What is the best food to eat while you are on a visit to Russia? I expect is a question constantly on everybody’s lips.
Perhaps it’s the cabbagey beetroot soup borscht? Beef stroganoff? Blini and caviar? Chicken kiev?
Or does everyone just drink vodka for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
And there is always the ambitious combination of pizza and sushi we wrote about earlier.
One of the most ubiquitous Russian dishes you’ve probably never heard of is pelmeni. You’ve probably never heard of it because it generally gets translated a ‘dumplings’ which doesn’t sound very appetising. Although in fact they are much more like ravioli.
Or the Polish pierogi, except that the difference between pierogi and pelmeni is that instead of boiling and frying them, you just boil them. The pelmeni dough is also thinner, each individual pelmen is smaller, and the filling is usually raw, and minced meat based, before you cook it.
It’s a convenience food, but a convenience food which originated in Siberia (possibly by way of China), where it is quite easy to keep a little bag of pastry encased meat balls frozen while you schlep through the forest looking for something to kill and turn back into more pelmeni. The name may, in fact, come from one of the indigenous Siberian languages, and in its original form sounded like ‘dough ears’. And they do look rather like pasty looking severed ears, all ready to eat.
Tasty ears though. Mmmmmmmmm.
Pelmeni are cheap and sold in every kind of food shop in Russia. All you have to do at home is pull a bag out of the freezer and dump them straight in boiling hot water for 15 minutes, drain them and add sour cream, and maybe a knob of butter. Some people like to serve them with a lot of the broth produced by the cooking process too. And Papa will probably sprinkle over dill if Mama isn’t there to stop him.
Of course, homemade pelmeni are a thing, but it’s a lot like making your own sausages. A lot more bother than is really worth it when the packet from Sainsbury’s is so close and so tasty. The only time Mama and Papa ever did it was when their supply dried up in the UK. It was fun, but took a lot of kitchen space, time and everyone got covered in flour. And then we’d polished the results of all our labours off within a week or so.
We do have a handy pelmeni making implement though. Somewhere. Shame Mama doesn’t know where it is right now as it would make a fabulously obscure picture for your next pub quiz.
Anyway, now we are in Moscow, we eat them fairly regularly for tea.
So you might be wondering why we would bother going to a restaurant which specialises in pelmeni recently. It’s not like Mama spends a lot of her time sampling the local foodie restaurant scene. Couldn’t she have chosen something a bit more exotic when she had the chance?
Ah but you see, this restaurant chain, Lepim i Varim (‘mould and boil’), touted as the best pelmeni restaurant in Moscow, also consistently tops Trip Advisor’s rankings for all restaurants and cafes in Moscow. Someone as curious as Mama can’t but want to find out why, given that the place is actually within her price range, otherwise known as ‘not much more expensive than McDonald’s’.
Which is particularly true as children under seven (that’s me!) eat for free. The children’s menu is a bit abbreviated and the portions are smaller, but since what I wanted anyway were the classic Siberian pork and beef pelmeni, and I could only eat five of the six in my bowl, Mama calls that a win. Everyone else just gets free bread and sweeties. You do have to pay for coffee though.
Of course, the Lepim i Varim menu goes a bit further than just your basic meat mix. You can get lamb, crab, salmon, mashed potato, beef and mushroom, cottage cheese, chicken or cherry filled ones, to name a few of the options, all with their own differently shaped or coloured dough surround. Technically, this variety would make some of the offerings vareniki rather than pelmeni, but you can go too far in trying to distinguish between the all the variations of stuffed dough pockets in my opinion.
We added to my choice the lamb and coriander pelmeni, which Mama highly recommends, and the ones with mushrooms in, because Mama, inexplicably, really likes mushrooms. Next time she thinks we should go for the potato ones because they come with crispy onions. Or the cheese ones. Or the salmon. Or perhaps… I think we might be returning to Lepim i Varim regularly.
To add a further twist you can choose to add not only the traditional sour cream, but all sorts of other sauces and a salad accompaniment from the display case next to the counter. They also offer cold drinks here too, or you can order tea, coffee or broth with you pelmeni.
Yes, Lepim i Varim is an order at the counter and wait till they call your name sort of place. In compensation, my Hungry Big Brother was very amused by the names of the dishes that were yelled out, which are slightly whimsical in nature: ‘say “cheeeeeeese”‘ (cheese), or ‘rich inner world’ (offal) anyone? And if the servers are feeling particularly gung-ho they might give an amusing twist to the customer’s name they are calling too.
Other items on offer include soup. Borscht! Or for my Hungry Big Brother, chicken noodle soup.
In fact, there was even a bar at one end of the restaurant Mama took us to at Prospect Mira. I have no idea if there is a bar in every Lepim i Varim, but I daresay this mix of hearty uncomplicated food, the easy going atmoshpere, the comfortable seating, the very reasonable prices, the welcoming attitude towards young children, the easily available booze and the free bread contributed to the mix of families and people in their teens and twenties who were occupying the tables when we were there.
Other attractions include the retro styling, complete with obligatory Soviet pot plants, and the opportunity to watch some of Lepim i Varim’s expert pelmeni makers at work through the glass wall into the kitchen.
Big up to the ladies at the Prospect Mira branch for their good-humoured tolerance of Mama sashaying back and forth in front of them taking All The Pictures. We never put up with that sort of behaviour.
Clearly if you are in Moscow you have to eat pelmeni and Lapim i Varim is a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow you can trust to provide you with a good introduction to this typical Russian food. Three locations in the capital and one in Tula and counting!
Address: We went to Prospect Mira 26/1, Moscow, 129090. Metro: Prospect Mira (brown and orange lines). There is also one in the central location of Stoleshnikov Pereulok 9/1, Moscow, 107031. Metro: between Okhotny Ryad/ Tverskaya/Ploshard Revolutsii (red/ green/ dark blue lines) or Kusnetsky Most (purple line). And another at Leninskaya Sloboda, 26, StrEAT in Roomer, Moscow, 115280. Metro: Avtozovodskaya (green line).
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