Sunday, August 23, 2009

3. Kvas

If you ever end up in a typical Russian home and ask for a glass of coke, do not be surprised if you receive bemused stares and mutinous mutters. Do not be surprised, again, if you see a huge jar in the corner full of some strange dark mass and liquid. This is a very popular Russian drink you may have heard of before -- kvas.

Kvas is a slightly sour drink made from rye or black bread using fermentation. The bread is toasted until darkened, then simmered in water with sugar; yeast is added to the resulting liquid and left to stand for a couple of days, then strained.

Yes, my dear coke-drinking (but hopefully not sniffing) readers, it is basically fizzy bread liquid. How can Russians possibly choose kvas over Pepsi or Coca-Cola? -- you may be wondering, whilst sipping from a bottle of smooth, fresh high fructose corn syrup. But it cannot be helped. The Slavic people are a strange and heathen kind, and stubborn to the point where not even a commercial depicting Santa Clause consuming Coca Cola will make them change their minds. In fact, they don't even believe in Santa Clause! But that is a topic for another post.

Kvas-drinking has been ingrained into the Russian culture for centuries, perhaps more than a thousand years. It was used as medicine and as food, combined with vegetables, meat, and/or boiled eggs to make a cold soup. Sometimes other ingredients were added, such as mint, berries, or hops. It should be mentioned that kvas contains alcohol, but very little -- at most about 2%; therefore, it is considered safe for children. In relatively recent times, kvas has become available as a bottled drink, and is also readily available in the summer, when huge barrels of it are parked in city streets. However, many people still prefer to make it themselves, especially since a lot of bottled kvas is of inferior quality.

In conclusion, if you would like to feel like a true Russian, kvas is a must, as well as black bread, schi, and a strong addiction to cigarettes, preferably resulting in an early and tragic death. To complete the picture, write a lot of poetry and get in a duel, if possible. Just make sure the blood from your bullet wound doesn't get into the kvas.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

2. Mushroom Picking

Unless you want to make a Russian faint, do not tell him or her that you have never been mushroom-picking. It is akin to telling an American that you have never seen a Disney movie, or have never eaten pizza. In a Russian's eyes, you simply aren't human until you have gone traipsing through the woods in search for various forms of fungi.

Russians are taught the types of edible mushrooms and where to find them from childhood, until it becomes second nature. You could bring a Russian into the woods and they would probably find the nearest chanterelle just by smell. Mushrooms are dried, salted, pickled, fried, and used for soup. They have been picked for centuries, and despite the fact that nowadays you could probably go to a market and buy some, most Russians with an access to a good forest and a woven basket or two will go mushroom picking at least once each year.

In the late summer or early fall, soon after a rain, a Russian family will set out to the nearest forest with baskets and shears or scissors. The most prized mushroom is the White Mushroom, known as the king of all mushrooms, followed by various other mushrooms from the boletus family, many of then named after what trees they grow under, their caps, and whether they will poison you or not when eaten raw (Ex: "Syroyezhka," or "Raw-edible").

If you look up the kinds of mushrooms Russians are likely to pick, you may notice that some mushroom guides will list a few of them as poisonous. So how is it, you may ask, that Russians continue to eat them without dying? Are they insane? Or perhaps they possess magical powers?
Well, you are right on both accounts! But mostly it is that their immune systems have strengthened over centuries of consuming poison, and where a German or an Englishman might die an untimely and painful death, a Russian might just have a bit of a head ache.

Of course, there are some mushrooms even most Russians can't eat. Some examples would include Poganka (Death cap) and Mukhomor (Fly Agaric). Death caps are easy to identify, because they look like their name -- all pale and sickly looking. Fly Agaric, on the other hand, while well known to cultures that engage in mushroom picking, is known to many others as "that cool-looking mushroom from Mario":

To be fair, Fly Agaric has been used in the past by shamanistic tribes to induce visions -- but this experience tended to include intense stomach cramps and drinking someone else's pee.

So in conclusion, no need to make anyone faint! If a Russian asks you whether you have been mushroom-picking, nod vigorously and invite them to go with you. If you do not know how to identify mushrooms, do not bring a guidebook! -- you will be scorned. Instead, just grab any mushrooms you see and shove them in your mouth. Any Russians around you will be touched by your enthusiasm.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

1. Old Russian Cartoons

While there are a few new Russian cartoons out that people genuinely watch, the majority still prefers old Soviet-time cartoons -- the classics. If you would like to show a Russian that you truly understand their deepest workings of their culture and society, just put on "Nu Pogodi!" ("Just You Wait!") or "Bremenskiye Muzykanty" ("The Musicians of Bremen") and nod appreciatively.

Here is a basic guide of the most popular cartoons:

"Nu Pogodi!" is similar to the American "Tom and Jerry," but in this case it is a delinquent, cigarette-smoking wolf chasing after a young (and somewhat goody-two-shoes-ish) rabbit. Occasionally the wolf does something "refined", like dancing ballet, or smoking a pipe, and several times he and the rabbit appear to be friends, but mostly it's just the rabbit outwitting the wolf.

"Troie iz Prostokvashino" ("Three from Prostokvashino") usually refers to a series of three cartoons -- "Three from Prostokvashino", "Summer vacation in Prostokvashino" and "Winter in Prostokvashino", Prostokvashino being a little village. All of the cartoons are about a boy called Uncle Fyodor ("uncle" because he is so independent and mature), a sarcastic cat called Matroskin, and a somewhat naive dog named Sharik. The boy is fond of running away from his pet-disliking parents to live in the village with the dog and the cat. ("So much for maturity!" you might say, but you are wrong! You see, in Russia, people run away from our parents routinely, just to prove their maturity -- it is a well known ritual. As is shooting lasers from the eyes.)

"Bremenskiye Muzykanty" ("The Musicians of Bremen") is the animated take on the Grimms' fairy tale, but with better music.

"Snezhnaya Koroleva" ("The Snow Queen") is a classic -- even American libraries have it, occasionally (I don't know about British or Australian ones, I've never been there). Apparently, Miyazaki (of Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro, etc.) was quite influenced by the style. It is based on Hans Christian Andersen's story with the same title, and follows the storyline fairly accurately -- a girl, Gerda, and a boy, Kay, are best friends; shards from the Snow Queen's mirror strike him in the eye and heart, making him mean and cold, and eventually the Snow Queen comes and takes him with her to her Northern palace. Gerda, come spring, sets out to find him, helped on the way by some crows and a robber's daughter. You get the general gist. It is quite the classic.

Other cartoons worth looking up: Cheburashka, Adventures of Buratino, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Investigations Held by Kolobki, The Hedgehog in Fog, and the Little Humpbacked Horse.