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Tientsin: A Russian Immigrant Remembers

by Bob Sitsky

Chinese Food in Europe

Spring Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(1) page(s): 23-24

The following, a chapter of memories of the 1940's, is soon to be published in Australia. Tentatively titled: Growing up in Tientsin; it is published here with permission.

In China, all of my family meals, while they lived in China, were prepared by a Chinese cook. They were Russian/Chinese style. My mother did not learn to cook until the family left China and arrived in the United States. That was when I was ten and my younger brother Larry was eight. What follows in the chapter titled: What Did We eat?

Our grandparents and parents generally followed a Russian/Jewish diet. When grandmother was living with us, she was in charge of the kitchen. She had a very good reputation for her cooking skills, especially traditional Russian Jewish dishes.

Porridge was common at breakfast; these were the days before instant cereal. Mother liked to make her own yoghurt regularly. She used to place cups of milk with culture on the window ledge in the sun in summer, near the stove in winter.

At lunch we had a variety of zakuski with bread. These were an assortment of cold or hot appetizer dishes which could be chopped liver, an eggplant spread called backlazhanaya ikra, or salted herring. We also had piroshky which are Russian dumplings. We usually fried them until they were light brown. Various types were made, all savoury. Fruit was also eaten at this meal; and we often had kissel, a sweet Russian drink which mother made by mixing potato flour and mashed berries, then boiling the mixture.

At dinner we often had a pirog, hot borsch/soup in winter, cold beetroot soup in summer, cabbage rolls, etc. There were at least three types of pirog made in our house, meat, salmon and cabbage. In winter we also had lapsha; a milk soup with vermicelli. Desserts included fried pancakes or baked pastry. The pancakes were either plain or filled with light cheese. We placed dollops of jam on top of the pancakes.

Both my grandmother and my mother liked Napoleon cake. This was very rich with layers of cream in between the pastry. A special treat was having our own churned ice-cream. Of course all the ice-cream was made with full cream!

One of mother's favourite dishes was studen, but Larry and I tried to avoid eating this dish which was basically meat and vegetables in a solidified semi-transparent stock. Another favourite was stuffed minced meat in cabbage, called galuptsi. We also often had beef stroganoff done in a rich sauce.

Occasionally when available, the family bought pheasant. This bird was considered something special, but I found the taste too strong. Potato cutlets were another favourite of mine. They were decorated with a cross-hatch pattern using a knife. Russian salad was frequently eaten, too. It was made with beetroot, peas, potatoes, carrots, etc., and with lots of mayonnaise. The mayo was prepared from scratch at home, using hard egg yolk, butter, and oil.

One of my favourite deserts was pasha, a mixture of cottage cheese, cream, milk, heaps of butter, and lots of eggs. It was placed in a traditional Russian wooden mould made from five pieces of wood joined together. The mould was first lined with wet muslin, the cheese mixture poured in, then placed in an ice-box to harden before eating. I do not know whether our wooden mould, seen here, came from Russia or my grandparents bought it in China. We also had kulitch which is a Russian Easter cake. That really made my day!

Poppy seed rolls were a favourite. Mother regularly fried lapashki which are similar to thin flapjacks, and we added cream or jam before folding and eating them. With jam filled vareniki, no additions were necessary for these delicious dumplings.

When I look back, I can see that a lot of the food in our diet was indeed very rich. It was made with lots of butter, lots of food fried in oil, lots of rich cakes, etc.

Occasionally the whole family sat down to make pelmeni. Grandmother or mother rolled out the pastry and small round sections of it were cut out. Several types of mixtures were prepared; they could have been meat, vegetables, even fruit. A dab of one of these mixtures was placed on the round pastry and then one had to carefully fold them into little bundles. After boiling them, they were ready for eating. We usually had soy sauce or mustard to garnish our pelmeni. Hundreds were made at the one time so that we could get a few meals from all the work needed to prepare them.

Even though Larry and I both loved Chinese food, it was pretty rare for us to have local food at our meals. Mother was not keen about it, she regarded it with some disdain as compared to our European cuisine.

We hardly ate out at restaurants. The family had the tradition that meals had to be prepared at home. Mother and father were also scared we would pick up germs and infections when eating out.

Once we were invited to a Chinese restaurant by a Chinese friend of my parents. Larry and I really looked forward to this special event. It was a traditional Chinese banquet with everyone sharing the dishes as they were placed on the table. Afterwards, my parents were critical of their friend because he followed Chinese eating practices rather than European etiquette. When he tucked into the delicious soup and dumplings, he dipped his spoon in the central dish several times instead of taking his portion onto his own bowl with a utensil never before placed in his mouth. Larry and I were rather bemused by this criticism!

At least once every summer we used an old wooden ice-cream churner to make delicious home-made ice cream. The whole family participated. Mother prepared the mixture. Father, Larry, and I filled the churner with pieces of ice and salt. We then took turns to operate it for a couple of hours. This was done outside in the back courtyard, so it was hot work! But the results were great and I can still remember the thrill of tasting that fresh ice-cream.

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