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New world cuisine

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 10, 2009

Spokane’s Russian-speaking community adjusts to food and culture in new homeland

On her first visit to an American supermarket, Tina Moga from Moldova came home with an avocado.

“I didn’t know what it was,” she recalled. “When I tasted it the first time, I couldn’t eat it. Second time, I put a little salt – it’s nice, it’s delicious,” Moga said. Avocados made a regular appearance in her grocery cart until Moga noticed she started gaining weight.

“Food in America has more calories,” she said. “In Moldova, people work and don’t get paid. They must eat what is in their garden.” Over the past three years, Moga has transformed her sloping, rocky backyard into a prolific vegetable garden, and is once again living off the land as she did in Moldova.

“Every house in Moldova has a garden,” she said, walking past her fruit trees to the herb garden that provides lemon balm and mint for her tea. She continued past the corn, eggplants, red currants, tomatoes, radishes and grapes – Moga grows more than 35 different fruits and vegetables, all carefully tended and watered by hand.

What she doesn’t eat fresh, Moga cans, juices, dries or makes into jam. While she does have to buy meat, flour and coffee, Moga makes her own bread, and most of what she eats comes from her garden. Occasionally, she treats herself to a trip to one of Spokane’s international markets. “I like Russian cakes,” she said with a sheepish smile.

Culture Shock

After eight years of living in Spokane, Moga is comfortable in her new home. She knows the difference between a kiwi and an avocado, and even knows where to find Moldovan cognac. But it wasn’t easy. Moga faced the same challenges as many of Spokane’s estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Russian-speaking immigrants. Imagine trying to read labels in a new language with a different alphabet and making recipes with an unfamiliar measurement system.

For Julia and Sergey Kozlov from Belarus, it took some time to adjust. “When I first came here, all food was tasteless,” Julia Kozlov said. Even though she found some familiar foods and cooked her favorite recipes, everything just tasted different. After about a year, the family adjusted. “At first it was a shock. Now I like everything,” she said. The Kozlovs relied on suggestions from family and friends, and after five years of living in Spokane describe their diet as “a mix of everything – American food cooked in a Russian way.”

Kozlov does most of her shopping at American stores, but she still hungers for some comfort food from home. “I miss the sausages, and Sergey misses the bread,” she said. The Kozlovs occasionally shop at Spokane’s international markets. They enjoy the smoked sausages from Mariupol Deli and Bakery, and Julia Kozlov’s face lit up when she talked about the delicious cakes from Kiev Market. But most meals are simple: tea with bread and butter for breakfast, and buckwheat cereal or spaghetti with some meat for dinner.

“I gained 10 to 15 pounds the first year,” Sergey Kozlov confessed, attributing his weight gain to a more sedentary lifestyle. “I rode my bike to work one time – about one-third of a mile – and everyone laughed at me,” he said. In Belarus, he explained, people are always moving: walking with groceries, running to catch the bus and riding their bicycles. “You’re moving all day – you need calories,” he said, explaining that shoppers in Belarus read food labels and select the one with the most calories. “No one buys two-percent milk.”

Kozlov said one of his first experiences in America was at a party where he watched in disbelief as a guest took one bite of a chicken drumstick and promptly threw the rest in the garbage. Later, as he took out the trash, he found a discarded pizza box in the dumpster containing half a pizza. “I can’t believe this – I’m shocked,” he said.

His father almost starved to death in Belarus at the end of World War II. There was no food, and his father was forced to scavenge in the forest. “He finds a spoiled potato on the ground and eats it like cake,” Kozlov said.

He was deeply impressed by his father’s ordeal and grew up eating everything he was served. “We never, never waste food – especially bread. Not even a tiny piece.”

Foods for good health

In Belarus, the Kozlovs learned to use foods for healing. To clear a stuffy nose, Sergey recommends a few drops of onion juice in each nostril. “It works 100 percent. We have special sweet onions for this,” he said. Julia Kozlov recommends chamomile baths for children, which helps them relax. “In Belarus, if you go to the doctor with a sick child, first they will give you some herbs to try, not antibiotics,” she said.

The prevalence of fast-food in America has been challenging for the Kozlovs as parents. “Americans have so much food. Why eat junk?” Kozlov said. She doesn’t buy the theory that Americans are too busy to cook healthy food. “It’s habit. It depends on what parents teach their kids,” she said, citing examples of other Slavic families with many children who cook healthy meals at home rather than eating fast-food.

In Moldova, food is also used medicinally. For a toothache, Moga uses garlic. “Put a small piece on the tooth at night,” she said. She drinks beet juice to lower her blood pressure, and if a cough is ailing her, she adds a little celery juice and honey. Moga’s herb garden provides mint and lemon balm for tea that soothes her nerves.

Moga worked as a surgical nurse in Moldova and now cares for her ailing father, who came to Spokane for heart surgery. She treats his diabetes with onion water, “His blood sugar was 218; now it’s 110.”

Moga cuts an onion into quarters, covers it with two liters of water, and puts it in the fridge overnight. Her father drinks a half-glass of the onion water every morning and eats two to three pieces of onion during the day. When the water is gone, she takes a new onion and starts the regimen again.

Diabetics should follow a doctor’s advice for treatment of the disease.

Here are some Slavic recipes to try at home:

Potato Pancakes

From Julia Kozlov, Spokane. Koslov says her grandmother and mother cooked these potato pancakes, called “draniki” in Belarus, as an everyday meal, and her family likes them.

6 medium potatoes

1 onion

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoons flour

Dash of pepper

Salt to taste

Vegetable oil, for frying

Sour cream and butter, for serving

Peel and rinse potatoes. Finely grate potatoes and onion into a large bowl. Add egg, flour and salt and mix well. Pour a little oil into a frying pan and heat. Spoon potato mixture by tablespoons into frying pan and press down slightly. Cook 3-4 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Serve hot with sour cream and melted butter.

Yield: 25-30 potato pancakes

Blintz

This recipe from Moldova is courtesy of Tina Moga, Spokane.

2 cups milk

2 eggs, beaten

½ tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups flour

¼ cup vegetable oil

Butter, for frying

For the filling:

1  ½ cups cottage cheese

Sugar, for sprinkling

Sour cream and honey, for garnish

Mix milk, eggs, sugar, salt and flour to make a smooth batter. Add a little butter or oil to a frying pan and heat on medium. Add just enough batter to cover the bottom of the pan – like a thin pancake. Flip to cook both sides evenly, taking care not to burn them as they cook quickly. Continue until all batter is gone.

Place 1-2 tablespoons of cottage cheese on each blintz and sprinkle with a little sugar. Fold the blintz as you might fold a burrito, tucking in the ends. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or honey.

Yield: 18-20 blintzes

Red Beet Salad

This salad from Ukraine is from “Cooking Around the World,” published by Barton School, an adult ESL program in Spokane.

3 medium fresh beets

½ cup prunes, chopped

½ cup chopped pecans

½ to 1 cup mayonnaise

Salt, to taste

Boil beets until tender, 30-40 minutes. Let the beets cool, then peel and grate them. Add prunes and pecans. Stir in mayonnaise. Add salt to taste.

Yield: 4 servings

Kirsten Harrington can be reached at kharrington67 @earthlink.net or visit her Web site at www.chefonthego.net.


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