Samui Wining & Dining
Worth Every Rouble

A look at Russian cuisine and where to find it.

 

14 Anyone living here, or returning for another holiday, will have noticed a new phenomenon. Over the last couple of years there have been increasingly larger numbers of people from Russia visiting Samui. Of course, looking at Thailand in general, this isn’t something new. Russian tourists and business people have maintained a presence in places like Pattaya and Phuket for more than two decades now. Going back only about three years, four at the most, it was rare to come across a Russian visitor to Samui. But not any more!

      If you ask Oleg Grigorev about this he’ll merely smile and shrug. He’s been here now for several years, and acts as a link between Russian newcomers and their general Samui experience, working closely with the tour operators and offering advice and guidance to those who need it. And he’s at the forefront of the blossoming Russian influx, not only in person, but also via his website and magazine. “The island has now developed to the point where it offers everything that Russian tourists want,” he explained, “that’s all that’s happened. Look at how many international 5-star brand names have appeared here in the last few years. These people spend millions on researching potential new locations. The tour agencies in Russia have done their own research and come to similar conclusions.”

       But these are early days. Samui just isn’t as densely populated or as built-up as other established tourist areas. And, travelling around the island, signs and notices in Cyrillic are about as common as hen’s teeth. There are hardly any restaurants that cater to Russian-speaking visitors – Oleg reckons there’s just three at the moment – and it seems that most of the large numbers of Russians who are staying here either favour Thai restaurants or cook for themselves. (Certainly I can also add to this the fact that all my little local restaurants now have their menus in Russian, too.)

All of which prompted me to wonder quite what sort of fare our Russian guests are accustomed to back home. Which, after I thought about it for a moment, seemed to be something of a silly question. In a country which is absolutely enormous, and runs all the way down from the Arctic Circle and across to Alaska in the east, and Turkey in the west, the answer to the question is . . . everything! And, as well as this, some of our Western perceptions are a little out of date. If you take a look at what’s considered to be ‘traditional’ Russian food, then most of this became established during the long period of not only the Czars, but also the various deprivations of the Soviet Republic. Add this to a country which has some heavy-duty winters, and the outcome is a so-called traditional diet of foods that are low in protein, high in carbohydrates, and with lots of sour dairy products and meat and fish jellies.

       Today’s Russian cuisine is actually very cosmopolitan, healthy, appetising and well-balanced, and many of the old traditional elements have either been adapted or brought up to date. To find out what the taste bud reality of this was all about, Oleg took me along to one of those few Russian eateries, Bakal, in Bophut. Lake Bakal (in English, ‘Baikal’) is the largest and oldest lake in the world, and it’s also the region where the restaurant’s owner, Alexander Sorokin comes from. He set up here back in September 2012, and was fortunate to find a location which is both central, right on the ring-road, and yet terraced with several outer layers that insulate it from the bustle of the traffic outside.

      I have to say right away that the menu simply doesn’t hint at the wonders it contains. Although there are some words of English under each of the bold Cyrillic dish titles, they just don’t do the cuisine justice! (Alex tells me that very soon there’ll be a new design which includes photos of each dish.) The contemporary Russian offerings here are sectioned into appetisers, soups, salads and a whole range of meat, fish and seafood dishes. But, much in the same way as the Thai ‘khantoke’ presents you with several dishes at the same time, the best approach is to go along with company and tuck in to a selection of this wonderful food.

      ‘Pelmeni’ is similar in appearance to Chinese-style dumplings and comes in a small bowl of light, clear broth. Available with different meat and fish fillings, this is one of the more traditional offerings, has a nice firm dough, is mildly rich, slightly savoury, and has just a hint of spiciness. It’s delicious by itself. But dip it into the dish of sour cream that comes with it and it just sings! Try it with a couple of spoonfuls of the simply-named ‘Fried Potatoes with Mushrooms and Pork’. It’s much akin to sautéed potatoes but cut into small strips and comes mixed with lightly-fried onion and herbs.

      The Russians are famous for their salads and one of the tastiest here is just titled ‘Vinaigrette’. It’s a fabulous mix of peas, apple, beetroot and tomato, just slightly sweet and not too vinegary, and a perfect complement to its companion, the ‘Salad: Chicken Breast’. This is potato salad gone wild. I want the recipe! It’s another traditional salad and it looks much like coleslaw at first glance, but coming pressed all together firmly into a mound.

      And then to the seafood. You just have to try the ‘Mussels with Spicy Sauce and Parmesan’. It’s an instant mouth explosion, vigorously strong and tangy, not at all rubbery and only slightly and pleasantly spiced. And with four huge mussels on the half-shell, that’s a big serving. But, saving the best for last, there’s the smoked fish. It’s a white snapper and sold by weight, but 250 gms is quite enough for two. This is another traditional preparation: it’s cooked by smoking it over chips of oak that Alex specially imports from Siberia. There’s the faintest tang of vanilla in the firm succulent flakes, a hint of the aroma of butter, and it’s utterly mouth-watering.

      I could go on like this for another page. But all I’ve got space left to add is that the five dishes above totalled not a great deal more than 500 baht. Amazing value for money for such excellent cuisine. If this is Russian cuisine – bring it on! I’m craving more already. It’s not only outstanding but it’s worth every rouble, too!

    
Rob De Wet


 


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