I have a warm spot in my heart for Belarusian cuisine, not only because of my Belarusian roots and long years of enjoying home-cooked Belarusian dishes but also because it is just good. People often ask, “What is Belarusian cuisine?”, and the quintessential dishes that immediately come to my mind are those made with potatoes. Draniki (дранiкi), zrazy (зразы), kliotski (клёцкi), soshni (сошнi), just to name a few. Indeed, potatoes play a very important role in Belarusians’ daily nutrition, so you will see this heroic vegetable in different variations on the dining table of a typical Belarusian almost every day. Potatoes in Belarusian cuisine are prepared in dozens of ways and styles: they are boiled, baked, roasted, fried, grated and then cooked, sauteed, stuffed with other goodies, used in soups, salads, and even in brewing alcoholic beverages. This is why Belarusians are often referred to as “bulbashy” (бульбашы), derivative from “bulba” (potatoes in Belarusian), which roughly means those who eat potatoes all the time. Among other vegetables that Belarusians commonly grow and eat are beets, turnips, parsnips, cabbage, carrots.
Belarusians are the biggest potato eaters in the world, consuming about 180 kilos per capita each year, according to statistical data published by Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
Foraging and Fermenting
Foraging is still big in Belarus, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my dad and many of my friends know more about mushrooms than any celebrity chef in the United States. So around early autumn, you’ll commonly see Belarusians cooking comical amounts of porcini mushrooms in their kitchens, with no fuss about it and no dent in their wallets. Usually, mushrooms are simply sauteed in a cast iron pan with butter, onions and herbs, sometimes with a splash of sour cream, but very often they are also canned or dried. Since seasonal eating was a necessity in Belarus for years rather than a trend, pickling and fermenting have been crucial methods for preserving food for winter. I might be biased, but I have not yet tried sauerkraut or pickles tastier than those made by my grandma and mom, and I’ve tried many.
Meat Dishes and Sausage Making
The most popular meat in Belarusian cuisine is pork. One of the signature Belarusian pork dishes is machanka (мачанка), which is a thick gravy traditionally made with pieces of pork and sausage, rib bones and lard and served with pancakes or potatoes (my mouth is watering when I think of it). It wouldn’t be fair not to mention a long-standing sausage making tradition in Belarus. There are dozens of recipes, but my favorite sausages are blood sausages, made of pig’s blood and buckwheat, and rustic salcesons borrowed from Italian cuisine in the 16th century.
Traditional Belarusian Beverages
Belarusians also have their authentic beverages that might sound strange but taste good, I promise. One of them is kvass, a long-time favorite summer drink, effervescent, savory-sweet and ever so slightly boozy. It is traditionally made with slate rye bread, sugar and dried fruits and should be served chilled. One of the variations of kvass is prepared with birch tree juice and fermented with barley grains, a beverage that is not only delicious but also extremely healthy.
Speaking of birch trees, not only do Belarusians tap juice from their trunks in early spring, they also use their buds to infuse vodka. The result is quite delightful.
Last but not least, in Belarus we say, “Хлеб – всему голова” (roughly, “Bread is the staff of life”), and we indeed follow this belief. Even apart from the dozens of traditional baked dishes, a simple loaf of rye bread, slightly sour and delightfully full, heavy and moist, is one of life’s simple pleasures. Without exaggeration, one of the best “souvenirs” Belarusians can bring to their foreign friends (and often do!) is a loaf of rye bread. Add a pinch of salt, freshly picked scallions, a slice of ripe tomato and a sliver of home-made lard, and then you will understand why I’ll never give up on bread. Ever.