The History of Russia’s Most Ancient Traditional Dishes: Pelmeni
Posted on July 28, 2010
I am half Russian on my father’s side. My family fled from persecution during the Bolshevik Revolution because they were White Russians, otherwise known as Russian aristocrats. Those who survived moved around the world to Japan, China, Argentina, and finally the United States. My earliest and most fond of memories as a child was eating pelmeni while my Babushka (Russian grandmother) told me fantastical stories about my ancestors. Although I have never been given the opportunity to visit the motherland of my ancestors, I always feel close to them when I eat Russian food.
Russian food itself has a multicultural history that is credited to its location. Russia covers almost 1/6 of the total land surface of our world and experiences cold weather for seven to eight months a year Source. Due to the harsh weather conditions it is quite difficult for warm weather crops and animals to thrive. Russian food is directly affected by Russia’s climate, therefore, traditional Russian foods include meals centered around hearty soups and storable meats and fish, all of which contain high protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and fat to sustain energy and health. Additionally, traditional Russian food was directed toward the working classes as cities were few and far between. The meals were made to feed many people because in the past when visitors came from another town, it would be weeks or sometimes months before they would leave their hosts’ home due to the arctic environment.
Although the climate is a bit on the chilly side, Russia’ location is quite convenient as it is the crossroad where East meets West. In the past, getting spices and other condiments from neighboring countries was easier than it was for Europeans. Russia and its neighboring countries adapted and learned from each other in the kitchen. The Russian soup, pelmeni, that I grew up eating, is similar to Italy’s ravioli and China’s dumpling. It is only under speculation what nation came up with it first, regardless they are all unique in their adaptations.
Pelmeni is one of the more ancient of traditional Russian foods and still in popularity. Many historians believe it originated in Siberia and probably named by the Komi, an indigenous people to the Urals Source. In the native tongue, “pelnyan” means “dough-ear” in reference to the food’s semi-circular shape Source. When the word crossed into Russian, it changed to “pelmen”, which in plural is “pelmeni.” The concept of pelmeni is probably not native to Siberia. The early Mongols may have borrowed it from the Chinese and carried it to the Urals. Whatever the case, pelmeni was popular in ancient times because it could keep and travel well for hunters and other travellers. Pelmeni consists of dough covering a combination of ground beef and pork that is mixed with minced onion and salt, both natural preservatives for meat. The process to create pelmeni takes a lot of tediousness with rolling, cutting, filling, folding, and pinching large quantities of dough. It is a time honoured family tradition that is accompanied with storytelling, songs, and vodka. Today, pelmeni, also called vareniki, can be found in Russian supermarkets in the frozen section; however, I highly suggest making the traditional way for a richer experience.
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- Garlic for the ground beef mixture or added at the end is optional
- Dill and parsley as a garnish is optional
- Soy sauce is optional
- To make the dough, combine the flour, eggs, water and 1/2 tsp. salt. Knead mixture. Let rest for 30 minutes.
- Mix the ground beef, onions, 1 tsp. salt, pepper and garlic together.
- Cut the dough into three equally sized pieces and roll each one into a cylinder the diameter of a finger. Cut each cylinder into pieces the size of a walnut, then roll each piece into a very thin flat cake with a diameter of about 2 inches. OR another way is to roll a dough into a large thin flat sheet. Then take a glass and press into a dough. This way each pelmeni will be of the same size.
- Put some of the ground meat mixture in the center of each flat cake (quite a lot, but not so much that you can’t then seal up the dough). Then fold the dough in half and join up the edges to seal them. Pinch the corners together: you should now have a ravioli-shaped “flying saucer.”
- Boil some water. Add some salt or chicken cubes (Knorr or Maggi) for flavor. When the water boils put pelmeni in water until they float to the surface. Try one to make sure the meat and the dough is done.
- Serve in soup bowls. Can be served with sour cream, creamy horseradish, or soy sauce. Also can garnish with fresh dill or parsley. My father prefers using soy sauce and I prefer using sour cream and dill. It is also optional to have minced garlic added at the end. It’s all about experimentation and discovering what exact flavors you prefer.
By Alexandra Bashkiroff