Friday, March 17, 2017

Kamchatka -- "island" cuisine

There are a number of reasons to "eat local" including 1) to support local agriculture and organizations, 2) to minimize one's (carbon) footprint, and 3) to lower the part of one's food budget that goes to transportation costs. Those who live in remote places know how expensive "imported" food can be.

Kamchatka is essentially an island.  There are no roads north toward Chukotka (which is itself is even more remote); there is no railroad.  So you and everything else either arrive by boat or by air --typically airplanes from Magadan, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Moscow,...  The Trans-Siberian railroad terminates in Vladivostok.  Ships can bring goods from there.
Kamchatka is at the upper right corner of this map, far from any trains...
http://www.guidetorussia.com/images/trainmap_transsib.gif











And, of course, Kamchatka is no tropical island, so...  given that I did not grow my own food here last summer, what can I buy at the store or at a kiosk that's "local"?  [Summertime, and in the field, are two different topics.]  I am not sure that everything I buy here in winter is actually grown on Kamchatka, but here are the basics of the products that could be.

Root vegetables!  A staple of higher-latitude diets and can be kept in root cellars -- potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, garlic.  Plus cabbage, from which you can keep stripping outer leaves as winter goes by.  I have yet to make borsch (not sure why not!), the most common soup in Russia and which uses all these ingredients; but most every soup I have made starts from the list minus beets (and not always garlic).

Pickled, dried or frozen summer/fall produce, of which the most common are what we in the US typically just call "pickles" -- cucumbers (agourtsi); I have a jar of pickled tomatoes right now.   Frozen berries, and mushrooms are common; many locals would have gone mushroom hunting in the summer/fall and dried or pickled some for winter.  Same for paparotnik (fiddlehead ferns) and potentially cherem sha (wild garlic, aka ramps).  Many will have made their own jams in the summer/fall, and/but there is a local company that is producing fabulous local jams, the brusnika (lingonberry) varenyi is to die for.

Dried herbs I mostly buy in envelopes, and likely they are not local, but I can buy fresh dill and parsley and a few other greens that are grown here on Kamchatka, in greenhouses heated by hot springs (e.g., from the village of Termalni).  Not enough winter sun for hothouse tomatoes, though.

Dairy products -- milk (moloko), yogurt, kefir, sour cream (smetana), tvarog (something like a dry cottage cheese), butter.  Tanya helped me identify the dairy products that are local; also, I can check labels myself, I read enough to be able to see the place a product is from.  The fresh milk only keeps a few days, which of course is one reason why other products like sour cream are common, and very common in cuisine.  I typically keep a back-up box of ultra-pasteurized milk on hand -- reading the labels I think most of them come from Krasnoyarsk region.  You can get from 1.5% up to 6% milkfat in these boxed milks!  I do not know of a non-fresh cheese produced on Kamchatka.

Of course, FISH and other seafood products, of which salmon is the most common.  Prices for these items have risen as Kamchatka exports more to other parts of Asia, as well as back to western Russia. Right now I have some locally produced pelmyeni (ravioli-like) in my freezer which are stuffed with salmon and calmari.  All kinds of smoked salmon and other dried fish.  I know all the Russian words for salmon (losos), better than I know the US words -- chavuicha (king), nyerka (the other red one), keta (chum?), gorbusha (pink, humpy), ...  If you like red caviar (kryasni ikra), which I do, that's very available.   Fish is best bought in specific fish markets, not at the supermarket.

Bread and many wonderful pastries and other bread products are locally made, but far as I know, the flour is not local, though almost certainly from Russia.  The flour I have on my shelf is from Kurgan, Russia.  Tanya showed me how to find the more traditional loaves of Russian bread, which is fab.

Chicken, eggs and pork are locally produced.  Beef is not, is a luxury in general, and is not common in local diets.  Lamb is used, e.g., for shashlik (kebabs), I am not sure how much of it is local. There is a local company (Agrotek) that produces many kinds of "kielbasa," a term used here for most cured, tubular meat products.  Another dish that uses lamb traditionally is "plov" (pilaf) -- the influence of the Caucasus region on cuisine is notable; Shamsa makes and sells its own lavash (flatbread).

Another strong influence on local cuisine is Korea -- many Korean refugees and immigrants have come to the Russian Far East, at least since WWII.  I am not a fan of kimchee, but you will find an amazing variety of kimchee for sale in large and small markets and in kiosks.  At the supermarket, there is an aisle of Asian specialty products.

Water -- the tap water here is excellent, I have not purchased bottled water, but if/when I do, I will buy Malki -- Malkinskoye, from a spring in central Kamchatka.  I was appalled some years ago when the supermarket put up a prominent display of Aqua Fina.

So--what else do I have in my kitchen and diet, and where is it from?

Fresh fruit -- I have bought apples and mandarin-orange types.  Should I buy apples from Belarus and Moldova or from China?  China is closer in this case.  So far, I have paid less attention to origin and mostly looked for apples that might be crisp and have flavor, it's been hit or miss.  The mandarins I have purchased, which are tasty, quite seedy and thus not very expensive, are from ... Pakistan!

Coffee--I brought a bunch of Starbucks and just bought Italian-roasted beans.  Coffee snob.
Tea -- Tea is the traditional hot drink of choice in Russia, mostly grown elsewhere, but there is a whole aisle of teas at the supermarket, and there are specialty shops for tea.

Chocolate and other confections--Russia has a long tradition of producing chocolate and chocolate sweets, likely stemming originally from French influence.  Chocolate confections are a major shopping/gift item for Russians, as are "confyeti" -- hard candies.  I "buy Russian" and my favorite chocolate and confections come from the two oldest makers in Russia -- Babayevski and Red October (Krasnii Oktyabr), the latter of which started in the 19th century but was renamed after the revolution.

Grains.  The most traditional grain in Russia is "grechka" which is commonly called "kasha" in the US, but "kasha" in Russian means more or less all grains.  Grechka is buckwheat groats, which are roasted for a flavor I haven't succeeded in finding in the U.S.  Besides potatoes and grechka, I have rice in my pantry; I am not sure of its history/source; its package mentions manufacture in Chelyabinsk, but it has English and many other languages on the box (yes, I bought a box).  I despair at finding decent pasta in Russia, despite the claim on some packages that it is from Italy, with all the right other words.  I also have a muesli-like cereal mix that's Russian in origin.  Russians in general do not like oatmeal, it's just for little kids; when you grow up, you eat grechka.

Sugar is likely to be sugar-beet sugar.  The most common cooking oil is from sunflower seeds and is too strong for my taste.  Sunflower seeds show up in many confections, and toasted seeds in the shell are a typical outdoor "snack" with the seed coats spit out all over the place...  Halvah made from sunflower seeds is more common than from sesame seeds, but sesame confections are not uncommon, another influence of the "middle eastern" region of the Soviet Union.  Nuts are expensive here; I put some walnuts in my morning cereal, and I have a homesick "splurge" jar of peanut butter -- from China.

The recent dust-ups with the European Union and the U.S. have made products from those areas less available and more expensive.  I have some parmesan cheese from Italy, some olive oil from Spain, and the aforementioned pasta and coffee.

Alcoholic beverages.  I also have bought some wine from Italy and from New Zealand, quite overpriced for quality.  I have not seen U.S. wine this year, it used to be in the bigger shops.  Local?  Kamchatka makes great beer and has some local vodka production, including from birch sap.  I've had some moonshine here on occasion, mostly in the field.  Traditionally, the wine Russians drank was "polusladki" -- half sweet, mostly from Moldova; some drier wines have been available from Georgia.  "Champagne" is commonly a drink of choice for celebrations (and if you eschew vodka); the best cognac not way out of price range comes from Armenia.

Let me know if you have questions.  I'll write another blog some time about how and what we eat on our field excursions.  And in the summer/fall on Kamchatka, there are many wonderful "domashni" (home grown) products, and I've done quite a bit of berry and mushroom picking myself.