Everyone knows shashlik, but not everyone knows about the Russian shashlik that does not tolerate a woman’s touch.
Spring in Russia comes with the first whiff of the pungent smoke of the kostor (barbacue grill). As the lilac blooms, the snowdrops — rickety, rusty, banjaxed cars used only to get to dachas (country houses) from May to August — bounce out to the dachas. And even if the dacha has electricity, and many do not, the menu is traditional and unchanging: shashlik or skewers of marinated pork or lamb grilled over an open wood fire.
Like so many of its cultural fulcrums, shashlik is not native to Russia, but Russians have made it their own.
That is to say, Russian men have made it their own.
Russian men are not natural cooks: cooking is not associated with world domination and is a bit effeminate as it involves cleaning, multi-tasking and long-range strategic planning. Not madly them.
The big exception is shashlik, which, Russian men assert “cannot tolerate woman’s touch.”
I’ve noticed shashlik seems able to tolerate a woman’s touch during preparation and clean up, but Russian men do throw themselves into their sole culinary endeavor with gusto: spirited debates over the exact chemistry of the secret ancestral marinade (consisting of vinegar, oil, salt and pepper), and the proper arrangement of kindling in the kostor last as long as it takes to consume a bottle of vodka.
Tenderly and lovingly, they spear the clammy chunks onto lethal meter-long shashlik imaplers, and carefully lower them onto the flames.
I sometimes think that if Russian men lavished this kind of attention on their wives, the burning issue of Russia’s declining birthrate could be solved.
What to serve with shashlik? Very simple: tomatoes, cucumbers, dill and lavash, the chewy bread of the Caucuses. No dressing, save salt, and when the produce is fresh, and the sun is in the sky until after 9 pm, what else, really, does one need?
– One kilo of pork or lamb, cubed
– Two yellow onions cut into 1/8 half moons
– One cup of red wine vinegar
– Cold water
– The juice of one lemon and/or 12 cups of fresh pomegranate juice
– Chopped fresh parsley
– Five sprigs of dill
– Four tbls of peppercorns, coarsely crushed in a mortar and pestle
– Four tbls of coarse sea salt
– Four scallions, diced
– Four cloves of garlic, crushed
– 1/8 cup of fresh coriander
– ½ a cup of olive oil
Trim the meat of all fat, and cut into five-cm cubes. Place the meat in an airtight wide dish with a lid. Combine all ingredients but the onion, olive oil, coriander and water in a jar and combine by shaking vigorously. Pour the marinade on top of the meat, and add water to ensure the meat is covered with the mixture. Refrigerate, covered overnight, or, if you are in a hurry, let stand at room temperature. Toss the meat at intervals, making sure that all the pieces are well marinated.
Using long skewers, spear the meat cubes and onions in a pattern of your choice. Grill the skewers until the meat is browned and the juices run pink. Turn frequently, and baste with the olive oil. Serve immediately garnished with the chopped fresh coriander.
Note on sauces: For the many kinds of shashlik, there exist an equal number of traditional garnishes. The sauces of the Caucuses combine the tartness of citrus, musky flesh fruits and salt with fresh herbs to make Tkemali (sour plum sauce) or the pungency of walnuts, pounded with garlic and the tang of coriander to make Satsivi (walnut sauce). Other sauces take their cue from the Balkans: garlic yoghurt sauce and a diced tomato salsa. Be creative!
Shashlik side dishes
Traditionally, shashlik stands alone – not accompanied by any fancy salads or complicated garnish.
Russians serve fresh vegetables of the season such as tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers with only salt for seasoning. The reasons for this are primarily practical: shashlik is prepared and eaten in the outdoors, or in the back garden of a dacha which may well lack refrigeration, sharp knives, or electricity to facilitate preparation and storage. Russians are wise to avoid heavy, starchy accompaniments such as potatoes or the mayonnaise-based salads that grace a Russian indoor zakuska or hors d’oeuvre course. Complicated accompaniment can also take away from the pure flavour of the freshly grilled meat, tinged with the smoke of the kostor, freshly mown grass and hint of pine.
In our Russian/American family, we’ve experimented with different culinary traditions to find side dishes that compliment shashlik. Lighter, citrus-based salads with tangy herbal dressings seem to be the perfect match for enhancing shashlik without stealing its thunder.
Note: these are not traditional Russian salads, but they are made from ingredients readily available in Russia and make frequent appearances at our table in Moscow.
When I first came to Russia in the early 1990s, puy lentils were almost impossible to find, so I made do with the abundant green lentils. The tang of ginger and the red wine vinegar are a perfect foil to lamb, while the fresh scallions and peppers provide the essential “crunch” to the meal’s ensemble.
Two cups of puy or black “beluga” lentils
Two bay leaves
Three tablespoons of grated fresh ginger
Four cloves of garlic
1/3 cup and 1/8 cup of olive oil
¾ cup and ¼ cup of red wine vinegar
Malden salt and pepper to taste
½ cup of chopped dill
Five scallions chopped
Diced orange, red, or yellow peppers
Place the lentils and bay leaves in a large pot of cold, salted water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, and simmer until lentils are tender.
Drain the lentils and return to pot. Add the 1/3 cup of olive oil, and ¾ cup of vinegar, ginger, garlic and Malden salt and pepper. Set aside, uncovered, and allow lentils to come to room temperature. This can be made ahead of time one or two days before serving and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.
To finish the lentils, add the remaining olive oil and vinegar. Toss dill, scallions, and peppers and correct seasoning to taste.
Lemon, tomato and basil salad
In Moscow, we are lucky enough to have a roof garden with a grill, where we eat some form of shashlik or grilled meat most evenings from May to September. This salad appears with every dinner during the summer, and when it doesn’t appear on the table, family and friends protest violently! They all ask for the recipe, which makes me laugh, since it is so easy!
One kilo of small fresh tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, or sliced beef tomatoes
A drizzle of good quality olive oil
Juice of one fresh lemon
Two tbls of sugar
Generous handful of basil leaves, coarsely chopped
One loaf of French bread
Slice the tomatoes into quarters or halves, depending on their size and your taste. Lay them on a large, flat platter. Scatter basil leaves generously around the tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil, squeeze the lemon juice on, and just before serving, and add sugar and sea salt and cracked pepper to taste.
Why the bread? To soak up the delicious juices from this salad, mingled with the drippings from the meat. Delicious!
As the name suggests, my mother – my daughter’s grandmother – invented this and it’s great as a side dish to shashlik, as well as on its own. I made it for a group of guests recently and a very polite, but sincere 14-year-old looked down at his plate of granny pasta and barbecue, sighed deeply, and said: “This is the perfect meal.” And so it is!
500 grams of penne pasta
½ cup of olive oil
One cup of fresh green basil leaves
One cup of grated cheese: we use Asiago or Parmesan Reggiano, but I’ve also used goat cheese, sheep’s cheese, or just the ends of the cheeses left in my fridge!
Place the olive oil and basil leaves in a food processor or blender and pulse six -seven times, so that the basil is finely chopped but not fully combined as in a pesto.
Bring a large pot of cold, salted water to the boil. Skim surface with a teaspoon of olive oil and add the penne. Cook according to package instructions until al dente. Drain the pasta and quickly return to the pot. Place the pot over low heat and add the grated cheese and combined olive oil and basil mixture. Toss vigorously until the cheese begins to melt. Remove from the flame. Can be served immediately or at room temperature.
Make this your own family recipe by adding your favourite ingredients. Some ideas include cherry tomatoes, black olives, fresh asparagus and peas.
Jennifer Eremeeva / Expatica
This article was first published in French as Le Chachlik: Interdit Aux Femmes in La Russie d’Aujourd’hui and Le Figaro on 19 May 2010