'An Ear of Dough': The Dish That Helped to Tame Siberia

Article excerpt

Considering Russia's unique geographical position as bridge between Europe and Asia, it's only fitting that one of its most classic national dishes is pelmeni (a food with its history in Russia's eastward expansion and its origins in that quintessential continental divide, the Ural Mountains.

In the 17th century, Russian explorers crossed the Urals and set about taming Siberia. They quickly took notice of a local dish consisting of unusual pies with meat filling. They were called pelmeni, which in the language of the Komi-Permyak tribes means 'ear of dough' - because of their more than passing resemblance to this organ.

Pelmeni are more substantial in size than their Chinese or Korean counterparts. Clearly Siberians, in their daily struggle for survival in a harsh climate, valued foods which were nourishing, easy to prepare and kept easily.

Just as they did 200 years ago, Siberians always take a sack of pelmeni when they go hunting in winter forests. When they're hungry, they simply melt snow in a pot and drop the pelmeni into boiling water. In a few minutes they're ready to eat. And they get two dishes for one - the pelmeni themselves, and the broth for a first course.

Pelmeni were usually made in huge quantities at the beginning of winter, enough to last through the following spring. Convenient snow drifts made storage a breeze. The whole family took part in the process, even the men, for whom it was considered shameful to do any other kind of housework.

Today, you can buy mass-produced pelmeni in the shops, but real connoisseurs will tell you these don't compare with the home-made variety. There's even a saying about people who lead disorganized lives and don't tend to the domestic - that they'll "have to eat pelmeni out of a packet."

Pelmeni have long been close to Russian hearts. At the end of the 19th century, a little known writer from Nizhny Novgorod even wrote a long poem devoted to them. …