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  • TRAVEL UPDATE #2: BURYAT CUISINE

    Baikal (above) really is the pearl of Siberia, the world’s largest lake and a UNESCO world heritage site. However, it was mostly too cold to enjoy the time we were there. Apparently, it’s still early in the season. After spending several weeks in and around Lake Baikal, I had enough opportunities to sufficiently try out Buryat cuisine as well as learn about some of the history behind it. All cuisines reflect the culture where it originates, whether it is in the choice of ingredients, prevalence of certain cooking styles and influx of foreign cuisines.

    Today the Buryats (above) are a minority in Russia and Mongolia, however, they are also the largest indigenous group in Siberia, mainly concentrated in the Buryat Republic in and around Lake Baikal, which are all part of the Russian Federation. The capital of the Buryat Republic, Ulan-Ude, is where I spent the majority of time during traveling. Traditionally, the Buryats, like the Mongols, were nomadic and lived in traditional yurts. The yurt is a special kind of tent that can be assembled and disassembled in an hour, keeps internal temperatures warm in winter and cool in summer. The yurts are circular and each place in the yurt has a specific purpose. There’s a hole in the centre of the roof to allow for venting.

    TRAVEL UPDATE #2: BURYAT CUISINE

    I’m back in Canada after five weeks of travelling that flew by.  At one point I was flying to Russia and it seemed like the next day that I was already leaving. Time just goes quickly when you enjoy everyday. It’s a very tangible feeling. Anyways, over the next couple of weeks I will finish a series of posts related to the trip. Access to the internet became pretty spotty while traveling, plus admittedly, what I needed more than anything was a break.

    Baikal (above) really is the pearl of Siberia, the world’s largest lake and a UNESCO world heritage site. However, it was mostly too cold to enjoy the time we were there. Apparently, it’s still early in the season. After spending several weeks in and around Lake Baikal, I had enough opportunities to sufficiently try out Buryat cuisine as well as learn about some of the history behind it. All cuisines reflect the culture where it originates, whether it is in the choice of ingredients, prevalence of certain cooking styles and influx of foreign cuisines.

    Today the Buryats (above) are a minority in Russia and Mongolia, however, they are also the largest indigenous group in Siberia, mainly concentrated in the Buryat Republic in and around Lake Baikal, which are all part of the Russian Federation. The capital of the Buryat Republic, Ulan-Ude, is where I spent the majority of time during traveling. Traditionally, the Buryats, like the Mongols, were nomadic and lived in traditional yurts. The yurt is a special kind of tent that can be assembled and disassembled in an hour, keeps internal temperatures warm in winter and cool in summer. The yurts are circular and each place in the yurt has a specific purpose. There’s a hole in the centre of the roof to allow for venting.

    In Mongolia today, many people still live in yurts (called “gers” there), however, they have been supplemented with SUVs and satellite TV. In Buryatia, however, as a result of Sovietization and the tragic history of the 20th century, tribes were forcibly settled, many lost their lives in a struggle for maintaining their identity and many emigrated.

    I went on a mission to find a book of Buryat recipes to replicate the most well-known Buryat dish of buuza / бууза, which are large steamed meat dumplings (called pozy / позы in Russian).  You will find the same dumplings in Mongolia as well as throughout Central Asia with the addition of some vegetables which changes the texture (manty / манты).  The only books I could locate on Buryat cuisine in the entire city of Ulan-Ude were housed in the National Library Rare Books Collection.  That’s right, there aren’t any books in Russian much less English featuring Buryat recipes.

    Luckily, as is a general theme throughout modern Russia, the internet fills a void where political control and interests cannot fully eradicate. And in my research I found numerous recipes for buuzy (none of which have been translated that I could find). How exciting it is to stumble upon something that isn’t on the internet!  Well, it will be now, stay tuned for a future update when I attempt to replicate these in my kitchen.

  • TRAVEL UPDATE #1: GREETINGS FROM ULAN-UDE

    Friday June 7 already feels like it was a month ago, but that was the day that I began travelling from Toronto to Moscow. I arrived in Moscow late Saturday night and was met by two dear friends after I disembarked from the train from the airport.

    I had all of one day to get reacquainted with the city I used to live in.  In many ways, I didn’t recognize it at all. And much of the feelings were overwhelming and difficult to process in so short a period of time while also being jet lagged, tired, cranky and a little paranoid. In some ways Moscow was unrecognizable. In other ways it very much reinforced the perception I’ve always had of it.

    Our train left Moscow last Monday and arrived in Ulan-Ude late Thursday night on Moscow time. Local time was already early Friday morning. We tried the onboard restaurant but found the food largely inedible. For example, here is a mystery beef dish that we were served.

    I can’t believe that already a week has passed by since we first arrived in Ulan-Ude. We made preparations for our journey to Mongolia next Friday.

    ULAN-UDE HIGHLIGHTS RESTAURANT LIFE

    Because we don’t have a kitchen, I’ve had the pleasure of eating out in at least one restaurant everyday.  And one restaurant in particular: Travelers Coffee, which is a chain of cafe/bistro type restaurants across Russia. The branding is modern, the choices are modern and the variety of coffee is the most I’ve seen ever in this country.  I did find a better Americano at Marco Polo but the atmosphere, location and menu choices of Travelers make it hands down a better choice for us.  My favourite meal because of the value for money you get (I’m so American sometimes) is the club sandwich, which for 239 rubles ($7) you get 400 grams of food (almost a pound)–a big sandwich and french fries. And they put a ton of dill on the french fries, I don’t think it adds anything to.

  • HEALTHIER PEANUT BUTTER BALLS

    This year I was desperate for a taste of the holidays without all the sugar. So I turned to my favourite high-protein ingredient: peanut butter. Instead of 10x sugar, I used honey. For extra fiber, I added some wheat germ. These don’t have the moisture of the original, but they pack a huge peanut butter punch, and if you use milk chocolate, you won’t miss the 10x sugar. And that’s how I got to this healthier peanut butter balls recipe.

    Suddenly, I wasn’t so depressed about the fact that I wasn’t able to make it home for Christmas all the way from Vancouver. It was an expensive move and an exhausting one, with a period of adjustment that continues even now. Missing out on all that holiday gorging did have one upside. This is the first year in my life I haven’t gained weight during the holiday season! In the past I’d put on up to 15 pounds during the three weeks spanning all the holiday gatherings. I’m a comfort food junkie. Free from the temptation of the most delicious home cooking, I could maintain some discipline around my eating and make balanced choices.

    Nutrition

    These healthier peanut butter balls only lasted in the fridge all of three days. That was not so great, but it was our only indulgence. The calories in the healthier recipe are much improved over the original. Although the first thing I said when I tried one was, “Not as good as the original,” (we’re only human, after all), I would still make these over the confectioners sugar variety. For your convenience, you can view the original or healthier recipe ingredients used to calculate the above Nutrition Facts at MyFitnessPal. Please note that in the original recipe I use 3 cups of sugar (not 4) and no shortening in the chocolate, so I have already reduced some calories in the original.

    Now, this treat is certainly no apple, but it is definitely a treat. Finding a way to make simple indulgences a part of your everyday life can really contribute to long-term sustainability. When you find yourself too deprived, those indulgences become detrimental physically and mentally. Feeling like you’re out of control after eating an entire bag of raw chocolate chips does not add to your self esteem. And I think we’ve all been there at one time or another.

  • Coffee Biscotti Milkshake

    Russia has always kind of been its own beast.  Thus I affectionately dubbed those trips “returns to the West” where “West” implied all manner of  non politically-correct “civilization”: coffee in to-go cups, people who weren’t so rude to catch you off guard, shopping that had good variety and was affordable, beautiful public spaces where you felt free to be yourself, etc.

    For me, the greatest thing about returning to the West was returning to a common cultural understanding of what certain foods were supposed to be like. You didn’t have to worry about the serious bastardization of dishes which you became used to in Russia. You didn’t have to worry about getting steak-frites when you ordered french fries. Or choking on a burger that was so dry it would get stuck in your throat. Or getting dill in your mashed potatoes when you didn’t request it.

    On one of my more memorable London trips, I had spent all day walking around with my friends and was utterly starving by the time we sat down for dinner. You know the feeling: tired + hungry + angry = super hangry. I almost cried when I saw on the 50s diner themed menu a favourite comfort food: milkshakes.

    Oh my god, they have milkshakes!

    I can feel the tears welling in my eyes right now remembering the sheer joy of that moment.

    Why all the freaking out about a milkshake?

    First of all, what soothes sore muscles better than a milkshake?

    Second of all, milkshakes were inaccessible in Russia, where a milkshake or “molochnyi kokteil” as it’s called, consists of milk + flavoured syrup served slightly cooler than room temperature (the country is not afraid of useless wars but deathly fears cold drinks). It’s an Italian soda with milk instead of soda. And it’s pretty much disgusting.

    But because I was in the West, in a retro-Americana looking joint, I couldn’t wait to get a creamy, eat-it-with-a-spoon kind of decadence in front of my face with the second half of my drink waiting for me in the metal cup used to mix it.

    I waited eagerly for my drink, barely able to contain my excited as my “hanger” dissipated into anticipation for one of the greatest things ever. I was almost jumping up and down in the booth unable to wait.

    What happened when they sat the drink in front of me is not my brightest moment.

    I glared at the cup of milk with an obvious drip of unstirred syrup so hard that tears began to well in my eyes. What happened after that, I’ve blocked out of my own memory but my friends remind me: first I cried, then I complained for about two hours, then I suffered constant reminders of my crying over a milkshake anytime the topic of food, hangriness, London or milkshakes comes up.

    To my credit, I think this anecdote is illustrative: food is so much more than food. It is love. It is memory. It is comfort. It can make your day or destroy your mood.

    If you don’t want your friends to make fun of you forever, never cry over a milkshake. Unless it’s a really good one, like this one.  Coffee + Biscotti = beautiful concoction!

    Congratulations to you if you got through my anecdote, you may be able to relate to those moments of desperation. I had another low recently: I was on the Trans-Siberian train for four days when I wrote down in a train food fog: coffee biscotti milkshake. I knew it would be my first recipe upon returning to Canada, I knew exactly what I had to throw in my blender to make it right, and I’m happy to say after a week of “testing” (i.e. making excuses to buy an inordinate amount of ice cream), I’ve got a new favourite in the milkshake section of my recipe book. It couldn’t be simpler if you buy store-made biscotti and use a blender.

  • SLOW COOKER SMOKY TRUFFLE CHEESEBURGER DIP

    This is how I decided to tackle “spicy cheeseburger dip” or “rotel dip” for my Canadian colleagues, who probably have not experienced the original to begin with. To top it all off, I looked to my favorite local restaurant burger to create the flavour profile.  A marriage of two beautiful things creates a thing of beauty all its own.

    Some back-story: This is the second post of dips because of our Slam Dip contest at work. I do not normally make dips every week, although I cook a lot. The weather just got nice, I’d like to enjoy it, so I was not stressing. As the reigning champion of last year, I already knew the competition would be fierce because I set such a high bar for myself last year.  It was also going to be hard to top my own game because my standards are always getting higher and higher.

    I never look at something and think “How can I get it done?” I think, “How can I do this and make it better than everyone else’s? How can I do this and save time? How can I improve it?” As an only child, I could never differentiate myself from my siblings, I had to differentiate from everyone else in my age group.  Maybe that happens a lot–only children who are overachievers.

    As is generally indicative of my process, I spend hours planning what I’m going to make and maybe an hour making it. Planning is really your savior, and it makes economical sense too, when you consider the cost of ingredients and the value of your time. Not that this is news to anyone who has lived a busy life or struggled with just a tiny ounce of perfectionism.

    Anyways, and then I was talking to one of my colleagues about how dips are apparently passe. Everyone just wants artisan cheeses.  This is the struggle of Cast iron canteen–to take what is wholly “country” (read in this context: so bad it’s good) and make it palatable for our urban tastes that have evolved. And arguably everyone, country and city alike, appreciates more complex flavour profiles these days.  We have to.

    So this is where a few great things intersect–subtly seasoned ground beef that makes for a great burger base, truffle aioli (because if you haven’t had burger and truffle together, you will never want to have it any other way again) and caramelized onions with mushrooms.

    This is not a spicy dip at all. Instead, it tastes like a really decadent cheeseburger with truffle.  Depending on the truffle aioli you find, you can really taste the truffle.  Its closest substitution would be a different variety of aioli or mayonnaise. But you can’t reasonably substitute mayonnaise and keep this dish interesting, it will lose flavour complexity and fall flat.

    So try to find truffle aioli. If you can’t, I highly recommend you make a different cheeseburger dip recipe. There’s a reason truffle is in the title.