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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tales of Siberia's Little Dumpling

Like every other cuisine in the world, Russian fare includes food for the rich and food for the masses. There was caviar and beef Stroganov for the tsars, and borshch and pirozhki for the peasants.


While these Russian favorites, both mighty and lowly, have taken their place on the international table, another much-loved Slavic specialty is less known -- the humble but filling pelmeni, a sort of Russian ravioli.


The meat-filled dumplings hail from Siberia and have fed Russians for centuries. For many Soviet citizens the doughy delights provided, if not a square meal, at least a full stomach at pelmennaya eateries, pelmeni bars that catered to hungry proletarians.


Though the boiled dumpling is not exactly gourmet fare, Russians proudly proclaim that, if prepared from scratch the right way, the making of a perfect pelmeni is an art. Most Russians scoff at the ready-made variety, generally considering them inedible, remembering with a shudder that factory workers on the pelmeni assembly line have been known to add alien substances to very low grade meat to increase production.


"You can't call them pelmeni," Zinaida Lantsova said of the prefab version. "They are completely without spices -- like the government makes things, completely tasteless."


The secret to good pelmeni is equal amounts of beef and pork and plenty of pepper, said Lantsova, who is a native of Chita, east of Siberia's Lake Baikal. And the dough has to be right -- flour, water and egg -- no fat.


Lantsova, a retired bookkeeper who is in her 60's, remembers childhood winters with days when the entire family would assemble pelmeni, which were then put in cloth bags and frozen outside at 40 below.


Lantsova, who makes pelmeni for special occasions such as her granddaughters' birthdays, uses her refrigerator freezer now but eschews the modern pelmeni-making devices for her own two hands. "It takes longer, but they're prettier."


The true Siberian way to eat pelmeni is topped with vinegar, she said, although Russians also eat the hefty pasta with a generous dollop of smetana, or sour cream, as well as an equally generous dash of salt and a small bouquet of parsley sprigs. Some prefer to douse the dumplings with the all-purpose modern-day topping -- ketchup -- or a mixture of smetana and ketchup.


Now that the weather is frigid, ready-made pelmeni are in plentiful supply around Moscow. Averaging 6,000 rubles ($1.50) per kilogram in Russian food stores, pelmeni are also available in some foreign supermarkets. And there is always the corner pelmennaya, which for about 3,000 rubles supplies a moderate portion of the dumplings and a glass of smetana.


But careful here -- the pelmennaya, as well as pelmeni bought in Russian stores or from the backs of trucks that appear occasionally in Moscow neighborhoods, have been reported to make more than one foreigner sick.


An unusual version of pelmeni is to be found at the Peking Kulinaria, around the corner from the main entrance of Peking Hotel. Perhaps a confused attempt at Chinese dim sum, the Peking pelmeni manages to taste vaguely oriental when dunked in a combination of soy sauce and sesame oil.


Best of all, try to make pelmeni yourself -- or adopt a Siberian grandmother.