A vegetarian seeks sustenance in the Russian hinterland
The waiter approached our table carrying three identical plates. On them blini, Russian crepes, were folded neatly in triangles—three per plate—accompanied by a blob of sour cream. He set the plates in front of me, my daughter, and my husband. I cringed.
Blini happens to be one of my most favorite breakfast foods in the world. But this was the sixth consecutive meal in which they played not just a major part but the only part. For the past three days the three of us had eaten them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not because we wanted to but because we couldn’t eat anything else.
My family doesn’t eat meat. On a trip to Mikhailovskoe, the former family estate of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, our intention was to submerge ourselves into Russian territory, history, and culture. We traversed hundreds of kilometers of pothole-ridden roads, ducking traffic cops and staying in hotels that entertained as many giant cockroaches as guests. And while the local cuisine was supposed to be part of this immersion we didn’t really expect to drown in butter—or more likely—subpar vegetable oil.
Our foray into the Russian hinterland came after we’d been living in St. Petersburg for almost a year. Considered Russia’s cultural and Northern capital, the city built by Peter the Great boasted global cuisines from Japanese to Georgian to French to Italian—plenty of choices for those of us who lean toward meat-free eating. Even restaurants that served traditional Russian cuisine would have a couple of vegetarian items on the menu. How different could it be just a few hours drive south? Surely there’d be options, we thought.
We thought wrong.
It wasn’t only that our selection of restaurants along the way was dismal—every town had one, at most two, places to eat—it was also the menu. Each had an extensive list of options with twenty to thirty dishes either printed or written by hand in a multi-page booklet. But, by some unwritten rule of Russian provincial eateries, only two or three items on the menu were available, and they were all meat-centric. On the second day of our trip, we learned the drill. The server would offer to make fried, mashed, or boiled potatoes and we would counter-offer with a request for crepes. The server would disappear to check if any were left since the morning, and ten minutes later reappear with three plates bearing triangles of blini garnished with sour cream.
I grew up in Moscow, USSR, where my childhood experiences included equal amounts of Brezhnev’s mumblings, Communist slogans, and my grandmother’s comfort cooking. She excelled in fried foods—the majority of Soviet babushkas did—and my most desired fried dish was oladi, small fluffy pancakes. Almost every morning I devoured this fatter cousin of blini with the raspberry jam my grandmother conserved during the summer and, because she never made blini, I only heard of them through the Russian classics we studied in literature classes.
But one Saturday morning when I was eighteen, I went to visit a university classmate in a dorm. The first thing I smelled as I stepped out of the elevator on the 12th floor was heated butter. I peeked into the room where the whiff was coming from and saw a mound of neatly stacked crepes. Next to them a girl I didn’t know poured batter onto a small frying pan sitting atop a hot plate. I watched mesmerized as she swirled the pan, waited a minute, flipped the crepe with a spatula, waited another minute, then lifted it out of the pan, and deposited it on top of the stack. She asked: “You want to try?”
I was enamored. Blini tasted just as good as oladi and didn’t require a rising agent. Since my grandmother’s talent had bypassed me, I dedicated myself to blini. Paper-thin crepes became my specialty. First in Russia and later when I moved to the United States, I made them almost every Saturday morning. I mixed flour, milk, and eggs to a kefir-like consistency, poured a ladle-full of batter onto a hot pan, swirled it around to cover the entire surface, and flipped it less than a minute later. Then I stacked them together neatly on top of each other, put them on the table next to a collection of jams, and called my family in for breakfast.
Blini is a Russian institution that stands proudly right alongside vodka, caviar, and the country’s strong propensity for monarch-like rulers. Today these thin pancakes are mostly associated with Maslenitsa, a Slavic folk holiday that takes place a week before the start of the Russian Orthodox Lent. With roots in pagan traditions of sun worship—round blini representing the sun and marking the end of winter—Maslenitsa was appropriated by the Russian Orthodox Church at the end of 15th century. Designated as the time to gorge on foods that contained animal products—aside from meat—it put dairy dishes of all kinds front and center in people’s diets. Maslo, or butter, gave the festival the name it carries to this day.
But the festivities that also include dancing bears, organized fistfights, and burning a winter effigy aren’t the only thing that come to mind when Russians think of blini. “There is a popular saying in Russia,” says Pavel Syutkin, who, along with his wife Olga Syutkina, forms a power couple as Russia’s premier food historians, cookbook authors, and television presenters. “‘To tescha’s (mother-in-law’s) house [we go] for blini’ is a proverb that came from the times when mothers were expected to teach their daughters to make blini after marriage. It was the responsibility of the young husband to bring his wife along with butter and a sack of buckwheat flour to her mother’s house. If he didn’t do that, he’d get in trouble with his mother-in-law.”
No young groom wanted problems with his tescha, so most happily obliged. These days both the custom that gave rise to the saying and the main ingredient—the buckwheat flour—are no longer prevalent. Blini are almost always prepared with wheat flour and the stuffing runs the gamut from cabbage or meat on the savory side to jam or honey on the sweet side. The latter dominates at breakfast.
Syutkina says her favorite breakfast is blinchiki stuffed with tvorog (the Russian cousin of cottage cheese) and raisins. “Make them add milk to flour instead of flour to milk. And remember to let the mixture stand for at least 30 minutes.” But be careful to differentiate, she warns. “The name blini refers to the yeast-based, fluffy version of these crepes, whereas the paper-thin kind is almost always called blinchiki or blintzes.”
Say what? Have I been living a lie and claiming mastery in the wrong dish for the past thirty years?
Apparently so. It’s a good thing my family doesn’t care. That disastrous trip to Mikhailovskoe notwithstanding, they are always happy to taste the buttery flavor of blini—oops, blinchiki—at the start of a weekend.