Friday, January 31, 2014

Russian Cuisine


Russian cuisine isn't all that exciting. It's what I call "evolved survival food". Basically, in times past, the people who lived in the Moscovy-Novgorod region didn't have very good farming soil and dealt with a very short growing season. Life was precarious and food supplies scarce, so the national cuisine that arose as a result is very much a meat-and-potatoes one with few variations on flavour. 

Contrast that with the cuisine that came out of the rich dark-earth regions of Ukraine, like cabbage rolls and pirogies, or the fierce and adventurous dishes of the Caucasus, such as plov' and shashlik, and Russian dishes just plain-old suck.

In the household that Katya grew up in, she was never introduced to any other cuisine except for Russian. Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian; all these styles and flavours were unthinkable to her. Her mother taught her a few simple Russian dishes but she grew up in the late 80's, when Soviet bread lines were the norm, and the early 90's, when chaos and Mafia wars raged on the streets and the economy was rocked by scandal after scandal. In this atmosphere Katya's family stuck to the basics: a piece of meat and and something starch-based. Mmm. Eat.

So as not to give the reader the wrong idea, I need to point out that Katya's mother is a great cook, and she has a storehouse of culinary knowledge in her head passed on to her by her mother. She can create sensational foods such as veriniki (pirogies in North America), Uzbekhi plov', Finnish pastries and other delights. Unfortunately for most of Katya's life her busy working mother and an uncertain economy meant that the bulk of the food made for Katya was Russia's "evolved survival food".

This means that today Katya can only cook Russian food, although she has mastered her mother's delicious plov' and her grandmothers fantastic chicken oladi' (more on that later).

Contrast that with myself. My mother was a free-spirited hippy in the sixties and seventies, and as a result I grew up trying pretty much every type of cuisine on the planet. I loved food so much that I wanted to be a master chef for my childhood and into my teen years. In my late teens I finally started a chef apprenticeship and learned Italian, American, British, Thai and Mediterranean dishes before I bombed out after two years when I realized I absolutely hated working in a restaurant!

Nevertheless the foundations for food creation were laid and I can not only reproduce some excellent ethnic foods from around the world, but I know how to assemble different ingredients and spices to create a particular flavour I'm aiming for. I was trained to cook steaks to perfection, and I recently created my own roast beef and Yorkshire pudding recipe that rivals my grandmothers. Give me a gas-fired stove and a convection oven and I can give you a mouth-watering feast.

This means that, in our home, I'm the cook. Which sucks for me. Katya doesn't like it, either.

I work at 4 am (I'm currently in aviation security), have a few hours off in the afternoon, and then work again until 8 pm. I have a mere hour and a half when I get home before I need to go to bed and wake up again. I don't have time to cook much of a meal and I'm frankly exhausted. Katya would like to cook, in fact, she would love to cook, meals for us (Russian women are proud of traditional roles and think feminists are insane), but her knowledge is limited to a few dishes. I'll eat what she cooks and make the necessary "Mmm" noises, but she knows I don't really enjoy a bowl of buckwheat porridge for supper.

So what do we do? We haven't figured it out yet. Katya can't check out some recipes from other cultures because she doesn't even know what the dishes are or what they are supposed to look and taste like. She does have a big book of Russian and Ukrainian recipes, complete with beautiful pictures, but she hasn't attempted to cook anything from it yet. I've been introducing her to different foods from around the world (she's taken a real shining to Mexican and Chinese food, but she's not big on Italian or American cuisine) and she even managed to create her own Chinese dish which is actually really tasty (we call it simply "Asian Food" as in "Would you like Asian Food tonight?").

So far, with my work schedule and her culinary abilities at loggerheads, we're basically eating sporadically and our diet includes a lot of Subway. It's something we will work on. Maybe I can buy her a couple of fun cooking classes, or learn to enjoy the flavourless mulch that is buckwheat. Time will tell...

Russian buckwheat porridge

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2 Year Mark


Katya officially became a Permanent Resident to Canada in January of 2011, the day that CBSA (Canadian Border Security Agency) officers stamped her visa and officially welcomed her to Canada at Toronto Pearson International, her official "port of entry". This month marks two years that she's been here.

In that time she's found it incredibly easy to integrate into Canadian society. Canada, being a hodgepodge nation of immigrants, where the rule of law is supreme and the standard of living is incredibly high, is a fairly easy country to adapt to. Katya has seen the west coast, the prairies, most of Ontario and a small part of Quebec and she has grown patriotic of Canada, even if she refuses to admit it!

For instance, we were watching some stupid romantic comedy (I don't know the name of it, nor do I remember its generic pandering plot line), and there were a few rather stupid references to Canada as being some sort of cold Mexico where everyone is a stupid lumberjack and the cell phone hasn't been invented yet. Katya yelled "You fucking idiot Americans!" at the TV screen, taking me by surprise! She was angry at the stereotype portrayal of her new home! 

A few weeks later I was watching the evening news and a story came about an American tourist who assaulted a police officer in Toronto, calling them a bunch of banana republic wannabes and throwing something at them. He was tasered and arrested and charged with assaulting a peace officer and can be expecting to serve some time in a "banana republic" Canadian prison. Katya became so angry at the guy! I had to remind her that it's not so bad and who cares what some idiot American tourist thinks? I tried to explain the theory of American Exceptionalism to her (to her credit, she still doesn't understand how an entire society can think they are somewhat more special than the rest of the world) and also tried to explain that Canada has become a lot like the US in culture and thought. 

Toronto "banana republic" police

Ultimately it doesn't really matter. I love Canada, but there are many things about America I love as well. I love that only in America can one see all the different geographies and climates of earth. I love all the inventions and contributions to humankind that Americans have given the world. I love that spirit of endurance and vitality that the US has always had, even in the dark times. Of course, there are many things I dislike about America, but there are many things I dislike about Canada, as well. No country is free of faults, just as no country is all bad (well, some are. North Korea and Saudi Arabia come to mind). 

What I do love, however, is Katya's growing patriotism in Canada. She claims she's not and could care less about Canada, but when somebody insults her new home she becomes defensive. That's a sign that a love is growing. 

Next year she will have been here for three years and will then be eligible to apply for citizenship. She'll have to take a test and pay a fee and then swear allegiance to the Crown and the flag at a special ceremony. Once she has that then she can apply for a passport and suddenly she'll be free to travel to nearly any country in the world without a visa (aside from, again, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, and, since our Prime-Minister boldly accused the Turks of genocide against the Albanians in 1917, Turkey as well). 

That will be good because I want to take her to see jolly old England and, most importantly, I want to take her to visit the United States of America so that she can see that the average American is a pretty decent human being and that American cities are, for the most part, fairly safe. Finally, when she has her Canadian passport, I can take to her to New York, a world capital if ever there was one, and most importantly, to Las Vegas. Ya baby!