This is a short post. I made a variation of shakshuka, the middle eastern dish of eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce. The flavor backbone is cumin, coriander, dried rosemary, and cayenne because I have never seen fresh chilies in Russia. To make my version a bit healthier and more well-rounded, I added some fresh tomatoes and lots of chickpeas. This is the first meal I've made in my new apartment! And I was very pleased with how it came out. The new stove heats up much more quickly and is generally more responsive than the old one (both the old stove and the new stove are electric).
I had to give this bread its own post. It's called lavash, and it's become the only type of bread I'm eating. The lovely loaf pictured above was the freshest I've had yet: I literally saw the baker pull it out of the oven, put it in a bag, and then hand it to me. I didn't quite understand how complicated it would be to explain this bread until I started writing this post. "Lavash", according to Wikipedia and UNESCO, officially refers to a type of unleavened Armenian flatbread. That is not what is pictured above, and not what I've been eating, although you can buy a pre-packaged version of Armenian lavash in some supermarkets here. The bread you see above is commonly referred to by everyone in St. Petersburg as "lavash", even though it is not what you will see if you put "lavash" into American google. Interestingly, if you type "лаваш" into Yandex, you get images of both Armenian lavash and the other kind of lavash, the one I'm eating.
As far as I can tell from my internet research, this type of lavash is originally Georgian in origin. That said, I can't tell if most of the people who sell it fresh are Georgian by ethnicity or not. I know the two bakeries that sell fresh lavash in Pushkin are run by people who are not ethnically Russian, because I've heard the bakers speaking languages that are not Russian. That said, I haven't been able to figure out which languages specifically are being used.
Based on my own knowledge of baking, I would describe this lavash as a leavened flatbread that is thin in the middle and very puffy around the outside. It's salty and chewy, and crispy on the outside, because it's baked in an oven that people here call a "tandyr" or "tandoor" that is very similar in principle to an Indian tandoor. It's made of bricks/clay/etc and gets very very hot. The bread is baked for only a few minutes on the side of the oven, which gives it a crackly, just-short-of-charred crust while preserving a beautifully fluffy interior.
There's a bakery only about a ten or fifteen minute walk away from my dorm that sells fresh lavash. It's run by a guy named Maksim and his son, and they're both very friendly - they insisted on adding me on VKontakte, partly I think because the son wants to learn English. I think they're still both kind of confused about what on earth an American is doing buying bread from them on a regular basis, even though I've tried to explain to them that I'm teaching at the university. But they're both very nice, and they make delicious bread.
The latest exciting development in my cooking adventures here in Pushkin is that I found a really great produce store that has things like broccoli, arugula, and cauliflower, none of which seem to be regularly available in the average grocery store. It's run by a family that is clearly not ethnically Russian, as they speak to one another in a language that is definitely not Russian, but I can't tell what language it is and so I can't tell specifically where they are from. However, when I was there this evening to buy produce, they noticed that I had an accent when I spoke Russian, and asked where I was from. They were all very intrigued and affable when I said that I was American, so I have a feeling they'll get to know me as a regular as I continue shopping there.
A week or two ago I had bought a packet of spices (spices tend to come in packets here, not jars) that was labeled "curry". I probably should have checked the ingredients more thoroughly, because the first ingredient was actually salt, and it was more salty than anything else. I guess that figures - Russian food is pretty as far from "curry" as I could imagine. The curry mix had a nice cumin aroma to it, but it was no substitute for garam masala. It also lacked turmeric, which is a staple when I make curry.
But I had already decided that I was going to make a bastardized cauliflower and paneer curry with sautéed cauliflower and kavkazski cheese (see the previous "what I'm eating" post - it tastes like queso blanco) because I really wanted cauliflower and I really wanted it to be spicy. The great produce store had fresh ginger, so I got some and put a lot (~2 thumbs worth) in to fry with some onions and a bit of the Russian curry mix. Then I added the cauliflower and some bell peppers, and fried off the cheese in a separate pan. I added the cheese to the cauliflower mix, then seasoned the whole thing with ajika loosened with a bit of sunflower seed oil and a small pinch more of the curry powder.
It came out good - very gingery with a nice spicy kick. What I was missing was the deep cumin-cinnamon smokiness you get from garam masala, and the beautiful color of turmeric. I really missed the turmeric - as you can see from the photo, this plate of food looks kind of sad, even though it tasted pretty good. I seriously doubt that I can buy turmeric in St. Petersburg, though.
One of my next food adventures is probably going to be trying some of the dried goods at the good produce store. There was an attractive dried fruit that looked like dates (but was labeled "фиг", literally fig) and some stuff that looked like Indian milk sweets, but is probably some sort of Central Asian dried milk product. Suffice to say, I'm intrigued.
Anyone who knows about Russian food knows that it is not spicy. In fact, most Russians are extremely sensitive to spicy food, and even a bit of black pepper is too much. This past week, I was lamenting my lack of hot sauce or chili paste of any kind. I never realized I could miss Tapatio (or Tabasco, or Cholula) so much. For the last two years of college, I lived with two people who were so into hot sauce, they bought half-liter size bottles of Tapatio. Hot sauce was always around, and I never had to think about it. When I did think about it, it was only to buy harissa, the drier texture of which made it preferable for putting in yogurt.
I should have thought to bring hot sauce with me to Russia, but it seemed like an unnecessary thing to pack in my already-stuffed suitcase. For the past two weeks I've been missing it, wishing every time I fry eggs that I had something tangy, spicy, and salty to add on top. Enter аджика (ajika).
It's a little jar of chili paste. And it's actually spicy. It looked promising in the grocery store because it was labeled "по-абхазски", which means "Abkhazian style". Abkhazia is the partially recognized independent region of Georgia that has been a site of various political conflagrations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The politics of Abkhazia were not why this jar of chili paste was of interest to me; rather, Abkhazia's proximity to Georgia means that they eat spicy food there. Before buying, I checked the ingredients, and was sold on the first one: spicy red peppers. It turns out there's a wikipedia article about ajika, so if you're curious I suggest you read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajika
I can report that the taste of ajika does not disappoint. It's nicely spicy (about as spicy as a good harissa, and a little bit drier in texture than most harissa), salty, and has a finish like smoked paprika (although as far as I can tell from the label there is no smoked paprika, just basil and coriander and dill and other spices). I mixed some with olive oil and put it on my eggs this morning; it was delicious.
I also put some of the ajika-olive oil mixture on... cheese! That I fried in a pan! And it was delicious!
To give some context for my excitement about the cheese, I would like to remind my readers that current sanctions forbid the import of cheese to Russia. So think about all of the cheese that you normally buy in the U.S., things like cheddar, parmesan, swiss, mozzarella, feta, brie, etc., etc., and now imagine if the only versions of these cheeses you could get were poor imitations. As someone who adores cheese, this is a bit of a bummer. I put cheese in most of my food - queso fresco in enchiladas, parmesan or pecorino on my pasta, swiss or mozzarella on my sandwiches, more parmesan or feta in salads, and any cheese I have around the house on my toast, especially under some well-fried eggs.
I'd rather not eat something that I know is going to disappoint me, so instead of making do with imitations of European cheeses, I'm trying to switch to only eating varieties of cheese native to Russia and neighboring regions. I previously had tried this weird heavily smoked and salted braided cheese that is a tasty snack on its own, but too strong in flavor to put on other things. On my last grocery store run, I went out on a limb and bought a semisoft cheese that was marked as "soft caucuses-style cheese". It was a creamy off-white color and had a little give to it when squeezed through the packaging.
This is the cheese that I fried in the pan and ate with ajika. It has a slightly fermented but mostly milky flavor, and a soft but not overly-crumbly texture. What it reminds me of most is queso blanco but more fermented in flavor. (Now if only I had tortillas I could make bastardized enchiladas.)
I'm really pleased by these food developments. Just another example of how some of the best food in Russia is from Georgia or the Caucuses. Also a good example of how a little creativity is the key to cooking the kinds of things you like at home even when you're in a very different culinary environment.