Belarussian Winter Warmers
Text Anne Coombes
You may have to plod through ice and snow to get home from work, with a chill wind whistling malevolently around your ears, but if something tempting is simmering in the oven, all is not lost. There’s nothing like coming in out of the cold to a pot of scorching hot soup - thick with carrots and beef. There isn’t a “cold climate” nation on earth that doesn’t have its own winter warm-up recipes. Belarus is no exception.
Summer may be a time for succulent fruits and light salads, albeit coated in mayonnaise, but January is a month of stew and draniki. These grated potato pancakes may be well loved throughout Russia but Belarussians are their biggest fans; serving potatoes any other way would just be a waste in their eyes. In fact, the Belarussians eat so many potatoes (around 170kg per person annually) that their neighbours have nicknamed them bulbashi – potato-eaters. Potatoes are the ‘second bread’ in Belarus and actually came to the region almost a century before they arrived in Russia. You can stuff draniki with meat or vegetables (known as kolduni) or simply place them at the bottom of a deep bowl and ladle your broth on top. Deep fried in animal fat until they are dripping with grease, they are a calorific nightmare – but prove their worth in every bite. Belarussian potatoes are among the best in the world due to the local climate; each spud is soft, tender and delicious – perfect, no matter how you choose to cook them.
Like their Ukrainian neighbors, Belarussians are also rather partial to salo or pure lumps of pig fat. The latest innovation to hit Minsk is salo sushi (strips of lard encasing vegetable fi llings); not recommended for anyone on a New Year’s diet.
Belarussians simply adore their soup. On any restaurant menu, there will be at least 7 or 8 varieties to choose from and it’s the most commonly served ‘starter’ course. Rassolnik is popular – incorporating chicken kidneys and ubiquitous pickled gherkins – and Belarus has taken other regional soups to its heart: shchi made from pickled cabbage, potatoes and fried onions and borshch, sweet beetroot soup, are hugely popular, served with the obligatory dollop of sour cream. Solyanka is also a big favourite, with a slightly spicy kick. You may find pelmeny, rather like ravioli, fl oating in your vegetable soup in Belarus, although they are sometimes served on their own, dripping in butter.
For a lip-smacking snack on the go, pirozhky pies are perfect. Filled with meat and veggies, they are rather like miniature Cornish pasties from England. Belarussians are also big fans of caviar, just like their Russian counterparts, and they serve it with bliny pancakes. Likewise, a celebration is incomplete unless there is a huge sticky cake taking centre stage. They may not be to Western European taste, but these concoctions certainly look spectacular. Karavai (on Victory Square) is Minsk’s most famous bakery. Inside, enormous multi-tiered gateaux sit in showcases to be admired, dripping with delicately sculpted fl owers and figures. Above all other culinary achievements, Belarussians are most proud of their chocolate. Spartak and Kommunarka are their award-winning enterprises, with delicious boxes and bars on sale in every kiosk and shop. Most supermarket chocolate aisles require almost as much fl oor space as the beer and vodka, although moderately less than the pickled cabbage and the mushrooms.
Belarussian cooking undoubtedly shares much in common with that of Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. Unsurprising when we consider the history of this nation. Despite the similarities, there’s little doubt that Belarussians have their own style, and are proud of being just a little bit different. The only real way to find out what makes Belarussian cuisine unique is to pay a visit. You’ll be sure of a warm welcome.
Recipe for traditional Belarussian Oatmeal Soup with Mushrooms
- 400 g potatoes
- 100 g oatmeal
- 80 g dried mushrooms
- 80 g carrots
- 100 g onion
- Place your dried mushrooms in water to rehydrate for 3-4 hours.
- Boil them in the same water.
- Add oatmeal and boil for about 30 minutes.
- Add small cubed potatoes.
- Add fried onions and grated carrot to the soup.
- Boil until the potatoes and oatmeal are soft.
- Serve with sour cream. (And if you have one, you can add a laurel leaf towards the end)
Recipe for Belarussian Borshch
- 200g beef
- 200g smoked pork bones
- 2 large red beets
- 4 potatoes, 1 carrot and 2 onions
- Parsley, tomato sauce, flour, sugar, salt, sour cream and lemon juice to taste.
- Make stock from meat and bones.
- Fry sliced carrot, parsley and onion.
- Add tomato sauce and cook for 10 minutes.
- Place cubed potatoes in stock and bring to the boil.
- Add sliced boiled beets, vegetables, flour and fat and boil for 10-15 minutes.
- Add sugar and lemon juice and a spoonful of sour cream.