A Chef in Siberia

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I wake up with my phone signalling a message has arrived.  Bleary eyed, I try to focus on the screen to discover Vanya will be going shopping in an hour and I should be heading over to Yana’s apartment to leave with him.  I’m pleased to notice the blisters on my arms are shrinking and I apply the cream to my superblister before bandaging it again.  I make it to Yana’s apartment in plenty of time and we three Australians join Vanya for the expedition.  I’ve decided I will try to cook a chicken Laksa and a Beef Rendang.  Laksa is a coconut milk based spicy noodle soup popular in Malaysia and Singapore, with variations on it enjoyed by people in many surrounding countries; including Australia.  Rendang is a beef curry, slow cooked in coconut milk and different spices; originally from southern Sumatra in Indonesia, but now very popular all around the region.  A good Rendang takes a few hours to cook slowly and at the end the large cubes of meat dissolve like chocolate on your tongue; releasing a cascade of flavours from the spicy juice it has been cooked in.  It is my favourite way to eat beef. I have no idea if it will be possible to make either dish with ingredients I can find here, but I enjoy the idea and challenge of bringing a little piece of South East Asian life into Siberia.

On the way to the market Don asks how Vanya got landed with shopping duty.  He smiles and says,
“She can’t cook so much and I like to.”
We smile, remembering Yana telling us she had mostly been eating a basic stew made from buckwheat since Vanya had been away; now we understand why.  He leads us to an open air market setup in a carpark.  It’s filled with different sized stalls on trestle tables manned by all manner of people selling fruit and vegetables.
“Some people run farms just to sell food here, some people have brought food from their dachas to try and make some extra money”, he explains.
I wander up and down the rows of stalls looking for Kaffir lime leaves, fresh limes, lemongrass, ginger, coriander leaves and some vegetables to add to the Laksa.  I find the coriander and buy a huge bunch from a middle aged woman who mostly seems grateful there’s one less thing to sell before she can go home.  I’m also glad I’d managed to break a thousand rouble note on the way across, giving me the small change I need.  I find some fresh limes, chillies, broccoli, carrot and ginger; but I still can’t find the Kaffir Lime and lemongrass.  Vanya says we have another market to visit, then a good supermarket after that.
We enter a large, single storey building to discover the meat market.  There are benches arranged in a square ‘O’ shape around the inside of the building’s walls, with a second ring of tables separating the centre of the room.  This makes a single pathway around the inside of the building with benches on either side manned by many different family groups.  In the centre ring, laid on wooden tables is an incredible array of freshly butchered meat; beef, mutton, lamb, chicken; all raw, uncovered and unrefrigerated.  Lari and I look at each other and I pause beside her asking,

Lari exits the meat zone

“I don’t think I’ve ever bought meat like this, is it safe?”
She pauses for a moment then says,
“When I lived in Serbia, all the markets were like this.  I figured as long as you wash it and cook it on the day you buy it, it should be fine.”
Thus reassured I decide I’ll be more careful than usual and search for the cut of beef I want.  I finally find the long piece of beef I want and it’s not cut into steaks as you normally buy it in Australia.  It looks very good though and weighs in at the kilo I need.  Happy with the tricky find, I then acquire some chicken thighs for the Laksa.
Vanya then leads me to the spice merchant in the meat market.  I’m overjoyed to find the cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, dry chilli and star anise I’m looking for.  Maybe my crazy plan will actually work!  I was happy to be able to just see the spices in the open in little trays, because I knew Vanya would never be able to translate the names.  After packing all of them into separate small plastic bags, the store holder then puts another blend of spices into a bag and hands it to me.
“Adzhika”, he says by way of explanation and I nod happily with this local addition.
I suddenly turn around and slap my head exclaiming,
“Fish sauce!  I’ll need fish sauce for the Laksa.”
Vanya thinks for a moment and then leads us to a store on the outside edge of tables that has a cold display cabinet filled with seafood.  The family that runs it are definitely from South East Asia somewhere, which is why Vanya brought us here.  Not only do they have fish sauce, they have made it freshly themselves.  I smell it and become very happy again, I’m not a fan of the smell or flavour of fish at all, I don’t really eat seafood, but this sauce in coconut milk curries adds a beautiful touch of flavour.  Don is as amazed to see it as I am and asks what the sauce in the bottle next to it was.
“Adzhika, Fresh.  We make it”, the girl explains in broken English.
Don immediately buys it, this sauce has become a favourite for all of us and the chance for a freshly made version can’t be missed.
“Do you have oyster sauce?”  I ask hopefully.
“No.  But we would like to have some too if you find it”, she says laughing.
We smile, thank them for the fish sauce and head for the supermarket. It’s seeming stranger by the minute to me that I’m in the middle of Siberia and finding ingredients from countries that are a couple of thousand kilometres away. The world is smaller than you think.

Now I only need coconut milk, Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass to complete my ingredient list and I praise the Novosibirsk markets.  Vanya smiles and says these are his favourite markets as he adjusts the small and very full sports bag that he’s brought along for his own shopping.  Don immediately lifts it off his back saying,
“I’ve got that, don’t worry about it.”
Vanya resists, saying,
“Its fine, I can carry it.”
“Nah, you need to be free to help us find the last ingredients.”
Vanya accepts this and happily leads the way.  Lari and I are each carrying bags of meat, fruit, vegetables and spices and are relieved to arrive at the supermarket.  Like most in Russia, there are lockers at the entrance to put our bags inside while we’re inside the shop.  Having stowed everything in a few large lockers, we enter the supermarket to finish the list.  I’m surprised to notice a shelf full of small coconuts in one of the display fridges.  At least I would have a fallback if I can’t find the tinned coconut milk I find easier to use.  I spend a long time scouring the shelves around the shop and finally find both Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass in jars stored above the open freezers.  I’m even more amazed to discover these are from exactly the same manufacturer in Thailand that exports the same jars with the same labels to Australia.  Hello global economy!

That label says "Smak" and Don always wanted to be a Junkie...

I had walked past a granite pestle and mortar on the way in and walk past it again now.  This one is also from Thailand and is the best way to prepare spices and pastes for both the meals I will be cooking today, so I add it to my basket and continue off to try and find the coconut milk.  After getting distracted by finding and acquiring some Jasmine rice, I hover by the open freezer displays again looking at the bags of pelmeni.  They have Ukrainian, Russian, Siberian and Uzbek versions.  They have them with lamb or pork meat and from a few different suppliers.  I’d never seen these tasty morsels before coming to Russia and here was a freezer full of them.  I turn to Lari and ask,
“You reckon we should get some just to keep in the fridge for midnight snacks after vodka sessions?”
She agrees as Don arrives and they grab a random array of bags.  I return to the hunt for coconut milk in tins.  I still can’t find any sign of them, so I ask Vanya if he can ask someone who works here.  A middle aged woman leads us to a shelf with a coconut milk label, but which is devoid of any tins.  There’s desiccated coconut above it, which I grab anyway for the Rendang, but she then hurries off to see if they have some more out the back.  She returns with another woman who explains that they normally do have it, but they’ve just sold out and there won’t be more for another week.  I can make coconut milk from the fresh coconuts and hope for the best.  With that I acquire eight of the small ones I spotted on the way in and the four of us, laden like mules, strike out for Yana and Vanya’s apartment.

Time has gotten away from me and so I set Don to breaking open the coconuts on the balcony and scraping out the meat.  It’s fresh and sweet and I accept I’m meant to make this food today.  Novosibirsk has produced everything with a flourish and now I’m left wondering what our Russian hosts will make of it.  I set to work making the two different spice blends when Yana arrives, turns on a fan to cool the kitchen and then begins hovering in the doorway to watch it happen.  I make the two different pastes and cut up the meat before turning to the coconut pieces Don is producing.  I mash them up and add fresh bottled water until I reach the familiar consistency.  Everything is ready, so I start the Rendang mixture off and the heavy scent of the coconut milk with spices fills the apartment.  Yana and Vanya both enjoy the smell, saying they’d never known anything quite like it.  I leave the meat to cook slowly for the next few hours and ask to use the internet access in Yana’s apartment while I’m waiting.  She sets it up for me and then announces,

“It’s making me hungry, I want something now”.
Vanya looks around and then says,
“How about a sandwich?”
“I think we’ve got some honey if you’ve got bread”, Yana replies happily.
Yana gets excited as Vanya produces some bread and Don finds the honey and starts spreading it on a slice.  He then takes a big bite out of it and smiles at Yana, who pouts deliciously.
“I thought it was for me”
“I know”, Don says with his mouth full.
He hands her some bread and she looks at him chanting,
“Honey, honey, honey”
“Yes, Darling?” he responds.
Vanya giggles and says he’s going to find some of the microbrewed beer from a local shop.  I give some money to Don, who’s going along and ask him to get whatever Vanya thinks the best types are.  Yana also heads off to meet an Italian Couchsurfer at the train station who will stay with her for the next couple of nights.  They all leave as I settle down to a routine of stirring food, chatting with Lari and checking my email and the Couchsurfing website.
Don and Vanya return with five two litre bottles of beer and the fun begins.  By the time Yana appears with Marco, we’re all pretty happy and one of the bottles appears to have evaporated.  Marco joins the group as I return to the kitchen to start the Laksa.   Vanya’s father arrives as I’m finishing the rice and getting the noodles ready for the Laksa.  Fifteen minutes later we all taste the fruits of my labour.  I’m happy with my crazy cooking challenge in the middle of Siberia.  The Rendang turned out exactly as it should and I loved it with a bit of adzhika sauce to bring it up to my level of chilli madness.  Vortex Yulia had been with students all this time and messages us to meet her back in the Old Irish pub for tonight’s Couchsurfing meetup.  Quite a few people arrived today to see the eclipse tomorrow and she is hosting a lot of them.  Her parents and sister have gone on a holiday to the Black Sea and have encouraged her to use the apartment as she likes.  Tomorrow, the night of the eclipse, there will be nine people staying there.  We slowly gather our well fed selves together and manage to join them an hour later after we finish another bottle of the beer.

Yulia finding her crown...

We’re introduced to Ryan, the Irish astronomer working for NASA, and the two Xaviers; a pair of happy French guys in the middle of a world tour. They all want to photograph the Totality.  Lukash the crazy good polish guy is the fourth.  He was born with most of one leg missing and the other with a tiny foot placed a little below the knee.  His left arm is also missing below the elbow.  His mode of transport is a large skateboard with huge wheels fitted to it, allowing him to traverse most terrain.  None of this has the slightest effect on his attitude to life or severely high intelligence.  He speaks at least Polish, English and Russian and is studying chemistry at university.  He’s taking this trip across Russia as much to prove to himself that travel like this is infinitely possible as it is to see the eclipse and experience the Trans-Siberian train journey.  His huge smile greets us as we enter and I enjoy talking and laughing with him most of the night.  He also shares my appetite for the odd glass of beer or small measure of vodka.

Apart from talking to this amazing man, I find myself fielding a question from the group about whether the clouds will be a problem on the day.  I relate a story that had happened to Lari and two other friends of mine in Belgium at a previous total eclipse.  They had found a field to watch it from, but the day was quite overcast and they couldn’t really see the sun at all.  One of them started playing the didgeridoo in the middle of the field and then, as if by divine intervention, the clouds parted to show them Totality and closed again once it was over.  At the time they were sure it was something to do with playing the didgeridoo; that the music had shown them Totality.  There are thousands of stories exactly like this and when I had been working at the weather bureau in Melbourne I remember asking one of the meteorologists about it.  He said these stories are not only true, but expected.  I think it was something to do with cooling caused by the shadow of the sun causing air to move away from the path of Totality.  So if there’s enough breaks in the cloud cover, you are likely to see the moment itself.  It won’t work every time, sometimes there’s just too much cloud cover for the air to move aside.  This phenomenon only fills me with more wonder at the sheer magnificence of the natural world.  Totality must have been even more awe inspiring when you didn’t know what was happening.  I wonder how many religious experiences have been trigged in innocent humans witnessing something so magnificently unexpected.

Our crazy pessimistic mate getting rowdy

“I don’t believe it”, says a Russian man sitting next to me, “I don’t think we will see it tomorrow at all.”
“But the clouds we’ve had for the last couple of days aren’t solid, the effect should work for us”, I point out.
“We’ll see tomorrow then”, he finally concludes, filled with pessimistic doubt.
I nod in agreement.
“No worries mate, we’ll see it”, I say with a smile.
I’m keeping my hopes high on seeing the subject of my pilgrimage.  Everyone is chatting to each other and discussing where to see the eclipse the next day.  Our conclusion is to head for the river and find some open space around it.  At some point I come to realise that the Russian man sitting next to me isn’t a Couchsurfer at all, rather a random stranger who was already sitting at one of the three tables we’re sharing.  I don’t think anyone else seemed to care either as he became a part of the group for the night.
“I’ve got a spot to see it high on a building that’s under construction.  I know the foreman for the site”, he tells us, “but I probably can’t get other people there since it’s already a favour”, he says with a particularly dour frown.
“You’re looking VERY Russian right now!”  I burst out in a moment of wonder.
“What?”
He exclaims as his expression changes back and forward while he’s experimenting with what his face must look like.
“Your face, so dour and stoic.  Like you’ve just been told your whole family has died in a fire and you’re dealing with it.”
“Maybe they have”, he says, returning to an exaggerated dour expression that makes me laugh suddenly.
“I don’t know why that’s funny, but I hope it’s not true.”
His face relaxes to an easy smile.
“No it isn’t.  But you should save your smile for your friends.  Your family.  It’s not for just everyone”, he explains.
I consider that for a while, it’s such an alien idea to me; a smile is for the whole world.  I wish him the best of luck as we settle the bill and filter out into the street.

Hot Lukash Action

On the walk home I tell the cloud parting story to Vortex Yulia, who hadn’t heard it earlier.  She looks thoughtful and says,
“I hope we see it, I want to know why all you crazy people have come to my city just to watch something for a few minutes.  I can’t possibly understand it, it costs so much time and money and it’s for just a few minutes.”
I nod agreement and shrug, there’s no further explanation possible.
“We’ll see it tomorrow.  Then you will understand.”
I think those are the last words I speak before the day of the eclipse.  I’m lost in remembering the two other Totalities I’ve seen, replaying the experience over and over in my mind.  Both of them are still fresh, like a video I can watch whenever I need to, they are burned deep into my mind in a way that can only be removed by my death.  I don’t need to speak anymore; it feels like it would be an unnecessary burden.  A deep calm settles over me.  My last thoughts are the words to Lasciatemi Morire, I’m getting the song ready for tomorrow.  I feel like I’m anchored to this place in space and time and a refreshing, dream filled sleep now conquers me easily. Tomorrow is Totality.

 

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