Winter Palace, St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Russia
Six weeks ago I posted an item about my experiences with tea – chai – in Russia and India. This week I want to invite readers back to both places to share another culinary/cultural recollection, this time in connection with two sweet-and-sour dairy products that I find nearly identical in taste – kefir and lassi. You can loosely describe them both as drinkable yogurt.
I had my initial experience with the first of these beverages, kefir (кефир), in 1967, when I spent much of the summer working to strengthen my knowledge of Russian at Leningrad State University’s Faculty of Russian Language for Foreigners. This came between the first and second years of my master’s degree program in Soviet area studies at Harvard, and it was my first visit to the USSR, which I’d begun studying as an undergraduate five years before. It was a fascinating experience, and I’ll probably return to it in future posts, but this week I want to focus just on the delightful beverage I encountered there.
I was in for a few culture shocks on this visit, and one of the first came at breakfast in the dining hall of the dorm to which foreign students were assigned – just across the main branch of the Neva River delta from the czars’ Winter Palace (above), today the main building of the Hermitage Museum. By now, I’ve forgotten most of the food that was served there, but I remember three items quite well. One was hot tea with lemon, served in a glass. Another was hot cereal, of which a different type would be served each day. These included buckwheat (which in East European Jewish cuisine is called kasha – except that in Russian, kasha simply means any type of hot cereal) and the Russian counterparts of Cream of Wheat (mannaya kasha) and Wheatena (pshenichnaya kasha).
Culinary Culture Shock
Neither tea nor porridge provoked culture shock. But kefir did. It was lumpy, yet thinner than the kind of plain (much less Greek style) yogurt sold in American supermarkets. And it was distinctly tangy – much more tart than any American yogurt. To my surprise, I really enjoyed it. Why? Because it was typically consumed with a healthy sprinkling of Russia’s coarsely granulated sugar, which turned the tanginess into a slightly crunchy, sweet-and-sour treat.
To American eyes, the sugar too had a distinct turnoff potential. Its granules differed from the sugar on American tables not only in their coarseness – similar to kosher salt – but also in color. Not the rich, golden hue we expect when we tear open a packet of Sugar In The Raw®. No. They were a dingy gray, like white BVDs that have accompanied dark T-shirts through several hundred wash cycles. But they were sweet, and they turned that tart, lumpy kefir into an elixir.
After leaving Leningrad, it would be about two years before I experienced anything like kefir again, and when I did, it was 3,300 miles to the southeast, in the village of Rajnagar (rough translation: Kingston) in north-central India where I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1968 to 1970.
Making Lassi in Village India
India too was a land of culinary adventures (and misadventures), but this week I’ll focus on just one thing: lassi. Many readers, I suspect, have encountered this cold drink in Indian restaurants, often enjoying it flavored with mango in a tall glass. That was not quite the way I discovered it. It first came to my attention as the oppressive heat (115+ degrees F, 45+ C) of my first summer in India set in, beginning in April 1969. Lassi was available every afternoon at the tea stall near Rajnagar’s bus stop – the same place I’d usually have chai and sweets for breakfast.
Here’s how it was made. The tea stall owner (dukandar) would begin in the morning by pouring fresh (unpasteurized) milk into a large, shallow earthenware dish, to which he would add yogurt starter from the previous day. After several hours in the warm air, the milk would congeal into a substance like kefir, rather more tart than any American yogurt. When a customer ordered a glass of lassi, the dukandar would scoop a quantity of this yogurt into another vessel, add sugar and ice, then vigorously mix the ingredients with a wooden whisk (a roughly hewn “propeller” at the end of a dowel – see photo above) and pour it into a glass. The ice was made from well water that was hardly free of tropical parasites, but no matter – the drink was cool and delicious, and, in my palate memory, quite similar to the kefir I’d enjoyed in Russia.
Eureka (Greek for ‘I Found It’)
Here in the USA, I spent years checking out different types of yogurt in hopes of finding something as tart as kefir or Indian village yogurt. To no avail. Whole Foods and, now, Safeway even stock kefir, which is marketed as a probiotic. Trouble is, to cater to the American palate it’s mostly fruit-flavored. When plain, it’s pallid. I wanted tang. And lumps!
However, the San Francisco Bay Area’s population of Russian emigres has created sufficient demand for a handful of specialty food shops that stock a variety of kefir just like the kind I enjoyed half a century ago in Leningrad.
One day last year I asked the proprietor of one of these shops (Babushka Deli in Walnut Creek) if any of the several types of kefir he carried was tart like the kind I remembered. “Da!” he replied, and pointed to several bottles of Krestiansky (Крестьянский) kefir in his refrigerated case.
Krestiansky means “peasant.” I’d stumbled on the Holy Grail! This stuff is the real deal, and I’ve since found a source right here in Santa Rosa, the European Food Store. If any readers feel adventurous enough to check it out, take a bottle home, add a couple of heaping teaspoonfuls of raw sugar to an eight-ounce glass and stir. Even my wife, Sandra, who dislikes the sourness of plain (American) yogurt, enjoys it.
Almost every morning now I again start my day with this unlikely ambrosia. If you have an adventurous palate, or if you’ve ever longed for another glass of the lassi you once tasted in India, you too will want to give it a try. Vkusno! (Вкусно!) = Yummy!
P.S. I recently (May 10, 2018) heard from Jen Reviews, an online publication that has recently published a guide on the health benefits of kefir, which may be of interest to readers of this blog post. You can find it at http://www.jenreviews.com/kefir. Enjoy!