The pelmeni talk: from Soviet canteens to émigrés’ kitchens

NB! Kui Sa oled septembris Londonis, siis loe selle põneva ürituse kohta: Mamushka, Mamkin, Mamulya.

'Many, many pelmeni’ – these were amongst the first words my husband learnt and savoured in Russian (‘so so English’ my girlfriends often exclaim about J. I roll my eyes without the fail. A Londonner, how could he be ‘sosoenglish’). J liked the roll-off-the-tongue repetitiveness of the words. He especially liked the dutiful plenitude of the dumplings.

My mother introduced my husband to proper mother-in-law love through pelmeni. The first time she met J and the last time (ever..)  she visited us in London it was during dreary December. Mum had plenty of time on her hands and whilst I was working during the day, she was feeding J (who was at home, off before Christmas) with many-many pelmeni often served with the bouillon in which they had been cooked with lots of black pepper and sourcream. 

Mum didn’t speak English, J couldn’t say much in Russian, and so bowfuls of steaming dumplings became their lingua franca: for her the unexpressed hope for her daughter’s fulfilled future zagranitsej, overseas, her concern about this tall, yet to be understood man, curiosity about someone who inexplicably reminded her of the late husband – J shared my dad love for poetry, mountain hikes – and simple food encased in pastry and love. 

My Englishman in return was receiving gratefully plate after plate of parcels of knowledge and care about his to-be-wife. With silent smiles he ate as if to say ‘I care for your girl and receive hungrily what is of her’. They understood each other.

…Funny that with pelmeni, a dish that requires plenty of time to prepare at home, it has also come to be thought of as Soviet ultimate fast food.

Еда холостяка, bachelor’s food,  is how packs of frozen, shop-bought pelmeni are often referred to. Of course, the quality of home-made dumplings could never be compared to the mass produced stuff, pelmeni nevertheless are thought of as a decent, and sometimes the only one substitute for home-made food. 

Generations of teenagers were brought up on manymanymany pelmeni. Working mothers ‘ mantras were to instruct their children coming back from school (or husbands from work) to cook some pelmeni out of a freezer, will ya.  The dependents in return could independently embellish the boiled result with a) sourcream b) butter c) (yes!) ketchup d) my old-time favourite, strong vinegar with cracked pepper. 

Some of the more rebellious teenagers would have pan-fried pelmeni, straight from frozen, resulting in the most sublime crunchy casing and soft and juicy meat filling. 

The Soviet attitude towards the meat filling would have often highlighted our sweet-bitter love-hatred of bought pelmeni , our distrust of  the provenance of the meat inside. 

Mince meat (as well as salami and bologna-style sausage) in the Soviet folklore was often the butt of joke when it came to the dubious quality of meat (toilet paper featured heavily as a suggested meat substitute).  So the home-made minced meat – my mother would have normally bought a piece of meat and minced it herself on, the now iconic, myasorubka, mincing machine – was seen in opposition to the suspicious grey mince of the pelmeni in stores. But hey, this was the accepted sacrifice of Soviet rare take-aways. 

These days you will often hear of pelmeni’s origin being cited as Siberian, evoking the image of massive lands, fresh cold air and crystal rivers of the northern part of Russia. But dishes almost never originate from one clear source, they shape, change, transform over centuries, under numerous influences following often unexpected trajectories. 

And so pelmeni having had at least some roots in the East, the land of dim sum, became the success story of the Soviet industrial food machine. As Soviets were cherry-picking dishes from across the ‘one-sixth of the world’ in the imperialist attempt to create nations ‘socialist in content, national in form’, pelmeni were the obvious choice for the mass aspirations of Soviet canteens. 

In the post-Soviet realities, pelmeni are still holding onto their powers by being seen as retro, nostalgic, ‘authentically’ Russian and fast food a la russe par excellence. 

…When in migration, pelmeni continue their story of speaking of love, longing, fear and hope. They even let mothers-in-law communicate with their foreign husbands. The pelmeni speak eh.


Proovi pelmeeniretsepte ja retsepte pelmeenidega Nami-Namis:

Katrina Kollegaeva
Katrina Kollegaeva
postitatud 28.08.2015 09:25 LISA KOMMENTAAR