One Steamy Thanksgiving – Russian Dim Sum

Paul Goncharoff

Normally my opinion pieces stick close to what I am involved with professionally, i.e., business and related matters inside Russia. This time, with Thanksgiving just past I wanted to share how change can define national and cultural character even in the simplest holiday celebration. Food, its preparation and presentation is a good indicator of how cultures shift and change – a gastronomic roadmap.

Long before Europeans settled in North America, festivals of thanks and celebrations of harvest took place in Europe in the months of October and November. The very first Thanksgiving celebration in North America took place in 1578 in Canada.In Russia a similar holiday exists called ‘Обжинки’, or Obzhynki; a Slavic harvest festival. In pre-Christian times, the feast usually fell on or after the autumn equinox following the end of the harvest season.

The feast was initially associated with the pagan Slavic cult of plants, trees and agriculture. While there are many regional varieties and traditions, most have some aspects in common. The celebration of plenty through food and good company.

My wife Lena and I were invited this past holiday weekend to the home of a young millennial Russian couple who with the exception of smoking cigarettes with pleasure, lead an extraordinarily healthy lifestyle. She is a fitness fanatic, and he is into bodybuilding (without steroids), and both refuse to indulge in fried anything.I was already resignedly prepared confront some raw vegetable barrage, a smorgasbord of no-doubt healthy but tasteless chow which might inspire one to suicidal thoughts from bland boredom. Such was thankfully not the case, and with true Russian hospitality and grace, we had a post-Thanksgiving dinner that was unexpected and entirely delicious – all steamed!

The main dish or the ‘Turkey’ of the evening was very originally named ‘steamed balls’, and in my opinion looked like some Russified dim sum without a wrapper. Seems they first tried it in Novosibirsk at the home of a friend who owns a boisterous chicken farm. The steamed balls were delicious, so much so that I badgered them both for the detailed recipe for this piece:

  1. Large onions – 3
  2. Ground Chicken breasts – 2 kg. (Most Russian meat shops have this at about 280 rubles a kilo).
  3. Salty crackers – one package, about 190 grams.
  4. Eggs – 2
  5. Hot pepper or Sriracha – 2 tablespoons.
  6. Fresh chopped Dill – a bunch without stems.

Preparation time is about 10 minutes. Cooking time 25 minutes. Chop the onions roughly, place them in a tall container (1-liter size), add the eggs, pepper, dill and any other spices you might like (toasted sesame oil adds character), then with an electric mixing wand blend to a slightly lumpy liquid (about 10 – 15 seconds). In a large bowl, toss in the crackers, crunch them with your hands until they look something like the size of cornflakes. Add the chicken and the liquefied eggy onions; thoroughly mix it up with your (clean) hands.Take a tablespoon and scoop out a bit of the mix into your palm, tossing from hand to hand making it into a ball. Place it directly into the steamer, repeat until the mix is finished. They had a two-level steamer, and this fit about 20 balls. Steaming time is about 25 minutes, timed from when the water is actively boiling. When the time is up, take them out and repeat with the rest of the mix. Salt as needed to taste.

They had an assortment of dipping sauces to enhance the steamed balls, everything from basic organic mayonnaise, to a vinegar/soy sauce/sesame oil dip, even hot mustard. In short, these steamed balls are a canvas, which can be tweaked to meet almost every desire. One recommendation was mixing in a curry powder before steaming or replacing dill with tarragon in the mix.

A word of warning, they told us that they tried this with ground beef, pork, and turkey, but the chicken comes out the best by far.

So, you do not think this was the only treat – they had dry red and white Krasnodar wines (no vodka), steamed sliced yams, traditionally marinated forest mushrooms, inevitable pickles and various veggies like simple steamed broccoli and chopped steamed squash. To top it all off, a thin-crust fresh cranberry/honey pie – an unusual but delicious combination of sweet & sour.

While this is a departure from the usual roast Turkey, or fried kotletki, sautéed spuds and the fatty trimmings plus vodka that the traditional holiday meal offers it was a delicious and festive Russian alternative. What finally sold me on this menu was when I went to bed that night, I did not feel stuffed in the slightest, just warmly satisfied and thankful.