Potato is an indispensable part of Russian cuisine, and an intrinsic part of their daily diet. Sudhamahi Regunathan traces the world’s favourite tuber’s humble beginnings
If you are visiting Russia, many a delight awaits you. Inspiring history of strife and survival, breathtaking architecture, a plethora of arts, crafts and dances, excellent wine that is not too sweet or too dry and, naturally, a variety of vodkas.
But one of the most exciting experiences the country has to offer involves discovering its delectable and vast potato-based cuisine. You can have potatoes in the morning, potatoes in the evening, potatoes with strangers, potatoes with family, potatoes, potatoes, and even more potatoes.
The texture of the Russian potatoes is different from those we get in India. It’s granular and plays between the teeth, transforming the humble tuber into a gourmet’s delight.
Start your day with a simple preparation of potatoes — boiled, peeled, diced and gently sautéd in butter — with an elegant garnish of dill, a fresh green herb. This is a common breakfast dish. At other times, it accompanies meat preparations. There’s a higher calorie variation too — swap the boiled potatoes for deep fried ones.
Russia’s best-known culinary export, the Russian Salad, is also heavily potato based. The veggie version, which includes carrots, peas and mayonnaise, is as delicious and wholesome as the one that has chicken and potatoes in equal quantities.
What’s on your plate
The one dish that can be ordered at any time of the day is potato pancakes. This absolutely delectable savoury is served with sour cream. It’s absolutely easy to make and there are two basic versions of it. The first requires five medium-sized boiled potatoes, a teaspoon of dried yeast soaked in lukewarm water with a quarter teaspoon of sugar, some cooking oil and salt to taste. To prepare the pancake, first soak the yeast and then cover the cup with a thin cloth and leave aside in a warm place for about half an hour. The mix will froth up to at least double its level. Then you peel and mash the potatoes, adding the risen yeast mix. Gradually, add water to make it of batter consistency, adding salt to taste. Make the pancakes on a non-stick frying pan, taking care to spread the spoonful of the batter evenly in the form of a medium-sized crepe. Cook the pancake on both sides, adding a little cooking oil as you go along, until it turns golden brown.
The trick to making a perfect potato pancake lies in mashing the potatoes very well. If lumps remain, the batter does not spread well. This recipe makes around 10 golden rounds — allowing for a couple that may stick to the pan or break up.
Then there’s the second ‘quick fix’ version. For this, one has to grate five medium-sized boiled potatoes. A pinch of cooking soda and salt along with water is added to it to make the batter, which is then left for about 10 minutes. After this, you can proceed to make the pancakes like you did with the earlier recipe. Use a fine sieve and add a spoonful of refined flour to make it easier to lift off the pan. Potato pancakes are a good option, but if you want to thoroughly entice your palate, then the winner recipe is the creamy mashed potato. To the calorie conscious, it may not be easy to eat this well-buttered preparation, but at these times it is worth remembering that you live but once. How is it made? Well, there seem to be as many ways of making it as there are households in St Petersburg — I too got a taste of this rich preparation at one.
The wonderful city of St Petersburg plays a special role in this story of potatoes because it was here that the tuber first reached Russia from the Continent. Czar Peter the Great, after whom the city has been named, was a great traveller and visionary. He was the one who ensured that Russia caught up with the rest of Europe, whether in terms of food or women’s fashion. Before his time, women wore clothes that covered them from head to foot. It was Czar Peter who introduced evening gowns. The paintings of that era reflect the change in attire very clearly. But even though the necklines dropped in a jiffy and the hemlines rose in a hurry, the potato was not so easily accepted.
In 1697, Czar Peter sent home a sack full of potatoes. His countrymen were, however, not impressed and took almost a 100 years to warm up to the tuber. Today, not only does Russia produce large quantities of potatoes, it also ranks amongst the highest consumers of the tuber. Some estimates say that an average Russian used to consume 130 kilos of potatoes every year. China, however, seems to have overtaken Russia as the largest producer of potatoes. In fact, a third of the world’s total potato yield is harvested in China and India.
Coming back to the mashed potato, it’s an art to get the texture right. It has to be uniform. If you run it into the mixer, it becomes a little watery... that takes away from the taste. There is a special instrument available in the market to make the perfect mash. It is much like an electric egg beater, except that its nozzle is flat and round. Add salt and butter, both to taste, while mashing. My hosts in Russia added a little bit of sour cream as well. Always ensure that it is served hot, with butter.
Okay, so you may have heard of the salad, the pancake and even the mash, but did you know that Russian cuisine also has a smooth potato soup? To make this, you can run the boiled potatoes in the mixer. Be sure to add water as you whirl it so that there are no lumps. Once again, as per the recipe, add milk or sour cream instead of water, although that may make it heavier. For every four potatoes, two garlic pods may be a good idea. Grind them along with the potatoes. There are some versions, which need the addition of fried onions and tomatoes, but that is something you may like to avoid if you are a potato fan. Serve hot with butter or sour cream. The Russian version of the potato soup is quite thick.
Another dish I heard of, but did not get to taste, is one in which potatoes are filled with cheese. These balls are either deep fried or poached like eggs and added to any sauce.
There is a theory that the poorer the nation, the greater the consumption of potatoes, although this may not stand the scrutiny of economists. However, what can be said with confidence is that potatoes are a reservoir of nutrition, having all the minerals and vitamins in the book, with the exception of Vitamin A and D. When eaten with the skin, it has as much roughage as a cereal.
But, as you read this piece, a word of caution: Do not eat potatoes as soon as they are cooked. Cool them first. Here’s why. Potatoes have a lot of starch. A small but significant portion of this starch is resistant to digestion by enzymes in the stomach and the small intestine. This part acts as roughage, offering protection against colon cancer, improving glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, lowering plasma and triglyceride concentrations, increasing satiety and even reducing fat storage. It reaches the large intestine almost intact. But to enjoy these benefits to the fullest, the secret is to allow the vegetable to cool before ingesting it. That’s when, say nutritionists, the percentage of resistant starch doubles — from seven per cent to 13 per cent.
So don’t hurry, rest easy — take time to enjoy this delicious tuber!