Lo­cal Fla­vor

Be­larus has more than 200 restaurants, cafes and bars spe­cial­iz­ing in lo­cal cui­sine

Economy of Belarus - - FRONT PAGE -

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?

Na­tional Zest

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.

At Ease

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.

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