both Ukrainian and Russian with helpful descriptions of the contents and the waitress was more than glad to chat to us about what is considered to be traditional Ukrainian food and what the most popular dishes are. Having spent a lot of time in Ukraine, my experience in ‘Shinok’ was typical of what I have come to expect from any restaurant ‘Little Russia’; friendly staff, a great focus on the traditional aspects of the country and, naturally, delicious food.
It is difficult to define how Ukrainian cuisine differs from that of Russia. On the surface they are very similar; both have borscht, blini and vodka. But, there are subtle differences, even if only in appearance. Russian pelmeni (ravioli-like pasta) are savoury and round. In Ukraine these are vareniki and are crescent-moon shaped with fan-edging. These can be either sweet or savoury. Borscht, the origins of which are the subject of great controversy, is different wherever you go, even in Ukraine. Though, when there are friendships at stake, I must emphasise the Ukrainian origins of borscht. Borscht = Ukrainian. Right, moving on. Ukraine is also the only place where salo goes down well. Salo is cured lard though, unlike lard, it is not rendered. It is eaten with black bread, whole cloves of garlic and washed down with vodka. This is a tradition which has earned me strange, horrified looks from my Russian friends, who consider it to be unsophisticated and typical of their ‘country-bumpkin’ neighbours.
Whilst my friend and I thought we wouldn’t have salo this time, we did feast on other Ukrainian delights. We chose from the ‘Business Lunch’ menu since it gave us a greater choice of dishes. Our salads were ‘Bean salad’ and ‘Vitamin salad’, which were much more exciting than they sounded and, of course, containing a large amount of mayonnaise! The soups were also befitting of the Ukrainian stereotype, the hearty and vegetable-based ‘Cream of Pumpkin Soup’ and the more vague, yet delicious ‘Vegetable Soup’. However, the main course of ‘Poltava Cutlets’ was, indeed, the pièce de résistance. These are finely-ground beef and pork burgers seasoned with garlic and black pepper. They are then coated in breadcrumbs, fried, and served with potatoes. Below are some photographs so we can share our Ukrainian feast:
--> Interior with a typical stone hearth decorated with Ukrainian designs. The decoration hanging from the ceiling are dried breadstick-like rings called ‘sushki’
--> Bean Salad – Potato, kidney bean and lots of mayonnaise!
--> Vegetable Soup, typically more like a broth since this is Ukrainian style!
--> Poltava Cutlet
All in all, I feel that Piter really did do Ukrainian food well on this occasion. It was also nice to finally get out of the stolovayas and feel as though we are experiencing proper culture, even if it wasn’t Russian culture!
Join me next time for the Mushroom Festival, Vodka Museum and Russian hot chocolate!
Do pobachennya! See you!