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A taste of Russia: Perogies, salad Olivier, herring, caviar and borscht

TORONTO - When it comes to food, Canada and Russia have something in common — multiculturalism has contributed a wide variety of dishes to broaden each country's national palate.

"The Russian cuisine is really diverse with more than 120 nationalities living there," says Alexei Tsvetkov, formerly of Moscow and now chief executive officer of the family-owned Yummy Market, which has locations in North York and Maple, Ont.

The food of the world's largest country has been influenced by settlers from such far-flung areas as western and eastern Europe and Asia, and this is reflected at Tsvetkov's two stores, where chefs make more than 500 different prepared foods daily.

Perogies, for example, are relatives of Chinese and Korean dumplings and Italian ravioli and are claimed by Russia, along with Poland, Ukraine and other East European countries. Shish kebabs, or shashlik (meaning skewered meat), using such meats as lamb, chicken, pork or beef, have been influenced by many regions, especially the Middle East.

The famous Russian potato salad known as salad Olivier was created in the 1860s by chef Lucien Olivier, who is believed to have had Belgian or French roots. His Moscow restaurant was called Hermitage.

"Some salads are as simple as tomato and cucumbers cut with, for example, parsley or dill," explains Tsvetkov. "But some of them, they are really complicated like salad Olivier," which can have up to 20 different ingredients, including diced cooked potatoes, vegetables, eggs and chicken or ham in a mayonnaise-based dressing.

"It's what people cook for all the celebrations. It's a part of the table for all major holidays," he adds.

Russians eat a lot of beets — it's the main ingredient in the well-known soup called borscht — but the root vegetable is also featured in beet salad vinegret, which contains potatoes, carrots, onions and peas in an oil-and-vinegar-based dressing.

"Lots of ingredients again. It's beets that give it the colour and the taste," says Tsvetkov.

"What people will definitely see if they go to see the Olympic Games in Sochi this year (is) a lot of blintzes, which again is traditional Russian food — crepes folded with different fillings," says Tsvetkov. Fillings can be as diverse as beef liver pate, mushrooms and onions, apple and cinnamon, cottage cheese, cabbage and egg.

"Perogies historically are a big part of the traditional Russian table," Tsvetkov explains, and the dumplings made with unleavened dough enrobing savoury or sweet fillings can be found throughout the country, including the Black Sea community of Sochi.

"They have a long, long history going back to centuries ago, so this is what the ordinary people were preparing for their ... everyday table or some celebrations. They are relatively easy to cook but really tasty and delicious," he adds. "If you're thinking about something very traditional these are, I would say, one of the root things that people were eating a long time ago."

Traditionally, he says, family members would gather to make perogies, wrapping round pieces of dough around small round pieces of uncooked meat. Then the semicircular dumplings are boiled or fried and served hot or they can be frozen.

When it comes to fillings for perogies, "it can go as far as your fantasy," Tsvetkov says.

"The most classical one is filled with meat," which can be one meat or a combination such as beef and pork or chicken and pork, plus spices. Myriad other savoury fillings can include potato with or without bacon or onion, cabbage, egg or cottage cheese while sweet fillings can run the gamut from sour cherries or apples to various types of berries.

Glistening red caviar from salmon or rich black caviar from sturgeon is a delicacy used to top canapes or blintzes. Caviar from wild sturgeon can go for upwards of $1,000 a kilogram, Tsvetkov says, but generally the salt-cured fish eggs come from farm-raised stock and is much less expensive.

The Russian classic croquettes are patties made with minced meat — turkey, chicken, fish, veal, pork or beef — and may include mushrooms, cheese and spices favoured by the cook. Making them in an oval shape is very Russian, says Tsvetkov.

"Khachapuri, that's cheese-filled dough, is traditional for that region where Sochi is, the southwest of Russia," says Tsvetkov. The bread can be formed in a boat shape or circle and also topped with egg as well as cheese and then baked or fried.

Other Russian foods include potato pancakes, savoury cabbage pie, stuffed cabbage rolls, roasted buckwheat porridge (kasha) and various types of pickled cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and watermelon or marinated apples and cauliflower. Common condiments are horseradish and spicy mustard while sour cream is often the garnish or choice for perogies and blintzes.

In a land locked in much of the year by harsh winters, fish has long been preserved through salting, pickling and smoking, though fresh fish is popular in seaside communities like Sochi.

Appetizers can include sliced smoked sturgeon and salted or marinated herring sliced and served on traditional rye or sourdough bread and washed down with vodka, the alcohol usually drunk neat and made by distilling fermented grains, potatoes or sometimes fruits or sugar.

The non-alcoholic fermented beverage known as kvass is made from black or regular rye bread is similar to root beer but with a richer taste. A honey drink called medovukha, also fermented, is similar to mead.

Kefir, a relative of yogurt, "uses probiotic culture to create that unique taste. It's very popular. Again it has century-long roots in the Russian history. It's very healthy as all probiotic products. It can be easily found if people go to see Sochi Olympics. I believe it's everywhere there," Tsvetkov adds.

Sweet tooths delight in decadent treats featuring chocolate ganache, variations on honey cake and layered Napoleon pastry.

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

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