Thursday, October 18, 2012

Meat Jelly, Gut Sausage, and Other Culinary Adventures.

холодец, this isn't my picture, but it looks like the холодец that I ate.

I'm back, but with very little to report.  However, given the choice between a blog post and a 15 page grammar packet, I'm going to go ahead and write a new blog post.  Life continues to roll quietly along here in St. Peterburg, a fact that I'm almost glad about.  I feel like my last time here was a bit of a circus/roller coaster/house of horrors experience and I got a somewhat skewed view of what life in St. Petersburg was really like.  While Russia is still a bizarre and often times baffling place (even for those of us who speak Russian), and I still experience my full share of hijinks, it's still a place where people lead relatively normal lives.  I have had my share of little adventures though, and that's what I'm going to write about today.  First and foremost (thought it actually happened several weeks ago and I simply failed to mention it), I am proud to write that I can now officially say that I have had холодец!  For those of you who don't know; холодец (pronounced kholodetz) is a Russian dish that can best be described as meat jello.  It's essentially chunks of meat that have been formed into blocks with a jelly made from (I can only assume) it's own juices. Russian students always learn about холодец, and it quickly becomes the one Russian food that no one ever wants to try, regardless of the fact that they have no clue what холодец would even look like, let alone what it might actually taste like.  I have to say, that while холодец does look disgusting (picture a block of opaque yellowish jello with chunks of meat floating in it) it is in fact quite good, and I would recommend it to anyone brave enough to try. 

Over the past couple of weeks I have had several other culinary adventures, including trying wild mushrooms, and what I would call "gut sausage".  Russians have an obsession with mushrooms, especially with mushrooms they have picked themselves.  As Americans, we all learn that one should never EVER eat wild mushrooms.  We're told that they are all lethally poisonous, and even the smallest bite is enough to punch a one way ticket to the great beyond.  Therefore, every time I have been to Russia, I have been skeptical of most any mushroom I see.  Additionally, my first few encounters with the idea of mushroom hunting did nothing to bolster my faith in the safety of mushroom hunting.  Two years ago, I read a small chapter in a mushroom hunting book my host father had a required.  While two years later I am obviously paraphrasing, I distinctly remember one passage on identifying a particular type of mushroom reading as such: "Mushroom X is poisonous and can not be eaten no matter how it is prepared.  It can either have red cap and white stem, or a yellow cap and white stem.  Or it can look completely different."  I don't know about you, but I really doubt the qualifications and skills of a so-called authority on a life-and-death subject is limited to such articulate and exacting descriptions as "or it can look completely different".  However, this time around I decided to take a leap of faith.  While I didn't try any mushrooms picked by my family (apparently this was a bad year for mushrooms at the dacha) I did try wild mushrooms picked by others that my host parents had deemed to be edible.  I figure that if at ages 70 and 72 they had yet to die from picking a "completely different" looking poisonous mushroom, the chances of my dying from one were relatively slim.  Ultimately, the experience was somewhat anti-climatic, the mushrooms tasted like one would expect mushrooms to taste (though one of them did look rather unnervingly like a penis), and I am still alive and kicking.  Gut sausage was also a new experience for me.  In America, it is fairly rare that we eat internal organs.  While organs are gaining traction as a new culinary trend for food and restaurant snobs, most Average-Joes haven't had much experience with guts of any type.  I have to say that I, and everyone else who hasn't had kidney, liver, etc., is really missing out.  There is a great sausage here that isn't just one type of organ, but a bunch of different types (if they're from the same animal [and even what animal they're from] I don't know, and have no intention of finding out) all mixed together.  The stuff is addictively (perhaps not a word) delicious, and I put in on or eat it with anything I can (I'm sure my parents, and especially my mom, are cringing at the thought).
There are a few troubling signs on the culinary horizon though, mainly the disappearance of vegetables and my new found love of condiments.  It is with great chagrin that I say it appears as though fresh vegetables have completely disappeared from my dinner table.  While the usual Russian array of vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill) can get pretty old rather quickly, one grows to miss it after many consecutive nights of potatoes, beets, and canned corn.  That being said, I feel obligated to add that I think my host mother is a very adept and able chef, and that this blog entry is not meant to be a slight in any way shape or form.  The other disturbing development has been my new found love of condiments, especially (I am somewhat ashamed to say) mayonaise.  Some of you may know that I have always had a fondness for a few condiments, especially horse radish and spicy mustard, but I have never been particularly fond of mayo.  But for whatever reason, I can't seem to get enough of it here.  The worse thing is that it seems to go great on everything.  No sour cream?  Put mayo in your soup!  Is your chicken feeling lonely?  Add some mayo!  Is your rice lacking that extra something?  MAYO!  I do feel somewhat redeemed because I have found a really delicious condiment that I think will satisfy those readers of my blog who have a more refined palate (if they are any).  It's called аджика (pronounced adjhika) and according to Russian Wikipedia, it's an Abkhazian sauce made from a combination of paprika, salt, garlic, and dried hops.  All I know is that it is delicious and it goes great with -of all things- mayo...
I hope you all enjoyed this blog post, it's a lot of fun writing things that are a little more specific and not just a dull list of everything I have done in the past week of so.  If anyone has any requests for something they would like me to write about (if anyone reads this) I will gladly do so; I did the last time I was in Russian and it was a lot of fun.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fun and Games in St. Petersburg

So I've decided that I'm going to switch things up with this post and instead putting up some long, poorly written recounting of all the things I have done since I last posted, I'm just going to write about some of the things that my friends and I here do for fun.  As I've said many times before, my life here is rather quiet.  Most of my days are spent either in class or at home doing homework, with some time spent sitting and chatting with my host family or watching tv.  That being said however, my life isn't all drudgery and there are a lot of things that we do for fun.  The biggest thing is that we bought a football so now we can play American football.  I love football, but am honestly not to good at it.  Originally we were going to buy a soccer ball or a basketball, but at the store we decided on a football instead.  Why we at the last minute decided to buy a football I can't say, but I can say that it was the right decision. Last week a few friends and I went and played football out in a park.  The park was very typically Russian (IE it was bizarre and really didn't make much sense) we played on a gravel soccer field (by and large you aren't supposed to walk on the grass in Russian parks) next to what a appeared to be a training course for prospective drivers.  Regardless of our rather strange venue I think we all had a lot of fun and even drew a few spectators.  A man with his dog sat and watched us play as did some of the attendants at the driving school course.
Some of the other things we do for fun aren't nearly as organized, and almost all involve the metro, or more specifically, the giant escalators leading down into the metros.  I don't know if anybody who reads this blog has been to Russia (or if anybody reads this blog at all), but for anyone who might know, the escalators leading down into the metros are massive.  Russian metros, or at least the Moscow metro (and I would assume the St. Petersburg one as well) were originally built to serve as bomb shelters as well as subways.  By being located so deep under ground, the metros were bomb-proof.  During World War II, the Moscow metro did see use as a bomb shelter, as the citizens of the city would flee into the underground during German bombing raids.  While no longer bomb proof the metros still have their ridiculously long staircases which is all that is important to us.  The first game is simple, run down the escalator as fast as you can.  While it may sound simple, the game can actually take a surprising amount of thought and skill.  Like a on most escalators, metro goers follow the rule of people who want to stand stay on the right and those who want to walk down go on the left.  People don't always follow that rule and there inevitably is someone on the right side who is not going nearly as fast as they should be, usually and old person, a little kid, or a fat person.  So instead a straight sprint, you inevitably end up having to dodge around people, bags, etc. on your way down which can really slow down your time.  The other big issue is actually your own mind.  While you have to watch your own feet to avoid missing a step, we've all found that actually thinking about where you are going to put your feet makes you more likely to miss a step.  While I've never heard of anyone falling down the escalator and dying, I'm sure its possible, especially if you fell near the top.  As such, the goal is to desperately try and distract yourself and keep your mind otherwise occupied as you run full tilt down the stairs.  While you always eventually think about your feet and mess up, you can try and get yourself close to the bottom before you do so.  The last trick is to avoid the wrath of the escalator monitors.  The escalator monitors, usually middle aged women who look like they hate their jobs and hate you, sit in little tiny booths at the bottom of the escalator and yell over the intercom at anyone they think is not behaving properly. The fastest time that we have recorded is 32 seconds which was done by my friend Syd (we're the only two who actually actively play this game), but I think the escalator was a shorter one PLUS he got yelled at by the escalator monitor.  Syd thinks the time should still count while I'm inclined to say that getting noticed by the escalator monitor disqualifies it.  Beyond that time though, the times drop off significantly, the second fastest time, also on the same questionable escalator, is 36 seconds.  My fastest time is 42 seconds, thought I definitely think I have it in me to go faster. 
The other game we play is a lot safer and a lot easier, but it infinitely more embarrassing.  The game is simple.  As soon as one steps on an upward going escalator you plant your feet on the step (you can't move them for the rest of the ride) and you grab the hand rail.  You win the game by making it to the top of the escalator without removing your hand from the rail or moving your feet.  The catch is this, the hand rails and the escalators move at different speeds.  The hand rails often times move significantly faster than the steps.  In most cases this would be fine, you simply move your hand whenever it gets too far ahead of you, or you could (theoretically) move your feet and follow your hand.  We don't do that though, and the results are often hilarious.  By the time you reach the top of the escalator you are often stretched out over several steps, impossibly leaned over, and dangerously invading the personal space of those around you.  Since there is no rule as to where you need to initially place your hand, it is almost always possible to make it to the top of the escalator without moving it, the question is more how willing you are to alienate and annoy those people around you.  I've ended up touching other people's hand, having my head perilously close to people's rear ends, and in one case, ending up being face to face with a rather un-enthused cat in the handbag of the woman in front of my.  Syd and I are working on rules to make the game harder, but for now it's simply fun to play, especially when you play with more than one person at a time.

Unfortunately, you aren't supposed to take photos in the metro so none of us have actually recorded any of our achievements in the Metro games, so I'll leave you with some fall photos of the park and canal near my apartment block.  I hope everything has a lovely end to their week and hopefully I'll have another post up by Sunday!