The Art of Vinaigrette

No matter where I am in the world, all it takes is to make a batch of dumplings and I’m transported back to another place and time, more peaceful times, around the oak dining table in the red-brick bungalow my grandfather built in Blacktown in the western suburbs of Sydney.

It’s the late 1970s. Out front, my grandfather Ivan’s 1967 Falcon is in the driveway, a sprinkler waters the lawn, and rose bushes grow along the paling fence (I can smell them). There’s an oleander tree, and a jungle of tropical plants shading the dining-living area where we spend most of our time.

Here, in my kitchen in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with the news of Russia’s escalation in Ukraine on the television in the background, I begin my dumpling-making ritual, an intentional act of remembering so I don’t forget.

Since Putin’s war on Ukraine began, my bittersweet dumpling-making process has become fraught with pain.

I tie my apron strings, reach for the wooden rolling pin and take the flour from the cupboard. I can see my grandparents’ backyard in Australia: an iconic Hills Hoist clothesline and a henhouse full of chooks that laid eggs with deep orange yolks.

There are rickety sheds that looked like they’d topple over in a strong wind, and a flourishing vegetable garden where my grandfather, who I called “Papa”, grew shiny tomatoes, the crunchiest cucumbers, and fresh, fragrant dill. Some summers, there’d be sunflowers.

I sprinkle flour on the bench, rub my palms in it and close my eyes: My family is gathered at the table for Sunday lunch, a lunch so leisurely that on a languid summer’s day it will roll into dinner. There are my parents, little sister, grandparents, and two 20-something uncles.

A clear plastic cover protects a white lace tablecloth. There’s a bottle of vodka, shot glasses, tumblers for beer chasers, and lemonade for us kids. Old friends might drop by to say hello, my grandparents’ neighbours invariably join us, the Orthodox priest might make an appearance.

As a child, I’d wondered how these visitors knew my grandmother Eufrosia had made dumplings. And, much to my shame now, if there’d be enough to go around. But, of course, there would. There’d be plenty of dumplings and an abundance of other food. The table would be heaving with dishes.

Because when your childhood memories are mostly of war, of being interminably hungry and of treks through the Ukrainian countryside in search of food and safety, as a grandmother in more fortunate circumstances you feed your family as if the next meal might be their last. And you make sure there’s enough left over to send home with them. Nobody will ever go hungry in your house again.

Anybody and everybody was welcome at my grandparents’ but they couldn’t expect to drop by to say a quick hello. They would have to sit down and eat, even if they’d already lunched or had dinner. An extra chair was found, drink poured, clean plate and cutlery laid out.

There’d be plenty on the table but my grandmother, my Babushka – or “Baba” as we called her to distinguish her from mum’s Babushka who lived with them until she died – would prepare something fresh for the guests so they weren’t eating from half-finished dishes.

Like magic, a plate of boiled eggs and caviar appeared, or a basket of warm piroshki – pastries stuffed with mince, onion and vermicelli – or a new jar of rollmops (rolled pickled herrings) and sliced black rye bread. My grandparents were nothing if not hospitable.

Culinary France and Russia meet in this classic salad.

Herring was a favorite treat everywhere — in the homes of the Communist Party elite and in workers’ barracks on the city outskirts. Maybe it was so popular because it was simple and inexpensive. Or maybe because it was available even during the hungry years. Or maybe because herring and vodka had long ago become inseparable in the minds of Soviet people — like the Motherland and socialism, the Party and Lenin.

But we loved herring even before socialism. It seems that it has always been on our table, but in actual fact, the production of salted herring has had its ups and downs in our country.

It all began in the early 18th century. A large peninsula between the Dvina and Onega Rivers stretches along the coast of the White Sea for 380 kilometers. The villages situated here by the sea never had plentiful harvests. Their fields produced less than a quarter of the grain they needed to survive. In some places by the sea agriculture was practically nonexistent. So from time immemorial the inhabitants of this region fished and hunted — that was their main diet. They also sold fish to the southern provinces and used the money to buy grains and vegetables at markets.

Fishermen (colorized photo from the early 20th century)

Depending on the situation and prices, fishing was either boom or bust. Under Empress Elizabeth in the 1750s it almost completely ceased. But under Catherine II, it was suddenly revived.

In 1766, two Dutchmen sent by the Russian government began to teach the Arkhangelsk peasants how to salt and preserve herring. About the same time the White Sea Fishing Company was founded. From the start the Company had a hard time of it. First of all, they immediately had competition. In 1781 a merchant named Svyagin opened his own herring business in Kandalaksha Bay. Contemporaries write that his herrings were almost as good as the Dutch ones. But his competitors tried to subvert his business by spreading rumors about the supposed “bad quality” of White Sea herrings.

Herring production, Arkhangelsk, late 19th century.

At the time, of all the White Sea herrings the Solovetsky herrings were considered the best (Solovki is a group of islands in the White Sea). This was not because the fish itself was better, but because the company prepared them with more care.

This was when new dishes using herring were invented. After all, it was clear that a simple dish of herring with onions was not the only way to eat this delicious fish.

The hot appetizer forshmak came to Russia from Prussia. Our ancestors enjoyed it since the time of Peter the Great in the first half of the 18th century. It was prepared with a variety of meat, both raw and boiled, potatoes, pasta, turnips, cabbage, mushrooms. But it always included herring. The dish was baked and served hot.

The vinaigrette we know today is the result of quite a long evolution of this dish. Its individual ingredients — beets, potatoes, pickled cabbage, eggs, herring — appear here and there in old recipes. But they were only assembled into the salad’s modern form in the beginning of the 20th century.

Vinaigrette’s heyday was the Soviet period, when it became one of the dishes most characteristic of the era — inexpensive and easy to prepare. And most importantly — made of products available in an era of scarcity.

The main culinary tradition in Russia is not to betray the flavor of childhood. That is why even new dishes copy old flavors in some way. For example, you might have noticed that “herring under a fur coat” is really a clever mix of herring vinaigrette and Salad Olivier dressed with mayonnaise.

Indeed, the idea of “mixing” recipes has been practiced in our cuisine for a long time. Here, for example, is how the lexicographer Vladimir Dahl defined the dish “vinaigrette.” In his interpretation — written in the early 1860s — vinaigrette is “okroshka without kvass.”  Actually, that’s not a bad way to describe it!

According to Dahl, if you don’t pour in kvass at the end, it’s not okroshka but just a vinaigrette.

Pavel and Olga Syutkin

In Russia even today in many restaurants okroshka is served this way: a plate with chopped vegetables, eggs and meat and a carafe of kvass. The waiter pours the kvass into the dish at the table (above).

In the U.S.S.R. the basic components were modified according to taste and what ingredients were available: peas, sauerkraut and mushrooms. The sliced meats that were in the original recipes disappeared, and only herring has survived.

Some people like the classic recipe; others like more complex versions, with crab, for example, or calamari. The basic salad might include tinned Pacific saury, beans, apples and beet greens. People watching their weight might eliminate the potatoes; people who don’t need to worry about their diets might dress it with mayonnaise.

Vinaigrette is so good and beloved that it has even become a metaphor. The Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-1877), who also wrote prose in his youth, wrote a short story called “Préférence and the Sun.” In it he wrote, “Vinaigrette is prepared in Petersburg with great skill from rain, snow, fog, frost and other materials. It turns out that vinaigrette is not even a dish, but almost an art form.”

Let’s try to understand its beauty.

Dumplings, stories and songs

Mostly, it was just family at the table for Sunday lunch. That’s how I liked it best. I wondered how people could spend so many hours eating, drinking and talking together, but there was never a moment when anyone was bored.

Secondly, there were stories to be told. Like that time when Baba was a little girl and she came upon a bear in the birch forest while she was picking wild berries; she had never been so scared, and we all felt her fear. There were also jokes to be laughed at (my uncles’), songs to be sung (Papa’s), a piano accordion to be played (Papa again), and Cossack dances to perform (Papa, of course).

There’d be a lull in the late afternoon, especially during Sydney’s sweltering summers, when the stifling heat hit the western suburbs and one fan wasn’t enough to cool a family. My generous grandparents were frugal. You don’t survive war and starvation then go on to work in the factories to blow hard-earned savings that could be spent putting food on the table.

Papa and Dad would drive to the tavern to replenish the refreshments and who knew when they’d return. Uncle George, Jerry as I called him, would turn on the black-and-white TV to check the cricket score. Uncle Sandy (Alexander) would flick through the LPs – everything from Harry Nilsson to Tchaikovsky and Folk Songs from the Urals Choir – and he’d put a record on.

Mum and I would take the dirty plates to the kitchen where Baba would be dropping butter into casseroles and scooping dumplings from a colossal pot of boiling water. As Mum reset the table, I’d rummage in the cutlery drawer, matching up forks and knives. Dad and Papa would return, laughing, eyes sparkling, cheeks flushed.

As we resumed our seats, Baba and Mum would place ceramic pots brimming with dumplings, swimming in butter, at the centre of the table. I’d close my eyes and wish for the mashed potato varenyky that remains my favourite. The men preferred the minced meat pelmeni, so I was outnumbered but, of course, there’d be potato varenyky. Because for Babushka, cooking was an act of love.

My crescent-shaped Ukrainian potato varenyky resemble the 1,700-year-old wheat-flour dumplings found by archaeologists in China. Those dumplings, the world’s oldest, were stuffed with meat.

Russia’s meat-filled pelmeni are thought to have come from Siberia, a colossal region that stretches from the Pacific to the Urals, from the Arctic to China and Mongolia. Dumplings would have travelled from China with Genghis Khan or his descendants who created the Mongol Empire after conquering Asia and Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The ‘Reds’ and the ‘Whites’

My Babushka Eufrosia and her mother, my mum’s Babushka Daria, came from beautiful Odesa, the cosmopolitan trading port founded by Empress Catherine the Great that had been an ancient Greek settlement. My great-grandmother Daria was born in March 1895 when Odesa was still in the Russian Empire.

Daria was 22 when she gave birth to my grandmother on October 19, 1917, the eve of the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks seized power and reorganised the Russian Empire and newly independent republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine into what later became the USSR. Civil war erupted between the Bolshevik “Reds” and pro-monarchist “Whites”.

If Papa got home late after meeting friends at the club and Baba was cranky with him – which wouldn’t last long, as he could be very charming – my grandfather would cheekily put their differences down to him being a Red and my grandmother a White. The way Papa saw it, he was of the proletariat and Baba from the bourgeoisie. But things are not always so “red and white”.

It was rare for there to be a conversation without mentioning history or politics in that house. But Baba had just been a toddler during the civil war when the White and Red Armies fought for control. Her grandparents had been landowners in the Odesa region, with their own farm and small parcels of land they rented to other farmers. They were by no means affluent, as shown by the austere, simply-cut work clothes they wear in a family portrait I have. My recent research revealed they would have been called “kulaks” or prosperous peasants.

Taken in 1890 in an Odesa photo studio, the portrait shows my great-grandmother Daria at five years of age. She stands beside her seated mother, who has her hand on Daria’s shoulder. For years I thought they were in front of their home, a typical Ukrainian white-washed farmhouse with six-paned windows. Then I realised it was a painted backdrop, the carpet beneath their feet a giveaway.

On the walls of my grandparents’ Blacktown house, alongside the Orthodox icons and paintings of bucolic rural scenes and majestic landscapes of the Motherland were Papa’s portraits of Lenin and Stalin. My grandmother loathed them. When Papa raised a glass to Lenin or Stalin, Baba would curse at him. “Stupid, stupid men!” she’d say, shaking her head, pointing to the portraits and to Papa.

My grandfather admired Stalin because he had defeated the Nazis, who he hated as much as my Australian grandfather hated the Japanese after the bombing of Darwin, where he was stationed with the Australian Air Force. My grandmother hated Stalin because her family’s land was taken during Stalin’s collectivisation of Ukraine’s farmlands in 1929 and her father was sent to a gulag in Siberia.

Stalin intended Ukraine to be the Soviet Union’s breadbasket and for its grain exports to fund its industrialisation projects. Farmers were given only rations to continue to work lands they no longer owned, with no money to buy food. Stalin starved them, Ukrainians and Russians alike. Putin does the same now.

Some 5 million people died of hunger in the Soviet Union from 1931 to 1934, including nearly 4 million Ukrainians. The famine was called the Holodomor – “holod” means “hunger” in Ukrainian and “mor” means extermination – and while my family survived, Baba said she would remember that feeling of hunger until the day she died.

But no civilians are safe, regardless of how they identify; not Ukrainians nor Russians. It’s impossible to make sense of the senselessness of this war.

Rostov-on-Don was occupied by the Germans during World War I and World War II when Papa was a partisan fighting the Nazis. His dinner subjects spanned everything from his own war stories to the fierce Mongols and brave Cossacks to the breathtaking beauty of the Caucasus and the splendour of Kyiv, which he adored. Papa wrote poetry and read the classics – Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gorky sat lined up on a bookshelf above their bed.

He’d frequently reference them but he rarely told tales of his childhood. When prodded, he’d often stare into the distance, tears welling in his eyes. As a child, I often wondered about the source of his sadness. Now I have a better idea of the pain and suffering of both grandparents.

In contrast, my grandmother preferred to focus on pleasurable memories – strolls along the grand tree-lined boulevards of Odesa, eating ice cream on summer holidays on the Black Sea and Crimea, where she loved nothing more than to feel the warmth of the sun on her skin and to get a tan, and foraging for wild berries – without the bears.

One dough, two dumplings

As much as I loved those Sunday lunches, I loved staying with my grandparents during school holidays even more, because that’s when I got to spend time with Baba in the kitchen, watching her make dumplings.

Ukrainian varenyky and Russian pelmeni are made with the same dough – just flour and water – only their shapes and fillings differ.

To make varenyky, Baba put the potatoes on to boil while she made the dough. She poured the flour onto her kitchen bench (I pour mine into a big bowl), poked a hole in the centre to create a well, to which she added a pinch of salt and water, and then used her hands to combine it until it was ready to knead. Baba really worked the dough but I knead a little less, allowing it to rest longer (at least 30 minutes to an hour) until it is soft, supple and elastic.

Next, we make a rustic potato mash, first caramelising the onions while the potatoes are cooling, then mashing the onions with the potatoes, a little butter, and plenty of salt and pepper. I separate the rested dough into several balls, sprinkle the kitchen counter with flour, and use a good old-fashioned rolling pin, just like my grandmother and mother did, to roll out one ball into a large oval about 2mm thick. Then I use the rim of a glass, twisting it back and forth to cut out rounds of dough.

I hold a dough circle in one hand, use a teaspoon to scoop some mashed potato into its centre, then fold half of the dough over and, starting at one end, pinch the sides together until the dumpling is sealed. If the dough is rested it should seal easily, otherwise, you could dip a finger in water and run that along the edge. You should have a beautiful half-moon-shaped dumpling.

And now, you have another 99 to make, which is why my Baba would have a big dumpling-making session with a few friends and neighbours – Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Latvian women my grandmother either worked with at the factory or befriended in the displaced people’s camp. She even had a friend who travelled to Australia with them on the same ship. They would often make dumplings at each other’s kitchen tables.

When all the dumplings are made, you need to bring a big pot of water to boil, add a pinch of salt and reduce the heat to a simmer, then slide the dumplings in. After the dumplings rise to the surface, wait a couple of minutes before scooping them out and into a serving pot with a chunk of good butter. Swish them about so they’re swimming in the stuff, then pop the lid on.

Sweet varenyky

There are sweet Ukrainian varenyky made with summer berries and eaten with sour cream.

I make a filling of berries folded into farmer’s cheese and serve them with fresh berries and a sweet warm sauce of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and red currants, which I make on the stovetop with sugar, just as if you were making a jam.

Although my Babushka rarely made them, they’re the dumplings that most make me think of her.

As a child, I was raised as an Australian who was “half-Russian” because, while Babushka was from the land we now know as Ukraine, she was born in the Russian Empire, which was still the Soviet Union when my family boarded the Anna Salen for Australia in Naples in May 1949 along with a passenger list of refugees and displaced peoples including Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, Latvians, Poles, Romanians, Russians and Ukrainians.

But I’ve long known that things are never so simple. When my husband and I were in Krakow, Poland, some years ago, we dined at a restaurant called Smak Ukrainski – Taste of Ukraine. The shelves were dotted with decorative bowls, lacquered trays, folk art, and kitschy knick-knacks that could have been straight out of my grandparents’ house. I wrote in my notebook at the time: This is exactly the kind of food Baba used to make! Delicious, hearty, traditional Ukrainian cuisine!

After Putin invaded Ukraine, I called mum to ask a question I’d never felt a need to ask until then: What would Babushka identify as if she were still alive today?

“I have no doubt,” Mum answered immediately, “Papa was Russian, but Baba was Ukrainian.”

I don’t know why I’d never asked before. It obviously didn’t matter until now. But it explains the intensity of the pain I feel when I see my Babushka’s face in the face of those grandmothers, Ukrainian and Russian, emerging from the rubble that was once their homes.

My grandparents aren’t alive, nor are my beloved Dad and dear Uncle Sandy, and it is with a heavy heart that I make pelmeni and varenyky these days. I’m glad they’re not here to see the senseless death, devastation and brutality of Putin’s war on Ukraine.

But I’d give anything for one more family meal at my grandparents’ dining table – one where I make the dumplings.

Herring Vinaigrette

  • 3 medium beets
  • 4 medium potatoes
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 300 grams (10.5 oz) of sauerkraut
  • 3 salted cucumber pickles (not marinated; look for kosher pickles and check labels)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 large lightly salted herring
  • salt, black pepper to taste
  • 1 pinch of sugar
  • sunflower oil or mayonnaise for dressing
  • Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F.
  • Wrap each beet in foil and bake until soft. The cooking time depends on the size of the beets.
  • Boil unpeeled potatoes or bake them the same way as the beets.
  • Boil the carrots.
  • Cool and peel the vegetables completely.
  • Boil the eggs, cool them, peel off the shells.
  • Dice the salted cucumbers into pieces the same size as the vegetables.
  • If the sauerkraut is in long strips, chop it into pieces like the vegetables.
  • Dice an onion into small cubes.
  • Mix all the vegetables in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, add a pinch of sugar, drizzle with vegetable oil and stir.
  • Peel the skin off the herring, cut into fillets, clean and debone.
  • Cut herring into small slices.
  • Cut the eggs into quarters.
  • To serve, put the vinaigrette in a salad bowl and lay the herring slices and quarters of eggs on top of the vegetables. Garnish with greens.

We dress our vinaigrette with unrefined sunflower oil. To keep the vinaigrette very colorful, dress each diced root vegetable separately with oil, and then mix them all together in a bowl. If you prefer, you can also dress the vinaigrette with mayonnaise.

Or you can also use a classic vinaigrette dressing:

  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp honey
  • Salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste

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