July 18, 2011 § 5 Comments
In light of the debate that transpired last week over the origin of rosolje (beetroot salad), I decided to do some investigating. While my research brought me no closer to a definitive answer (Is rosolje Russian or Estonian?), the history of the beetroot is indeed worth sharing.
Around 800 BC, the beet was mentioned in an Assyrian text as growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and offered to the sun god Apollo in the temple of Delphi by the Greeks. The beet evolved from the wild seabeet, which is perhaps why Beta vulgaris was originally prized for its leaves, and not for its root. Romans described early varieties of the beet being black and white. Roman texts discuss more uses for the beet’s root than its leaves. In general, beets were consumed for their medicinal properties, mainly as a laxative or to relieve fever.
Early recipes suggest boiling the beets in water and salt, or chicken broth. The broth was then drunk. Leftover beets were served with a dressing of oil, vinegar and mustard. Presumably is was still mainly the leaves that were being consumed up to this point. Beta vulgaris spread across Europe and adapted very easily to the cooler climates of Northern Europe.
The beetroot of the Middle Ages looked quite different to the beetroot of today. Its roots were long and thin, not plump and round as they are recognised today. In Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate et Valitudine Vulgare (On Right Pleasure and Good Health) 1460, he includes a recipe for a green sauce which includes beet leaves. Platina also mentions that beetroot, fire roasted and eaten with garlic helps freshen breath.
New varieties of beetroot were developed in Germany and Italy, particularly the red variety, most common today. The beetroot continued to spread throughout Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. By the end of the Middle Ages, the beetroot had become an important staple in the Eastern European diet. The sixteenth century saw the creation of borsch and Scandinavian beetroot and herring salads.
By the nineteenth century beetroot was widely consumed across Europe. English recipes suggested pickling beetroot. Southern European and Mediterranean recipes praised both the root and the greens, using more olive oil based dressings. Northern European recipes discuss some pickling as well boiling. Northern and Eastern European beetroot salads tend to contain more dairy than those of the south.
Perhaps rosolje didn’t originate from Russia at all, but rather Sweden… Thoughts?
July 8, 2011 § 5 Comments
Over the past few months I have been interviewing all kinds of interesting people regarding various topics like restaurant culture during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, what meals were cooked at home, what foods were consumed while traveling, what were their impressions of food in other Soviet states, etc. The one question I always leave for the end is: What do you think Estonian food is? or If you had to describe a typical Estonian meal to someone who had never heard of Estonia, what would you recommend they try?
These questions are always followed by a long series of ‘hmms’ and ‘I don’t knows’ and inevitably end with one or more of the following answers:
- pork chops (or just pork in general)
- roosa manna (a frothy cream of wheat whipped with cranberry juice)
- kama (a powder of roasted barley, rye, oat and pea flour mixed with buttermilk and served at breakfast)
Except for maybe kama, these answers were swiftly followed by “but I don’t eat that everyday.“
I grew up in Canada (both my parents are of Estonian descent) and I’ve tried to define Estonian food with other second or third generation Canadian-Estonians. Rosolje (chopped beetroot and potato salad) and herring are often described as Estonian food, oh and of course sült(headcheese).
Let’s not forget all of the cookbooks that I have been perusing over the past few months, which boast 200 ways of cooking with potatoes and sour cream. While I’m convinced that Estonians did and still do eat a lot of potatoes, this is not their national dish. The potato is a staple of many other nation’s cuisines as well. I’m not convinced, however that these cookbooks are a true reflection of what and is consumed in Estonia.
Benedict Anderson writes that in order “to understand nations properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time.” This applies to understanding national cuisine as well. So what can be said about the cuisine of a country that has seen less than 50 years of collective independence? Dare I say it, is there such a thing as Estonian cuisine?
Sidney Mintz writes:
“…new food ingredients or new plants were provided new homes; and ordinary people…turned these novelties into their own possessions by the innovative and delicious ways in which they wove them into their local horticulture, diet and ritual. Thus new foods can be re-embedded –in local life, in new lands, in new cultures. They sometimes even become nationally representative of the peoples who came to know and like them and then at times to become known by them.”
The influence of Estonia’s many occupiers is reflected in its food. Rosolje is a Russian dish. Beetroot sugar was a substitution for sugar during the Soviet occupation. Despite its origin, rosolje has become a food recognised as ‘being’ Estonian.
One of the more interesting responses I’ve had to my question was that, never mind what Estonian food is, it’s rather about how Estonians acquire it. Estonians have a long agricultural tradition, and extensive knowledge of preservation techniques.
As with any national cuisine, the people of its nation have certain memories attached to certain dishes, good or bad. And while it seems important to define a national cuisine, would it not be more practical to preserve its cultural traditions, something that food will no doubt be a part of.
June 2, 2011 § 2 Comments
How could write about cooking macaroni in milk without talking about piimasupp (milk soup)? Piimasupp, a comforting childhood favourite of many Estonians, except me. Yes, I admit, I have never tried this soup. So for those that are unfamiliar with this soup I have included J. Lindpere’s recipe:
Piimasupp Makaronidega (Milk Soup with Macaroni)
100 g macaroni
600 mL salted water
20 g butter
1 L milk
Bring water to a boil, add the salt, butter and macaroni and cool until pasta is soft.
Add the milk and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
Serve with toasted bread. Optional: This soup can be sprinkled with sugar or cinnamon sugar.
June 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Pasta seems to find its way into almost every cookbook. And why not? It is a very versatile food. There is not much that can’t be done with pasta.
My understanding of pasta was reshaped after spending two years cooking in Italy, and my Italian friends would probably cringe at the recipes I am about to discuss. However this is an excellent example of how an ingredient transforms when it is put into another context.
My grandmother, who immigrated to Canada in the early 1950s from Estonia used to make “makaronid” for us. This food took a different shape every time she made it: baked, boiled and tossed with butter, or in a soup. In every form it took, the pasta was always overcooked. But I suppose that this was better than nothing because according to my mother, she never ate pasta. My grandmother had refused to cook it.
J. Lindpere’s Makaronitoidud (Macaroni Foods) was published in 1970. This book follows the same principle, anything can be done with macaroni, even dessert. The introduction to the cookbook discusses the history of pasta and its growing popularity as part of a meal. Lindpere warns however, that pasta should always be eaten alongside something, or tossed with a sauce that ensures proper consumption of a well-balanced meal.
Now the cooking instructions: Pasta can be boiled in large or small quantities of liquid, in either water, stock or milk for 12-15 minutes. If you are cooking pasta in a small amount of liquid, it is then possible to let the pasta absorb all of the liquid and this can take up to 40 minutes. But let’s go back to cooking pasta in milk. I quickly looked this up on a number of recipe websites and forums. There were suggestions for cooking pasta in condensed milk, or cooking pasta in milk and then adding cheese for a simple macaroni and cheese. Why not?
The recipes consist of pasta salads, different mayonnaise-based cold sauces, hot sauces, soups, recommended lunch dishes, baked dishes and desserts. The following are recipes that I believe are rather interesting:
Milaano Salat (Milan Salad):
100g macaroni, cooked in salted water
100g sour apples (apples soaked in vinegar, salt and sugar)
1 tbs tomato paste
50g sour cream
1 tbs olive oil
1 tbs chopped parsley
This recipe raises a few questions, like why is this considered Milanese? I quickly looked up Milan salad, insalata milanese, etc. to see if this was in fact a Milanese specialty. As near as I can tell, it’s not. Then, why did the author choose this title? Why not call it Roman salad, or English salad?
The next recipe is from the desserts section of the book:
Makaroni-porgandivorm (Carrot and Macaroni Bake)
150g macaroni, cooked in salted water
400g carrots, parboiled and puréed
2-3 tbs sugar
A pinch of grated nutmeg or orange peel
With this recipe the instructions ask that you mix all of the ingredients with the carrots and then toss with the pasta. The pan is then greased and floured. The dish is baked for 30 minutes (temperature not specified). It is suggested that you serve this dish with a red juice sauce. The recipe for this sauce was not included in the book.
Pasta in an Estonian context certainly takes on a different form but as with any new food, you have to find a way to make it yours.
May 23, 2011 § 2 Comments
Salme Masso, widow, homemaker, mother, teacher and home economist published over 30 books throughout her career. Most Estonians either in Estonia or abroad own at least one of her cookbooks. Masso’s first book entitled Kodu korrashoid (Home Maintenance) was published in 1935. Her writing career was then put on hold with the start of the Second World War and the sudden death of her husband in 1948. She moved to Tallinn to continue her education in home economics and began a career as a teacher .
The late 1950s, referred to as the Khrushchev Thaw renewed interest in home economics, which had since the start of the war been repressed. Women’s magazines began publishing articles on home management and cooking, many of which Masso was commissioned to write. Her writing career had been revived. She went on to publish over 30 cookbooks and household management guides, many of which were used in schools.
For a home economist whose writing career fell into a period of great repression, censorship and scarcity, it is interesting to look at what she was allowed to publish. The post-war Estonian diet was relatively uneventful. Private restaurants had been banned and all cafeterias and eateries were nationally owed. All recipes and cookbook content had to be approved in Moscow. Often these recipes would either leave out significant ingredients or include ingredients that were difficult to come by, rendering a cookbook more a work of fiction than a practical guide.
Salme Masso’s 1975 cookbook Rahvaste toite (People’s Food) explores recipes from around the world, covering international cuisine from countries such as Japan, Canada and Australia. The author states in the foreward that the recipes have been “revised to suit Estonia’s palate.”
For example, the recipe for Röstitud kala või liha or teriyaki as Masso translates, asks the following ingredients for the marinade:
4 tbs. unspecified flavouring, soy sauce perhaps
4 tbs. dessert wine
4 tbs. dry white wine
optional 1 clove of garlic
The wide selection of recipes in the American and Canadian chapters are an interesting look into a certain period of North American culinary history. In the American food chapter, while the introduction discusses the popularity of hamburgers, a recipe is not included. Instead the chapter contains recipes for:
Cheese sandwiches with oranges or Hawaiian sandwiches
Summertime Melon Bowl
California Slaw (cabbage, orange, mayonnaise, walnuts)
Cabbage Salad with boiled dressing
Marinated Fish ( white vinegar, pepper, chili pepper, onion)
“Fat Fish Soup” or Cioppino
Tomato Sauce (to be served with meat, fish and eggs)
White Sauce (Béchamel)
Aztec Baked Beans
Deep-fried Cheese Balls
Eggs on Noodle Casserole
Porcupine (Baked Apples)
Banana Steaks (Fried Bananas)
Pennsylvania Cracker Pudding
Milk and Honey Baked Custard
Poppy Seed Cake
Masso refers to a bibliography for further reading and perhaps the sources for the some or all of the recipes in the book. The American bibliography includes:
America’s Cook Book. New York, 1937.
Consumers All. the Yearbook of Agriculture. Washington. 1965.
Food. The Yearbook of Agriculture. Washington, 1959.
Herman, B. and Z. Taylor. A Time for Cooking. USA. 1963
Hughes, O. Introductory Foods. New York, 1962.
Krause, M.V. Food, Nutrition and Diet Therapy. Philadelphia, 1963.
Proft, S. The Master Chef’s Outdoor Grill Cookbook. Chicago, 1960.
Stevenson, G. and C. Miller. Foods and Nutrition. New York, 1960.
Vail, G.E. Foods. Boston, 1967.
The American bibliography is probably the most extensive of the sources with Canadian cookbooks, mostly French Canadian following closely behind.