Samui Wining & Dining
Russian Reality

Just what is Russian cuisine?

 

22There’s a rumour going around that Samui now has quite a lot more Russian visitors than it used to have. There’s also another hint that quite a lot of folks are a bit confused about it all – especially the Thais. The best way of explaining this one is by asking, “what’s a Russian?” Because natives of, say, Kazakhstan speak Russian. And indeed, they were Russian until 1991, when the old USSR was dissolved. But it’s all a bit like an African saying that he’s Nigerian not African, or an Englishman saying he’s English, not a Brit. And, on top of all of this, bear in mind mind that today’s new slimmeddown ‘Russia’ is still almost as large as the whole of Europe and the USA combined

      Which rather makes a nonsense of the idea that Russia might have some sort of a cuisine. It’s the same as posing the question, “what’s the food like in Europe?” To which the response is bound to be – “which country?” The only real way to get to the bottom of this kind of question is to work out what the food isn’t like! Otherwise, there’s just too much variety. And in any case, a great many food facts that you’ll come across are based on traditions from a century ago (or more!): ideas such as the staple diet of the English is roast beef and that Germans eat nothing but sauerkraut and wurst.

      Today’s new Russian Federation remains something of a geo-political monolith. When the changes came, the USSR lost four European countries, 14 of its previous states became independent and another eight nations were freed from Russian military dominance. And several of these nations have since further sub-divided or merged, such as Germany, Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. Which effectively hammers home my point about ‘Russian cuisine’! And that’s not allowing for the fact that the ‘Russia’, which remains, is still by far the world’s largest country.

      Right now Samui is going through an interesting phase. For a great many years previously, it was mainly visited by British, German and Australian citizens (plus a handful of Americans and South Africans). But of late the international economy has turned around, making it more costly for these nationalities but more user-friendly for visitors from Asia. With one glaring exception – those who might be collectively termed Russian. Suddenly everything’s clicked into place for tour operators from those regions. And once the gates opened, the trickle became a flood. Towards the end of last year, a contingent of Russians flew here in a private jet and exclusively took over an entire 5-star resort (complete with their own executive chef) for ten days – their plane had to be hangered on the mainland as there were no facilities for this here. And this is just one example of many.

      But this is hidden away. What is in plain sight, however, is the Russian presence on the street. Now it’s rare to hear English spoken amongst the many customers at the big supermarkets – and they’re all buying lots of food. Russian restaurants and cafés? Well, there are as yet surprisingly few. But one sure sign of the times is a new small Thai restaurant that I recently spotted. There are two sorts of Thai restaurant: those that cater exclusively for Thai people, and those that try to expand their customer base towards visitors also. And that means menus printed in Thai and English. This little restaurant had a dual-language menu, too. But it was in Thai and Russian, with not a word of English on it anywhere.

     So what of the Russian cuisine? Well, that again has to be split into parts: what people used to eat back home, what they go for over here – and how both these aspects relate to ‘traditional’ Russian food. Many little local Thai restaurants now seem to be more or less patronised by Russians, indicating that Thai food is what they like to eat! Back home it’s a shrewd guess that this sector of the Russian community ate out in city restaurants. Touching on traditionalism for a moment, it’s been noted that, because of the cold climate, the national cuisine in general is based upon foods that are low in protein, high in carbohydrates and with lots of sour dairy products and meat and fish jellies. But this is a farmers’ diet. And something tells me that there aren’t too many Russian peasants taking holiday breaks on Samui right now.

      Here, on Samui, it might appear that those few Russian eateries are not so interested in catering to other nationalities – all the signage and chalkboards are in Cyrillic. One of the few exceptions, however, is ‘Baikal’ in Bophut, which actually describes itself as a ‘café bar’. The owner, Alexander Sorokin, comes from the region around Lake Baikal – hence the name. And he’s quick to point out that cosmopolitan city-based Russians have much the same dining expectations as their European counterparts. Essentially, they’re looking for clean, light, healthy food, but with the flavour of home. And in this context, it’s quite interesting to see what Alex has on his menu.

       When it comes down to it, there are one or two ‘traditional’ (in the modern sense of the word!) dishes that the clientele are drawn to. Such as ‘pelmeni’, which is similar to Chinese dumplings, and comes in a bowl of light clear broth. Another favourite is the smoked fish. This is cooked by smoking it over oak chips, so you’ll need to order it first and wait for it, but the distinctive flavour is out of this world. Then there are the salads, which are pleasantly unusual in their ingredients and taste.

         As far as Samui is concerned, it’s still early days. Unlike places such as Pattaya, where whole areas have become ‘enthnicised’ and with not one word of Thai or English to be seen anywhere except for the street signs, cuisine that might cause folks to reach for their balalaikas is hard to come across on our island. But, one way or the other, it’s only a matter of time before more restaurants open, and the reality of the real Russian cuisine becomes evident everywhere.

         

Rob De Wet


 


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