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Analysis & Opinion
09.04.08 Mastering Russian Veggies
By Nataliya Vasilyeva

Contrary to Popular Belief, Meat Is Not a Central Ingredient in Genuine Russian Cuisine

Having spent 13 years in Canada, Pasha Voytinsky moved back to Russia in 1994 to find much tolerance towards vegetarianism in the country of pelmeni and cutlets. Other vegetarian Muscovites have discovered that contrary to popular belief, Russians are far less of meat eaters than could be expected.

“In some respects it’s easier to be a vegetarian in Russia than it is in Canada,” said Voytinsky, who moved to his dacha on the Volga River from a downtown Moscow apartment a few years ago. “No one would be pointing to a verse in the Bible that says Man must eat meat, or say that farmers will go bust if you don’t eat meat. No one has ever tried to use such primitive arguments with me here. I think it’s this well-known Russian tolerance, but also many people simply don’t understand what vegetarianism is about.”

Voytinsky is a pioneer of vegetarian tourism in Russia. He has been receiving tourists in his vegetarian-friendly apartment in central Moscow since 1997. Five years ago, he turned his dacha into a real vegetarian tourism hub.

One third of visitors to this dacha come from abroad only to discover that genuine Russian cuisine is not about pelmeni or cutlets. “The Russian cuisine offers an abundance of pickles and smoked food,” Voytinsky said. “In more sophisticated Russian cuisine, meat will not necessarily be a central thing.”

Maxim Syrnikov, St. Petersburg-based Russian cuisine researcher, rebuffs the misconception that Russian cooking is meat-oriented. “We’re used to an idea that meat is the center of Russian cuisine, which is simply wrong. Meat is by no means the most widely used ingredient. It is third after breads, cereals and fish.”

A preference or a religion?

Whether due to the increasingly popular healthy lifestyle trend or to religious beliefs, Lent is becoming ever more popular in Russia. Every other person having lunch these spring days will claim that they are not having meat or fish, but fasting.

Having been born in Britain, Neil McGowan finds this astonishing. “I could easily think of 15 people who stick to the rules of Veliky Post [Lent] and don’t eat meat or fish. Come to think of it, it’s more like 50 percent of the people I know.”

In Russia, vegetarianism is often merged with the idea of Lent, but these two concepts are fundamentally different. “The essence of Lent is asceticism, curbing your desires. Hunger is a metaphor for a spiritual hunger,” said Voytinsky. “Vegetarianism is not about infringing on your interests, but about not hurting the little animals. Vegetarianism is utilitarian.”

Maxim Syrnikov notes that Russia’s deep-rooted Orthodox Christian tradition, with a strict fasting calendar, has had a great impact on the national cuisine. “There are some 200 Lenten days in the year, and 140 of them exclude any meat intake,” he said. “It is this huge number of Lenten days that brought to life such a wide variety of Russian hors d’oeuvres like pickles, smoked and marinated foods. They would not have been invented without Russian Lent.”

With the largest part of the population living in the countryside until 1917, the Russian cuisine is based on the cooking of peasants. Syrnikov notes that meat was a rare ingredient in rural meals. “Peasants would eat meat only on holidays. It was hard to get, hard to store, and also there was a lot of fasting to do. They would cook it to store and eat very little of it.”

Others maintain that Russians subconsciously shun meat not only because of the culinary tastes, but also due to a wide-spread animal-loving sentiment. “A Russian peasant won’t slaughter a pig without getting drunk beforehand and shedding a tear afterwards,” said Pasha Voytinsky. “There’s also this idea of ‘blessed are those who mercy the cattle’ in the Orthodox tradition. Then, we have babushkas who compulsively feed stray dogs.”

Avocado spreads

Russia’s consumer market seems to have picked up the new trend. Avokado is one of the small but growing number of vegetarian restaurants in Moscow. But its target consumer segment is not necessary vegetarian. “Some of the clientele are vegetarian, some are just curious,” said the restaurant’s manager Eldar Idrisov. “People know that it’s good for you to avoid meat a couple of days a week.” Avokado has been operating for four and a half years, and its client base is growing. “Sometimes we have lines during lunchtime and in the evening,” Idrisov said. “We are often asked whether we are going to open another outlet.” Avokado is attracting new clients with some advertising, but mostly by word of mouth as 60 percent of its customers are regulars, Idrisov claimed.

Avokado gets particularly crowded during Lent. “We try to make sure that if someone comes to us for the first time during Lent, they come back,” Idrisov said.

Many Muscovites claim that Lenten menus in the restaurants are nothing but a rip-off – you pay the same price for a dish without meat as you would for one with it. Yet others see a reason behind this practice. “I can kind of sympathize with their [the restaurant’s] position – they don’t pay the staff or the landlord less during Lent,” said McGowan.

But not all vegetarians are dying to visit vegetarian eateries. “I’m actually not in favor of vegetarian restaurants,” McGowan said. “I think vegetarians should be able to eat in a normal restaurant and not in some kind of ghetto. Although I know two or three vegetarian restaurants in Moscow – they are not the places you could go with your friends unless they’re also vegetarian. I would prefer to see restaurants offering more vegetarian choices in their menu.”

Doing without meat

Syrnikov consults Moscow’s top restaurants like Pushkin, Turandot and Shinok on recipes and cooking meat-free dishes. He admits that a large part of the Russian restaurant cuisine is not “genuine.” “You can’t adapt some things to the restaurant type of cuisine. You have to sacrifice the authenticity in some cases,” he said. “There’s a particular thing about the Russian cuisine – it’s not really designed for a restaurant serving. It doesn’t look good. I know one Italian chef who was meaning to try okroshka [cold soup based on kvas] but he didn’t, just because it looked ugly. Dishes with meat always look much better.”

Possibly the strongest argument against vegetarianism in Europe and North America is that the human body can’t survive without meat in a cold climate. Those who have visited Siberia are, however, challenging this idea. “I go to Siberia quite a lot – in winter too – you don’t have to eat meat,” said McGowan, who runs a tourism company. “You need food that the body digests slowly like beans, pulses or potatoes. But I don’t want to convert anyone to vegetarianism and I’m not going to say to the Chukchi that they have to change their diet.”

Scientific research proves that vegetarians are healthier than meat-eaters in some respects. “Vegetarian diets tend to be higher in many things that dietitians consider to be healthy,” said Ursula Arens of the British Dietetic Association. “They are usually higher in complex carbohydrates, fiber and fruit and vegetables, and tend to be lower in saturated fats.”

Data from many large studies shows lower rates of heart disease and even cancer in groups of vegetarians. “Conversely, diets containing a lot of meat may be high in saturated fats, and high intakes of processed meats (ham, salami, bacon) seem to specifically increase the risk of cancer of the colon," she said. On the downside, however, vegetarian diets may increase the risk of anemia.

If meat is excluded from the diet, it must be substituted with something else. The guideline would be to eat a variety of foods, fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans and lentils, Arens said. But is it easy to find such a variety of fresh vegetables in Russia?

“I find tricks with food pretty easy,” said countryside resident Voytinsky. He names the things that can be found in his kitchen – eggplants, couscous, Indian spices, crackers, ginger, greens, potatoes, haricots, corn grain, lentil flour, black radish, rye flour, celery, home-produced eggs and mushrooms. Some of these can be purchased at local stores, while others, like Indian spices, are only available in Moscow. Voytinsky believes that the problem is not that Russians do not grow and sell enough various fruit, vegetables, and cereals that could make a good vegetarian menu, but simply do not know how to cook meat-free dishes that their forefathers invented for Lent time. “It’s so sad to see how people treat food in Russia – like when they boil onions or broccoli, and then fry it in oil,” he said. “The Russian cuisine mashes everything into squash.”

A trend for the successful

Muscovite Neil McGowan finds himself cooking a lot of Indian food at home, as Indian restaurants in the city are often overpriced and of poor quality. “There are simple things that restaurants don’t see as worth offering, like cheese and onion pie, because it’s so cheap and you can’t do anything to make it look glamorous,” he said.

Many foreigners are appalled by the high food prices in downtown Moscow stores. Those in the know strongly advise shopping around before grabbing three tomatoes for $15. “Avoid foreigner traps. Don’t panic and take your time,” Voytinsky recommended. “You won’t find cheap shops or markets in central Moscow. The cost of living here may vary enormously.” Indeed, bread in Moscow is priced between a whopping $7 and 50 cents.

Voytinsky may believe that with their deep-rooted Lenten traditions, Russians are all secretly vegetarian-minded, but he is soberly realistic about the future of vegetarianism in this country. “I don’t think it will reach Russian regions soon, although the expansion of vegetarianism is inevitable.” The percentage of vegetarians increases due to higher standards of living, rather than lofty ideas. “People become vegetarians because of a comfortable and stress-free life, whereas a lot of people in Russia are struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “There are lots of affluent people here, but there are a few who can afford to sit and think. Vegetarianism is for the prosperous. The Russian society may be rich but it is not prosperous.”
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