As with Christmas ‘over here’, food plays an integral role in Russian seasonal celebrations. I was curious enough to take a look at some of these ‘alien’ dishes and a few traditions surrounding them. We’ve dipped into several aspects of the Russian festive season over the past few weeks – so consider this the Christmas leftovers.
Food is so ingrained in the celebrations that Christmas Eve’s alternative moniker, “Sochelnik” is derived from Sochivo, the name of a curious (by our standards) traditional food staple derived from grain. We’re now in Russian Orthodox territory incidentally, so various religious practices and customs apply. As Orthodoxy forbids the consumption of animal products throughout the holiday, wheat grain is soaked in water to produce a substance that can be used instead of butter.
The resultant Sochivo is also used in Kutya porridge, where other – more appealing – ingredients such as honey, fruit, nuts and seeds are added. The simplicity of the meal is in keeping with the tradition of seasonal fasting; acknowledging the fast of David, and with the added ingredients symbolic of happiness, success and even immortality.
For hardcore Orthodox followers, a Christmas Eve meal consisting of 12 meat-free courses awaits; the number referring to Christ’s apostles, naturally. Along with the Sochivo, expect sauerkraut, cucumbers and tomatoes, dishes comprised of beans and legumes, mushrooms in marinated and soup form, dumplings, fish, lentils, vegetable caviar (Ikra) and more. Lenten bread (i.e. bread appropriate for Lent) is prominent on the table (mainly because of its size). Prepared as Pugach, it is a large, circular, flat loaf stuffed with potato or cabbage and intended as an entrée, though frankly it sounds like serious bloat material. I’m feeling stuffed already!
Also as a culinary pre-amble is Zakuski, a blanket term covering all manor of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres in various forms. Find cured fish and salads, pickled veg and mushrooms, devilled eggs and cheeses, various breads – and on the not-so-orthodox table: cold-cuts too. Also in the non-vegetarian section, Kholodets may be found. These are essentially meats (and other ingredients) in aspic, animal-jelly by any other name. A prospect that makes me want to retch.
Pirozhki may be found on the Orthodox or secular Christmas Eve table, being small baked or fried breads stuffed with anything from red meat and fish to vegetables, mushrooms and fruit. Also various combinations thereof. The name translates to “small pies” in English, incidentally.
Dumplings in the form of Varenyky or “boiled thing” are another common dish, and steaming is also an option. In principal they are similar to Pirozhki, though prepared with unleavened dough. The stuffed dough parcel is then either boiled or steamed and depending on the contents and may be served as either a savoury or sweet component to the meal.
There is obviously a lot of cross-over between the strictest Orthodox and the loosest secular tables. Whereas the latter may be laden with “fun”, the whole Orthodox ensemble is draped heavily in ritual, with blessings, symbolic offerings and a strict protocol to be observed. Family members even partake in prior washing rituals or pre-Christmas fasting (for several weeks). It’s not a “party-time” event, but rather a sombre reflection on the faith and an exercise in thanksgiving.
More next time.