The Belarusian Cookbook
(by Alexander Bely)
Hippocrene Books, NY, 2008
(see also: www.hippocrenebooks.com)
Alexander Bely, PhD, a historian and an owner of Lucynka farmstead, is a key promoter of the revival of the traditional cuisine of Lithuania and Belarus, and an author of several books on the subject, notably – The Belarusian Cookbook recently published in the USA. In fact, St.Martin’s Goose farmstead was purchased and re-constructed especially for the purpose of the traditional food parties and the revival the lifestyle of the gentry of Eastern Lithuania of the 19th century.
INTRODUCTIONAlthough Belarusian cuisine derives from the same common sources as the cuisines of the other two Eastern Slavonic peoples—Russians and Ukrainians—it is not as well known. This book reconstructs many of the traditional recipes, both of the peasants and of the aristocracy, with the aim of pleasing palates, of course, but also to restore national culinary traditions, which have been largely eclipsed during the tumultuous last century. Indeed, for years the very idea of a separate Belarusian cuisine was politically suspect. Only after World War II did Communist authorities proclaim that the “flourishing of national culture” should also be evident in the cuisine. Unfortunately, the only source that was permitted for such a culinary reconstruction was the waning heritage of the peasants. Chefs were instructed by the Party, however, to create a 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. Some of these recipes appear in this book as well.
Belarusian cuisine, aside from its predominantly Eastern Slavonic roots, is very close to Lithuanian. The first Belarusian state entity, the Polatsk principality, conquered Lithuania back in the 11th century, and remained the core and center of the state for some 200 years. In the 13th and 14th centuries, however, Lithuanians gained the upper hand, and gradually took over today’s Belarus, as well as much of today’s Western Russia and Ukraine, creating a huge Grand Duchy of Lithuania, stretching in the 15th century from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The majority of its citizens were Belarusian-speaking, and Old Belarusian was the main official language. No wonder that the two cuisines are so close, as is particularly clear in northwest Belarus, which lies next to Vilnius, the former shared capital.
The Grand Duchy united with Poland in 1569, introducing a new set of culinary influences. The Polish elite and the Belarusian nobility borrowed much from Italian, German, and French cuisines, although this influence did not spread among the peasant majority until the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Some borrowed dishes, however, became popular throughout society, such as lazanki (a mixture of flour dumplings and stewed meat, related to lasagna). Belarusian cuisine also owes much to Jewish cooking, since for centuries Jews had a virtual monopoly on inn-keeping. In the 19th century, Jewish innkeepers introduced 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.
Finally, there was a strong Tartar influence. The Tartar attack on Russia and Ukraine in the 13th century led to the unification of the future Belarusians and Lithuanians into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and from the end of the 14th century onward, Tartars either settled in Belarus as prisoners of war, captured by the Grand Duke Vitaut, or voluntarily, as refugees from the Golden Horde. They retained their Islamic faith, but gradually lost their Turkish language, adopting a Belarusian dialect. Starting in the 16th century, their religious books were written in Belarusian, but with Arabic letters. Skillful warriors in the endless wars with the Crimean Khanate, Ottoman Empire, and Muscovite Russia, they for the most part remained loyal to their new motherland. Many of them subsequently became generals in the Polish and Russian armies. Prohibited by local laws from having more than one wife, they married Belarusian women if the latter agreed to accept Islam. Despite a drastic decline in their numbers, this small community spread into Poland and Lithuania. The Tartars still maintain their own customs, including their cuisine, to a greater extent than any other ethnic group in Belarus, including the Belarusians themselves. For centuries, the Belarusian Tartars have been known as excellent cooks, especially skilled at preparing mutton, horse meat, goose, and vegetables, and they introduced many new spices and vegetables from the Ottoman Empire, with which they maintained close relations.
Historical documents are rich with descriptions of old culinary traditions. In the early 15th century, whole fried aurochs from the primeval Belaviezha forest, now a national preserve, were sent as a gift to the German emperor. Records with details of the export of the candied roots of Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus) to Western Europe date back to the 16th century. An early 17th century political pamphlet first mentions roast goose with kasha and mushrooms, which was also famously served by Count Abuhovich-Bandinelli, to his friends in Paris in the mid-19th century.
There are fascinating records of feasts given by some of the most powerful and wealthy families, such as the Radziwills, the Sapiehas, and the Tyshkievichs. The Radziwill family, for instance, began to build up its wealth and influence in the 15th century; by the 18th century, it had become the largest landowner and the richest magnate in the state, with a large private army and almost 500,000 subjects in dozens of cities and thousands of villages throughout present-day Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. The Belarusian town of Niasvizh served as the family’s informal capital. Prince Karol Stanislaw Radziwill (1734–1790) was particularly known for the ornate meals he gave, as well as for his flamboyance and patriotism. On November 25, 1789, he hosted a feast in Warsaw for 4,000 people to celebrate the coronation of King Stanislaw August and to commemorate the Union of Lithuania with the Crown. The Sapiehas held a feast in 1632 in Dziarechnyn, at which wines from Cyprus, Spain, Italy, and Hungary were served—365 varieties, corresponding to the days of the year. Recipes noted down by the chefs to these families, among others, are included in this book.
At the same time, with their limited means and seasonal supply of food, the peasants came up with ingenious ways of preparing tasty and nutritious foods. This book pays homage to these traditions as well.
THE BELARUSIAN KITCHEN: STAPLESGiven the cold and wet climatic conditions in Belarus, certain foods tended to be cultivated over others, and so a tradition was born. For instance, rye fared better than wheat, so naturally, Belarusians are fond of their sour rye bread, as well as harelka, a hard drink brewed from rye malt. Although refrigeration and globalization have made their mark on all cuisines, there are certain staples you should have on hand for most of the recipes in this book.
Rye breadBelarusians prefer black rye bread, using it in many ways. Bread crumbs are necessary for cooking many dishes, and stale bread can also be made into bread kvass.
GrainsBuckwheat, “pearl” barley, millet, and rolled oats are used for soups and porridges, as well as for buns, cakes, and dumplings.
VegetablesThe main vegetable for many centuries has been cabbage, which is used for soups and main dishes. It is also made into sauerkraut—many housewives in autumn still prepare their own batches, along with pickled tomatoes and cucumbers.
Second place is shared between carrots, which almost always accompany cabbage, and beets, which are used either fresh or fermented. Tomatoes are a more recent addition, and sorrel is used in soups and stews, along with scallions, parsley, and dill. Parsley is used not only in sprigs, but also in root form. Garlic, onion, and horseradish root are commonly used as seasonings.
Of course, mushrooms form a category of their own. Mushrooms in every variety find their place in the cuisine—fresh, dried (sometimes in the form of mushroom powder), salted or marinated, boiled, fried, and stewed. They are prepared alone or as flavorings for meat, fish, vegetable, and potato dishes.
Belarusians also eat potatoes in many different ways. They may be baked in the embers of a fire, then sprinkled with salt and eaten with butter. They may be grated and made into dumplings, which are stuffed with minced meat, mushrooms, or vegetables and baked in the oven. They may be formed into fritters called draniki, which are fried with mushrooms and served with sour cream.
Potatoes are so prominent in Belarusian cuisine that Belarusians are sometimes called bulbashi (potato-eaters). In historical terms, however, the potato is relatively new to the country. It was first grown in the middle of the 18th century by German colonists who settled on royal estates, and remained somewhat exotic until the early 19th century.
By that time, the peasants, who at first refused to grow this strange plant, realized its advantages. This “second bread,” as it is frequently called in Belarus, reduced dependence on the grain harvest, and saved thousands of peasant families from frequent famines. At first, potato dishes were modeled on farinaceous, grain and legume dishes (kalduny, kliotski, babka, kamy, kishka, etc.) but by the end of the 19th century they had become so common that most Belarusians totally forgot the link to these old dishes.
Dairy ProductsBelarusians enjoy a very wide choice of milk-based products, which are not only eaten and drunk but also used in cooking. While fermented cheese, similar to Edam, was introduced to Belarus only about 150 years ago, there is a long tradition of using white cheese. Tvaroh, a kind of cottage cheese, is used in making cheese dumplings, crumbled in salads, and as an ingredient in breakfast dishes such as omelets or cheese crepes. It is wonderful on gourmet sandwiches, pizza, and pasta dishes, as well as in dessert dishes: cheesecakes, cheese strudels, rich cheesy muffins, and so on.
Traditionally, farmer cheese was made at home from curdled sour milk placed to drain in a wedge-shaped cheesecloth bag under a press. Since this kind of gauze-like bag is known as klinok in Belarusian, wedge-shaped cheese is called klinkovy. Such cheese can be sour, sweet, or flavored with caraway seeds. Historically, cheese was almost always dried. In traditional peasant households, this was the only way to preserve milk products for long periods of time. After several months of hanging out to dry between the ceiling and the traditional tall oven, the cheese became so hard that it was impossible to slice or bite into it, and had to be hacked with a knife—if not with an axe—into odd-shaped pieces which were either sucked on like candy or grated for use as flavorings for meat, fish, or vegetables dishes, somewhat like Parmesan. Today, however, such dried cheese is no longer produced or sold.
Smiatana, sour cream, is used generously as a topping or ingredient in many sauces, and as a “whitening” ingredient in soups. Buttermilk and kefir are used for leavening in pancakes and other pastries, or for stewing meat. Kefir is also used as the base for some cold soups.
Meat, Poultry and FishBelarusians eat a lot of pork, which is the principal meat, followed by beef, and currently very little lamb. Some of the recipes in this book call for smoked pork, and many of the various sausages can be found in specialty shops. Chicken is popular, while goose, duck, and turkey are less commonly prepared.
Few of the aristocratic fish dishes are prepared in Belarus today, although recipes for these are presented in this book. Herring, followed by cod and hake, are the most commonly prepared fish from the sea. Freshwater fish, including carp, zander, and pike, are cooked fresh or dried and salted for storage.
Condiments and SpicesFor frying, Belarusians use vegetable (usually meaning sunflower or rape seed) oil, salt pork (including industrially melted pork fat), as well as butter and margarine. Goose fat, which was also used for buttering bread, is now hard to find.
The chief spices used are cumin, bay leaves, pepper, allspice, coriander, cinnamon, marjoram, oregano, and nutmeg. Dried (and sometimes powdered) mushrooms are also used. Prunes, raisins, dried apples, and almonds should be on hand. Also keep sour salt on the spice rack. It is used, along with white vinegar, to regulate the acidity of the dish. Belarusians also use grated horseradish root and prepared mustards for seasoning meat and fish dishes.