Belarus has more than 200 restaurants, cafes and bars specializing in local cuisine
Any tourist visiting a foreign country will not miss an opportunity to learn about local customs and traditions. Perhaps the easiest way to get familiar with a local culture is to try local food. For the time being Belarus has few restaurant chains specializing in local cuisine with traditional decor. In 2014, the Year of Hospitality, the country will welcome many tourists as Minsk is getting ready to host the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in May. Apart from the spectacular sport event, the guests should also be able to enjoy tasty meals. What national dishes can surprise our guests and how can we popularize the Belarusian cuisine?
Cooking traditions in Belarus have been developing under the influence of the neighboring Slavic nations – the Russians, Ukrainians, and the Poles - as well as non-Slavic neighbors – the Lithuanians and Latvians. Yet, the Belarusian cuisine has managed to preserve its own identity.
The main distinction of Belarusian meals is their cooking process rather than ingredients. The most popular cooking techniques are baking, boiling, slow roasting and stewing which can be combined with each other. As a rule, the consistency of meals is semi-fluid/ semi-solid and traditionally they are served in earthenware.
Of course, the staple of the Belarusian cuisine is potatoes. The popularity of this vegetable is due to historic and climatic reasons. It came to Belarus some 75-90 years earlier than to Russia and the weather conditions in Belarus allow cultivating different varieties of potatoes with great concentration of starch. It is mainly used grated in cooking. Over 100 different dishes can be made of potatoes but the signature dish is draniki (potato pancakes).
They are made in many European countries, for instance, in Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Germany. However, the original Belarusian draniki have only two ingredients – potatoes and onions, there are no eggs or flower added. Not everybody knows that. There is also confusion in terms of kolduny. Originally, kolduny were brought to Belarus by the Tatars and looked like ordinary dumplings. However, now this name is used for potato pancakes with meat filling, which, in fact, is a type of pyzy or cepelinai, says Alexander Chikilevsky, a Belarusian cuisine connoisseur and the brand-chef of the Pivnoi Ryad company.
Apart from potatoes, other popular vegetables in Belarus are cabbage, carrots, peas, beans, radish as well as mushrooms of all kinds. As for the dairy and grain dishes, the most popular ones are zatirka ( cooked flour balls with small pieces of lard) and various kashas (cooked cereals) with barley, pea or bean flour. Millet and rye flour are the main ingredients of kulaga, a kasha served with either malt, honey or berries. It is interesting to know that in the past Belarusians ate thick pancakes (skovorodniki and sachni) instead of bread.
Soups are usually thick with about 40% of liquid and 60% of solid ingredients. Examples of those are krupenia and zhur. The latter deserves special mentioning.
This is a traditional Belarusian and Polish dish made of soured oats. Its second name is white borsch. Like many oat meals, this soup can be called a soup of longevity without any exaggeration. The Belarusians used to make a special oat drink and drank it very often as it helped digest food. By the way, the fact that oats are used in the Belarusian cuisine attests to its old age, says Alexander Chikilevsky.
The most popular meat in Belarus is pork. Our ancestors used it for all kinds of sausages and semismoked ham. A festive meat dish is pechisto – a cooked, braised or roasted pig, rabbit, poultry or a large piece of pork or beef. Belarusian machanka (fried meat with flour, onion, milk or sour cream)
is an original dish as it is used as a dipping sauce for pancakes. Only Belarusians do so. In Europe it is more customary to pour sauce over food. By the way, machanka is often mixed with a similar royal dish – vereshchaka, a veal sausage cooked in light beer with sauce on the base of onion and flour.
As for drinks, Belarusians prefer various types of kvass (fermented beverage made from rye bread), sbiten (hot drinks from honey and spice) and herbal teas. By the way, rosebay tea made of the plant that grows everywhere in Belarus tastes like something in between green and black tea.
Any cuisine is influenced by its country’s climate. Local food is better digested. By the way, there is an alternative to any foreign dish in the Belarusian cuisine, Alexander Chikilevsky says.
What is Ours is also Yours
Today a restaurant specializing in local food has to have at least 80% of Belarusian dishes on its menu as well as a traditional interior design and kitchenware. Over 200 restaurants, cafes and bars meet these criteria in Belarus, of them 58 are in Minsk. If a restaurant does not specialize in any cuisine, it still has to have some Belarusian dishes. Yet, really good places where traditional draniki or machanka are served are quite difficult to find even in the capital city.
Until recently this sector’s development was hampered by the state regulation of prices and markups. For instance, a food markup could not be higher than 30%. It was not very profitable to make potato dishes as they are very labor-intensive. It was much easier to buy pasta or pizza bases. Today the Belarusian cuisine is getting more popular among restaurateurs. Yet, we will be able to speak about the true competition when all the other niches in restaurant business will be taken and the market will start dictating other conditions, believes Sergei Chegrinets, the owner of three Belarusian restaurants Kamyanitsa, Belaruskaya Karchma and Aginski.
To popularize Belarus’ art of cooking Minsk has hosted three
Weeks of National Cuisine, two of them in 2013 and one in February 2014. During the weeks a number of cafes and restaurants offered some traditional meals at the same price. According to the Minsk City Hall these events will become traditional in the capital.
The first week was particularly interesting and convivial. It would be advisable to include dishes of a wider price range as any national cuisine has several gradations. Minsk restaurants mainly offered farmers’ food high in carbs and protein. Very little is known about the food of Belarusian noblemen, Alexander Chikilevsky points out.
In any country customer demands for a restaurant serving local food are higher than to any other catering facility. Many people still cherish memories of their favorite homemade dishes and a restaurant has to meet these expectations or, even better, surpass them. Therefore restaurant owners pay special attention to their collection of recipes.
“We have studied various books on Belarusian gastronomy. The basic source of information was the famous book titled ‘ Kucharka Litewska’ (Lithuanian Cookbook) dating back to 1854. However, a 100% reproduction of ancient recipes is impossible as people’s tastes have changed. Every recipe is interpreted in its own way by a chef,” Sergei Chegrinets says.
It is difficult for restaurant owners to say which Belarusian dish is the most popular as they all are in high demand. According to brandchef Alexander Chikilevsky, there is a positive feedback on Belarusian dishes at international cooking contests as well. Therefore it makes sense to develop this trend. By the way, half a year ago a nonprofit association Community of Chefs was established in Belarus. Its members search for old recipes and adapt them to meet modern tastes. Belarusian researchers and local residents help them to collect data. The latter send their recipes to the association’s official pages on social networks. Every week chefs gather together to cook six to seven dishes. This way of operation is believed to help solve the problem with the lack of qualified chefs.
Today the services of cooking specialists are clearly overpriced. This is why many young chefs do not feel the need to constantly develop their skills as they know that any newly opened restaurant will hire them with a 20% rise just because they have some experience. “I am happy that Belarus started hosting cooking contests. This helps find professionals, who are truly passionate about what they do,” Sergei Chegrinets states.
Brand-chef Alexander Chikilevsky, in turn, proposes to open cooking schools which will retrain chefs. The phrase “Belarusian chef ” is likely to become a brand name soon.
During the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship the menus of Minsk cafes and restaurants will be significantly extended. The Trade Ministry has made a list of 10 Belarusian dishes recommended to be included in the menus. It has assorted farmer’s dishes, old-Belarusian herring, mushroom soup, draniki, kartoflyaniki (baked potato balls), pork pechisto, vereshchaka, buckwheat pancakes with mushrooms, Belarusian tea and sbiten. The ministry believes these are the most famous hallmark dishes of Belarus. Many restaurants ask if they can change the list and what restaurants specializing in international cuisine are supposed to do.
They have to remember that it is a recommendation not a demand. Besides the list has been recently extended. Now it also includes two Belarusian salads, namely Zhuravinka and Paparats Kvetka, as well as machanka and babka (baked potato pudding). It also has krupenia (soup). Restaurants can amend the list according to their needs but they have to follow recipes approved by the Trade Ministry. These recommendations do not apply to specialized establishments, for instance those that have religious restrictions on some products, says Valen-
tina Demidenko, a consultant at the Public Catering Department of the Trade Ministry.
Even restaurants specializing in foreign cuisine can introduce one or two national dishes in their menu. For instance, an Italian restaurant can make Belarusian lazanki, an alternative to famous lasagna. Like lasagna this Belarusian dish is made of pasta and minced meat, the only difference is that the pasta is cut not in big strips but in small diamond-shaped pieces. In turn, Belarusian lokshiny can substitute Japanese starch noodles.
“I would remove winter drinks (tea and sbiten) from the list. After all, the championship is held in May. It would be more appropriate to offer foreign guests our tasty kvass, mors (berry-based drink) and nastoi (herbal drink). I would also add kholodnik (cold beetroot soup). By the way, our ancestors used sour cream as its base, not beetroot broth. They added crayfish tails, fish or veal. It was an exceptionally tasty soup,” Alexander Chikilevsky says.