When you ask the average American to conjure up images of Russian cuisine, you get…dry brown bread? Potatoes? Beet pulp masquerading as soup?
While Russia may not be able to compete with Mexican, Georgian, or Indian for my heart, it does have one thing going for it: pelmeni (пельмени), a dumpling filled with minced meat, fish, mushrooms, or potatoes. A plate of off-white dumplings might not look like much to the untrained eye, but it forms the heart of Russian cuisine and culture. It is served in every Russian restaurant, is cooked in homes (and dorms) across the country, and every family likes to think it has its own special recipe.
Pelmeni originate in Siberia, so it is thought that dumplings spread westward from China. If you think about it, any food developed in Siberia is essentially the perfect trial-tested sustenance for college students. Pelmeni are valued because they can be kept frozen for long periods of time with almost no change in quality or flavor, and the water in which they are boiled can be used for soup. In Russia (an in other East European countries with similar dishes, like pierogies) frozen pelmeni have the same cultural associations as ramen in the U.S.: a food for students and bachelors who don’t do much real cooking.
My host mom is a cook, and I know that pelmeni are traditionally made in very large batches in a long and tedious process that can involve the entire family. This explains the Russian saying that “пельмешки не терпят спешки.” Literally this means “pelmeni can’t tolerate speed demons.” The saying is used, however, in the general sense of “good things come to those who wait.”
You can usually buy “home style” (домашний) pelmeni from grocery stores. Not only are these cheaper than buying bagged brands, but you get to feel special for eating authentic homemade pelmeni. In the photo above you can see the different variety of pelmeni: the traditional Russian style in the foreground, a pierogi-type turnover dumpling on the left, and the tiny little flying saucer pelmeni at the top. I’ve actually come to prefer the bagged brand (“Raviollo”) as the store brands can sometimes have blander, more gristly filling.
Here is a brief photo field guide to pelmeni: