February 21, 2011

The Babushka Vibe

Matreshka - Friedrichshain

I must have been about five or six when I made an unfathomable discovery. It was a hot summer day at my grandmother’s and I had just eaten a revoltingly radioactive-looking banana ice-cream bar. My hands were sticky, my face smeared with yellow substance and I was holding a stick I needed to get rid of as soon as possible. As I stepped into the kitchen and pulled open the lid on top of the rubbish bin, a deeply disturbing scene unfolded in front of my impressionable eyes: the bin was full of dumplings that looked just like pierogi.

The gravity of the matter would surely be obvious to anyone who has ever come across a Polish grandmother. I will spell it out for all the others: pierogi, or Polish dumplings, are nothing less than sacred. Not only is it unthinkable to throw them away, it is a sin to even contemplate any such nonsense. Needless to say, I was baffled. Had an unspeakably hideous crime just taken place in the very kitchen I was standing in? I looked around, hoping it was not a trick to get me framed for pierogi-murder, and as I realised the kitchen was empty, I began screaming and ran to the other room, where my grandmother was leaning over a newspaper with a cigarette in her hand.

“Who threw away those pierogi?!” I cried. I must have gesticulated convulsively to stress my state of distress.
“Pierogi? What are you talking about?” She asked and seemed nearly panic-stricken for just one moment before realising what I had seen. Her nerves brought under control once again, she curved her lips into a sheepish smile. “Those weren’t pierogi. Just Vareniky. Ludmila, that Ruski from the second floor, she made them. She had the nerves to bring them here into my kitchen. I tasted one of them and threw them into the bin. Tasteless – like the rest of their food.” She then coughed as if to show I should pay special attention to what she was about to say next. “Russian food is like the evil witch from Snow White: she just looked pretty, but was foul inside. By the same token, people like Ludmila from the second floor just make their food look like good Polish food, but inside, it is just tasteless.”

I therefore spent my childhood years knowing that Russian food was something I better avoid. It was only years later, long after my grandmother’s death, that I discovered that Russian food could be quite brilliant. What she said was not entirely untrue: more often than not, Russian dishes will be blander than their Polish equivalences. Vareniky are not as rich as pierogi, borsht is not as flavoursome as a barszcz ukrainski and generally speaking, there seems to be less spice used in the Russian cuisine compared to the Polish one. But do we really need to relegate pointless national aversions and comparisons to the culinary world? As this blog tries to promote world peace and eternal love, I will stop perpetuating negative culinary stereotypes and concentrate on all that is good and kind. In this case, it won’t even prove too difficult, as the Russian cuisine truly has a great deal to offer: think of a juicy shashlik (the Russian version of shish kebab, meat galore on a skewer), a hot salyanka (a thick and sourish soup) or just a bowl of pelmeni (meat dumplings) covered with heaps of smetana (sour cream)? I know it doesn’t sound healthy. But you’ll have to admit it sounds good. And this was exactly what I had in mind when I found myself craving Russian food last week.

Following a friend’s advice, we went to try out Matreshka in Friedrichshain. We found ourselves in the midst of a Russian birthday party, with a group of mothers dancing with their five year old girls to Russian Eurovision music. The walls were covered with colourful prints of large babushka dolls, but were otherwise so white and the place so brightly lit that I could not help but thinking of a Russian community centre in Dudley. The cheap IKEA furniture did not make things any better, and looking around, the feeling was of a place cheap and not entirely welcoming. And yet, for some reason it felt just right. It reminded me of Russia.

Beef Stroganoff
 The menu confirmed my first notion, with a choice of very simple, home made Russian food for fairly low prices. We ordered two pints of affordable Russian beer (Baltyka, 2.90 €) and started our meal by ordering soups: a soljanka (a sour soup with tomatoes, gherkins and different types of meat) and a bortsch (beetroot soup), both cost 3.90 € if ordered as a main course or 1.90 € if ordered as a starter. The soljanka was nice, but quite bland. The bortsch was very good. It was not spectacular, but it reminded me of homemade soups in Russia. We then continued with a pork-goulash (don’t expect to get Hungarian or German goulash. Here it is made of pieces of pork in tomato-like sauce, 4.90 €) and the most expensive main course on the menu, the beef stroganoff (slices of beef in mushroom-smetana sauce, 7.90 €). There was very little meat involved in the dishes and they were not what you'd call visually appetising, but it was not very surprising considering the price, and therefore not the end of the world. The sauces were tasty and the overall quality was quite pleasing though – it was neither refined nor spectacular, but it was nice and felt like homemade creations of Ludmila from the second floor, or any other babushka for that matter.

To accompany our meal we also ordered a dish of mixed dumplings with 9 pelmeni and 7 vareniky (pelmeni are the meat-filled dumplings, vareniky are vegetarian, filled with potatoes or potatoes and sauerkraut, 9.90 €). Even though our bellies later came close to the brink of explosion because of the amount of dumplings and smetana we had stuffed into our poor mouths, it was well worth it. The dumplings were just brilliant: the dough was just right, the fillings were pleasing despite being bland and the smetana definitely provided us with much needed fat for the cold winter.

Overall, Matreshka is far from being a refined five-star restaurant. And yet, something about it was just right: it was a cheap place for those who get a sudden urge to get catapulted eastwards. The food is far from being perfect, but it is pleasingly and affordably authentic. Even the babushkas on the wall and the ghastly music in the background were much appreciated as a part of the drill.

Overall mark:
Boxhagener Straße 60, 10245 Berlin

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