Monday, October 22, 2007

On Weird Drinks

One of the the really fun things about a different culture is the weird stuff they eat and drink and call 'normal'. Of course, its normal, but for you it is strange. Russia is a great country for confronting a person with strange things to drink. In the popular imagination, of course, Russians only drink vodka and tea and, perhaps assuming convention, Coca Cola. The fact is, Russians drink some really odd stuff, not all of which has found conformable footing with your man on the scene.

Kvass. This was the first weird drink I encountered in Russia and remains one of my favorites.
Kvass is a cross between bread soda and beer. It is made from dark brown bread, which gives it its color and yeasty beery good taste, and a few raisins, which help give it sweet fizz. I first had kvass in the summer of 1994. A friend bought me a cup from a lady who was pouring it out of a tap from a big yellow vat on wheels on the street, a kvass-truck. I was an instant fan. Originally, kvass was a seasonal drink. Unless you made it yourself (which I discovered most people did) you had to wait for the summer kvass trucks to start popping up around the metro stations in Moscow to get yourself a frothy cup of cool sweetness. Around 2001, local drink makers started producing 1 liter bottles of the stuff, which were invariably off and gag inducing. One commercial outfit, a McDonald's copy cat fast food place called Russky Bistro, produced a great bottled variant which was so popular they we almost always out of it. We tried the various kits and some were better than others, but none compared to the homemade stuff from the hands of an experienced grannie. It seems that the simple combination of a half a loaf of black bread and a few raisins is quite a temperamental combination and getting it right requires practice and patience. Good kvass is only good for a certain period after which it either goes flat or sours, much in the way an open beer doesn't stay inviting for a long time. Bottled variants have only controlled this natural window of tastiness by adding other stuff which keeps the fizz and stabilizes the sweetness, but at the same time turns the drink into an over carbonated, syrupy cola like drink that is truly weird and barfy. Many restaurants, however, made their own and have pretty good consistency. My advice - unless you are in the company of the family that made it or are at a recommended restaurant where it is on the menu, its best to try kvass in the summer when the pros get down to business.

Medovukha I first had this weird drink in Suzdal and I remember being so thirsty I would drink anything. My wife recommended against it - she said it was alcoholic and didn't quench one's thirst. I bought a homemade half liter and tired it in desperation and I found that it not only quenched my thirst, but was hardly alcoholic. Medovukha is basically honey mead, a sweet often fruity fermented drink that does contain alcohol, sometimes more and sometime
s less. The homemade stuff I had was probably in the .5% alcohol range, but it gets right up there to about 5% - 7%. Like kvass, it is mostly homemade stuff and the range of taste varies depending on the maker. Suzdal is a touristy place along the Golden Ring route of towns and settlements with their beautiful churches and artsy craftsy people making their living off the crowd in period costumes hawking hand carved spoons and dolls, paintings and icons. And medovukha. Once a staple of Russian life, medovukha faded in the wake of mass produced vodka, but is making a comeback today. Bottled variants containing higher alcohol content are available from different brands in different flavors, including berry and fruit. I mush prefer the homemade, low alcohol stuff, but the commercial stuff is an interesting side journey for the adventurous.

Chifir The rage in all Moscow cafes these days is the dubious South American drink mate, the origins of which are a bit obscure to me. The wholesale importation of this over rated, fetid drink is seemingly without cause - there is no cultural link to South America that would easily explain this, say, in the way that we can explain the presence of so many hookahs in these very same cafes. Russia has direct links to the East and the hookah, called a kalyan here, is popular among 'Southern' people. It has become fashionable among Muscovites who want to spend 600 - 1000 rubles and an hour to smoke dried fruit. Chifir, however popular, does not have such a high profile. As is well known, chifir is
a prison drink. This is to say that it was born of necessity behind bars and spread among the population at large through those who brought it with them to the outside. The origin of the word may have additional meanings in the complex underground language of Russian prison cant, but on the surface it is a combinations of the words 'tea' (chai) + kefir. (check the picture to the right to observe prisoner making chifir) Basically, chifir is a super concentrated batch of tea capable of getting the drinker off on a serious caffeine high. The original recipe is a spoonful of sugar, 3 to 5 (usually much more) packets of tea (spoonfuls of loose tea) and 1 to 1-1/2 cups of water or 3/4 to 1 cup of milk. This mixture is boiled for 10 - 15 minutes, reduced and drained to produce a disgusting base of about half the original volume for the real drink. Next, more sugar and about a cup of milk is added and again brought to a boil before serving. Supposedly the correct boiling times and proper administration of milk and sugar will turn this rank caffeine soup into a creamy, pleasant drink, but don't put your money on it. I had my first taste of a more common but less complicated cross between mate and chifir in a monastery where the visiting pilgrims had little in the way of tea paraphernalia save the tea itself. Without much ado, one ex-army guy jerry rigged a heating device by connecting two loose wires found in a closet to a razor blade. This was subsequently propped in a 1.5 liter mason jar full of water and the other ends inserted directly into a 220 volt outlet in the wall. I was told that this death contraption was commonplace and that since engineers were common among groups of Russian friends, it was very unlikely anyone would get hurt if they were not stupendously drunk (a caveat indeed). The water raged to a boil very quickly, the device was removed and a whole box of tea was dumped into the jar. The dearth of cups posed no problem - there was a pair of oven mitts handy and we shared them as we took turns sipping intoxicatingly strong tea directly from the jar, prison style. Sugar only made it disgustingly sweet. If we would have had milk, I'm sure it would have been disgustingly sweet and creamy. I have also tried the mate thing and I can say that for all the winebibber like talk about aromas and hints of tobacco and cherry, an sufficiently large amount of ordinary commercially available black tea will produce a taste not substantially different than what the fru-fru types pay mucho dinero for at a premium in cafes.

Tarkhun and Baikal The Soviets, not to lag behind the Americans in anything, beg
an producing their own brands of carbonated soft drinks, collectively called 'limoade', in the early 1970's. Lacking the secrets of Coke's magical ingredient 'x' did not pose a problem to a country with tastes significantly further off the scale than those of their cold war rival. Tarkhun flavored pop, bright green and based on the herb estragon (tarragon), has been popular since its inception. Even more popular is a dark colored Baikal, a drink based on eucalyptus, laurel leaves and St. John's Wort. It is named after the famous lake where the grass and herbs used to produce it supposedly originate. Takhun will make anyone sick, as far as I know, but Baikal is a treasure and I do my share to keep the national consumption statistics floating high. Other popular flavors include pear, golden nut (alternative to cola made primarily with hazel nut) and a 7-up like drink called 'Belfry'. The weirdest flavor of them all has to be 'Buratino,' the Russian name for the still very popular fairly tale character that we know as Pinocchio. The actual flavor of this drink is quite debatable, somewhere between cream soda and yellow #5. I think it is primarily a marketing thing and whatever goes into the bottle is of secondary consideration to the marketers.

Compote Actually a universal drink and not even that weird, compote has serious staying power here in Russia. The surprising thing is that there are no commercial varieties available, despite being ubiquitous in restaurants and cafes. Like in many Russian homes, we make our own. I often buy a blend of mixed dried fruit and this is one of my
favorites, but my wife and the kids are stuck on cherry compote. Fruit and water with a bit of sugar. Nothing could be simpler and you get to have a big say in how sweet or sour it is. I remember my grandmother talking about compote when I was a child but nobody ever made it so I always thought it was a prohibition era thing. It is a great way to stretch your ruble a little further and give 'em all what they really want. I have made smoked pear compote (oh my!) and apricot compote and Sonia makes several varieties of apple compote ranging from the lightest, coolest flavor to a punchy, pulpy kind that the kids like.

Beryozovy Sok This is simply birch tree sap. When I first came to Russia, it was available in the huge 3 liter jars which have sadly gone out of style. A clear, light liquid, beryozovy sok (lit. birch juice) is made from sap collected at a specific period during the summer. The taste is acquired and is frankly like - well, tree flavor. On a hot summer day or better, in the
pred-bannik of the Russian banya (sauna) it is one of the most refreshing drinks you can imagine. It is not terribly sweet, nor pungent but somehow lighter, if possible, than water itself. The taste is subtle, but distinctly woody. If you didn't know what it was, you might be able to guess just from tasting it. It is used in making other drinks and tonics such as birch beer and Nordic stuff like wintergreen flavored candy. It has mild medicinal (homeopathic) qualities. It has been harder to find commercially, but the real thing is certainly available in smaller towns and villages where they keep the tradition alive by simply not having any alternatives. Bottled variants imported from Belorussia or Georgia are available in Moscow but are mostly sugary counterfeits.

Kissel Texture is one of those very sensitive things that you can never get around but take for granted at the same time. The most unappealing, weird thing about kissel (accent on the last vowel) is that it is a thick, viscous drink. Kissel is usually fruit flavored, cherry, grape and berry being the popular flavors, that is thickened with, of all things, cornstarch. Or in the case of Russia, potato starch. When cooled, kissel develops a 'skin' that is doubly off putting for many. It was years before I could drink it, but I have been completely domesticated now and drink it quite regularly. A room temperature, kissel is a great thirst quencher and quite tasty once one gets used to its milder taste. Kissel is typically available in Russian cafeterias and easily made at home from cheap powdered mixes. It is excellent for an upset stomach and IBS (irritable bowl syndrome - wink wink nudge nudge say no more).

Zbiten. This is a hot, honey based drink with a long history in Russia. Zbiten (or Sbiten) is made in various ways, mostly with spices and approximates a mead-glint wine type drink. In some cases it is alcoholic, but mostly it is not. It is a winter drink, sweet and invigorating with Christmassy spices like cinnamon and star anise. Think of skiing or outdoor activity in the heavy Russian winter and Zbiten is right there where coco might be for Americans. Typical versions I have tried were heavy on cinnamon and ginger. 'Teremok,' a local fast food chain selling blini and kasha, has revived the drink in popular culture. Bottled versions tend to be inferior (and cold) and like kvass, do not do as well as the fresh brewed, homemade versions. I have recently been to the 'House of Honey' here in Moscow and purchased a commercially available zbiten concentrate which is pretty good. I am currently working on my own recipe now that I have a line on the best Siberian white honey.

Bizarre dairy products. Almost all Russians drink kefir, a cultured milk beverage not unknown in the US, where it was introduced by Russian jews. Here is a staple available in 1%, 2.5% and 3.2% varieties and remains more popular than the now pervasive liquid yogurts like Actimel and Dannon. It is better for you than yogurt and functions to filter a lot of nasty stuff out of your system as well as to restore micro-organisms in the digestive tract. I drink kefir regularly. It is satisfyingly thicker than milk but not lumpy like yogurt. The bacteria culture gives it a slight 'bite' to it that I really like. Competition for your kefir ruble is very intense in Russian supermarkets and there are at least 20 brands crowding each other off the shelf. A spin on kefir is 'bio' or 'bifidophilus' kefir, sometimes called 'bifidok' which is rather redundant as it is made by adding the same enzyme culture plus bifidus culture. Other unusual dairy drinks include snezhok, a sweetened form of light kefir (the name means 'snowflake') , prostakvashina and ryazhinka. The usual claim is that the latter two are 'buttermilk-like' drinks, but this is utter nonsense. Prostakvashina is nothing other than sour (read: off) milk and ryazhenka is boiled milk. The former is good for making traditional Russian pancakes (blini) but too disgusting to drink, although it is quite popular among children (go figure). I have have never aquired a taste for either drink, but I do like a snezhok every now and then. The granddaddy of all weird dairy drinks, however, is kumis - a heavy, slightly alcoholic form of kefir made from mare's milk. That's right. Horse milk. This is not as common as the others, being more of a central Asian thing, but it can be found here. The smell...

There are other unusual alcoholic drinks, but these should be treated in a separate post about booze or something as they are not your everyday drinks like those listed here.

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