My family’s Russian recipes make an appearance every January when Terence and I can often be found in the kitchen rolling out dough for Russian dumplings and making baboushka’s pink beetroot potato salad, while I recollect the summer holiday family feasts of my childhood, and miss loved-ones back in Australia.
January is holiday time. It’s summer in Australia and ‘winter’ here in Cambodia. The weather is glorious in both places, with day after day of sunshine and blue skies. Summer in Sydney meant weekends on the water, at the breathtaking beaches and ocean and harbour pools. Here in Siem Reap it’s time to cook. It’s high season and the town is buzzing with tourists. It feels like we’re on holidays, even if we’re not. But in the publishing world, it’s the quietest time of year, which for us means there’s more time for the kitchen, where Terence has been cooking up a storm.
Terence is the king of cooking comfort food. Here in Cambodia, we mostly eat Asian food. But Terence periodically punctuates spicy noodles, fragrant curries and his special fried rice with comfort food favourites. He makes the richest ragù Bolognese and lasagne, his roast chicken is as succulent as the finest French rotisserie chicken and his mashed potatoes the creamiest I’ve eaten. Don’t get me started on his chilli con carne, which we’ll eat for several days, Terence making quesadillas and me making my easy nachos recipe, all of which we top with authentic guacamole.
In recent weeks, Terence has been testing some of his comfort food recipes and over coming weeks we’ll be running a series of our favourites, from his go-to Mexican and Texan dishes to Asian noodle dishes such as khao soi gai from Northern Thailand and ohn no khao swè from Myanmar. I’ll also be sharing my family Russian recipes.
Russian Recipes, Holiday Memories, Homesickness, and Nostalgia
Every year the December-January holiday period sees me digging out Russian recipes for Christmas-New Year, Russian Christmas a week later, and the month of January when Terence and I have more time to cook. Rustic, hearty, and often heavy, home-cooked Russian food isn’t something I crave every day in the hot and humid destinations we have made our home over the years, such as Siem Reap.
Since Terence and I left Australia in 1998 to move abroad, we’ve mostly lived in countries with short winters and year-round warm weather, ranging from balmy to blistering, first in the UAE emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and later Southeast Asia, in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Aside from the UAE, where the icy air-conditioning contributed to our yearning for warming winter dishes (even when it was 40 degrees Celsius outside), we haven’t lived in many places with conditions favourable for making cold-weather meals.
Still, we don’t let a little weather stop us. It’s not always the temperature that drives cravings. More often that not, it’s a desire for variety. As much as we loved eating Middle Eastern food when we lived in the UAE, we’d inevitably ache for European and Asian cuisines from time to time. Here in Asia, we find ourselves craving Western food. For me, it’s often the Russian food of my childhood and youth, especially during the holiday season when I find myself getting nostalgic and aching to make my family’s Russian recipes.
Every year at this time of year I find myself reminiscing about and longing for the Sunday lunches and holiday feasts of home-cooked Russian food my baboushka (grandmother) prepared, which I’d lay out on the round oak table in the dining room of the red brick house my grandfather built in the Western suburbs of Sydney.
There’d be plates of zakuski (Russian hors d’oeuvres), including smoked fish and rollmops (pickled herrings), Hungarian salamis and cured meats, crunchy gherkins made from papa’s own dill-pickled cucumbers grown in the garden, caviar-topped hard boiled eggs from papa’s chickens which scratched around the backyard, baskets of black bread, and bottles of vodka and beer with which to wash it all down.
In any other household that probably would have been enough to feed a family, but at baba’s the table heaved with glass-cut bowls and ceramic serving dishes. There was her famous vinagret, a bright pink beetroot potato salad; a simple crunchy lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and onion salad, swimming in vinegar and olive oil; golubtsi, plump cabbage rolls, filled with pork and beef mince, onion and carrot, baked in a rich tomato sauce; moist kotleti, Russian chicken cutlets that were more like flattened chicken meatballs; and (my favourite) rustic pots full of steaming-hot, butter-coated, Russian dumplings, pelmeni and varenyki (similar to Polish pierogi), which we smothered in tangy sour cream.
Expats and migrants who’ve made new homes abroad, long-term travellers on epic journeys around the world, and refugees who have resettled in faraway countries have this in common. Apart from the family and friends they left behind, what they tend to miss most is their mother’s and grandmother’s cooking, and the food, flavours and specialties of home.
That’s the reason you see returning expats from the Levant at Arabian Peninsula airports, laden with boxes of honey-soaked baklava, which they cram into airplane overhead compartments – despite the fact there are perfectly good bakeries in the Gulf ran by their compatriots.
It’s the reason why elderly travellers from Asia, visiting family in Australia, often get targeted by Customs – they know they have suitcases packed with their children’s favourites: spices and herbs (and the seeds to plant them), pickles and preserves, and cakes and sweets from their homeland.
It’s one of the reasons we have a jar of Vegemite sitting in our Siem Reap kitchen cupboard – apart from the fact that we just love its umami goodness.
No matter where we come from, most of us have a strong attachment to the food from home, whether that’s our family recipes or the cuisine of our country. Yet we often don’t realise it until we travel, move abroad or migrate – when we are far away from home.
Familiar tastes, especially those we haven’t savoured in a while, attached to powerful memories, provoke the act of remembrance and feelings of connection and belonging, but they also inspire nostalgia and longing. So when I get the urge to make some Russian pelmeni and vareniki, I do so with equal parts happiness and sadness.
My family’s Russian recipes are a cure for the pangs of homesickness I occasionally find myself feeling for the first time after almost two decades living abroad. Yet the act of making the dumplings and cabbage rolls and pink potato salad, of dishing the food up and laying it out as my babouskha showed me, also stimulates a sense of longing and nostalgia.
As I roll out the dough on the wooden table in our Cambodian kitchen – reliving the times I helped my baba and mother and father make the rustic Russian dumplings I associate with home and family – I’m as happy as I am sad. It’s bittersweet cooking.
But by eating the food from ‘home’, I’m comforted by the flavours with which I’m familiar and I’m fond of, and I’m emotionally sustained. It’s comfort food of the best kind.
A confession: they were so good that we ate most of the pelmeni and vareniki before we did the shoot for the pic, above, hence the small bowl of Russian dumplings.
Watch this space for links to my family Russian recipes (with bigger bowls of dumplings, I promise) and Terence’s comfort food dishes.