Last week we left you in part one, discovering how my mind went from Pasties in Michigan to Belyashi in Siberia. In part two we’ll explore more of my Siberian memories. We’ll start with our arrival at the dacha and the fun that pursued. Oh, and we’ll take you through the experience of a banya. Finally we’ll finish with a look at the Russian Belyashi (meat hand pie) and provide a link to jump you to the recipe.
So if you enjoyed the story of the trip to the Dacha in part one of Siberian Memories of a Dacha, Banya & Russian Belyashi, then I think part two is for you. So come on in and join us for part two.
FYI: A quick disclaimer/apology for the quality of the images in this post. They were taken ten years ago with a inexpensive low resolution digital camera.
Our dacha (image above) for that weekend some ten years ago was located deep in the Siberian mountains in the middle of a birch forest. As promised, there will be stories of fine Siberian foods, naked men in the banya, jumping into the icy water of the nearby streams, singing, dancing and so much more. We’ll even give you a link to jump you over to the Belyashi or Piroshki recipe. In the recipe we’ll show you how to make the famous Russian hand pie step by step. Getting hungry and just want to cook-up some belyashi, then just jump on over.
Banya, what is it? Simply put, it’s a sauna. A lovely place to enjoy a dry or wet (steam bath) heat therapy. It can be a small room in one’s home, a public bath house of some size or an attached small house dedicated to the experience of the banya. The banya usually has at least three room, an entry, a washing and a steam room. They are usually simply constructed of wood.
The Russian banya’s origin is purported to have a dark and vengeful beginning, dating back to 950 AD. Seems that back then, Princess Olga’s husband (Prince Igor) went and got himself killed by the Drevlians. She was set to revenge the murder, so when the leader of the of the Drevlians contacted the Princess asking for her hand in marriage, she said come on over and we’ll chat about it. It’s said that upon the Drevlians leader’s arrival, the Princess instructed them to go into the heated bath and clean up prior to discussing the marriage. The leader and his entourage gladly entered the warm heated bath and began to clean up. At this point the Princess ordered her men to close the doors to the bath and set it on fire. All inside the banya were burned alive.
Upon arrival, we were all a bit exhausted from the journey, so what does one do? Mind you, I was thinking we could toss back a few cold Korona Svetloe beers, maybe chased with a shot (or two) of chilled Talka vodka. But, nope. No food or alcohol prior to the evening banya. Instead, we unloaded tons of food, even more drink (have I mentioned that Siberians can really drink) and our bags into the Dacha. Then it’s off to the banya to begin my initiation into the Siberian sauna tradition.
Our banya (above) was built adjacent to the dacha and was bordered by a very cold stream. It was rustic as well as being quite comfortable.
Indulging in a Siberian banya is steeped in tradition. First, the banya must be heated prior to entering the sauna. This also heats up that fire breathing tank you see above. As you can see Sasha (my host), is meticulously preparing the wood to build the perfect fire in the boiler. The banya is heated up so the bathers can work up a heavy sweet prior to going into the sauna. This is believed to protect one’s skin from the heat. The temperature in the sauna is quite hot, reaching about 199°F (93°C). The sauna itself has two rows of benches for setting, laying or passing out on. I must tell you, it was hot and that way before ever going into the sauna.
Once we were dripping with sweat, we went outside and to cool off while enjoying some cool water. I’m thinking this wasn’t bad. But then, round one began. We went back in and entered the sauna which was like walking into hell. We set on small pads (oh, did I mention we were in the buff. Yep, the full Monty) and Sasha carefully splashed the eucalyptus infused water on the red-hot stones, producing and aromatic steam. Then came the banny venik or bath broom (below).
In this area of Siberia, the bath brooms are usually made from young branches of the birch, which are harvested in the spring. They are then hung to dry. Before, going in the sauna, the bath brooms are hung in a steam chamber to soften them.
Once the steam is going well, you swish the broom through the air to distribute the steam. Then comes the fun part, you thrash your back and chest as that’s supposed to sooth you. It’s at this point that my sauna mates began to thrash my back somewhat jubilantly. At least I thought so. I later accused them of trying to thrash all their Cold War frustrations out on this poor American. But they assured me it was the same for all and indeed I would have my turn at thrashing them as well. I made it out of this session extremely hot, relaxed and a kilo or two lighter. As you can see above I was wearing the required felt hat. After this first Sauna, I received a proper Siberian banya message. Then a brief rest and I thought, now we can have that beer, eat and sleep. Nope, not to be, back in the sauna for session two. But this time, I got to thrash them. It was now around nine in the evening and they were ready for round three. Not me, I was done and ready for sleep. Well, the guys agreed to call it at two rounds in the sauna and I’m thinking to heck with beer and food, hello bed. Nope, time to cool off. Cooling off is jumping into the ice-cold mountain stream that runs alongside of the banya. Well, if I thought I was hot earlier, I was twice as cold and wide awake. Out of the water back in the banya for a quick drying off and off to the party.
Dinner at the dacha
We had copious amount of alcohol of all types, including beer, vodka, wine and Russian brandy. As for the food, yum. I wish I could remember the name of every dish we had. As the dacha had limited cooking facilities, most of the meals were prepared in the morning prior to us leaving or picked-up fresh along the way. The hero of the meal was the smoked trout we picked up at a smokehouse coming up the mountain. Along with this fine fish we had salads of all types, cold meats, sausages and raw veggies. There was dark Russian rye bread, yak butter, cheeses and fruit. And, of course, the star of this post, belyashi.
After dinner came more drinking and entertainment, Siberian style. The ladies danced to traditional Siberian folk song (sorry but no image of that). Karaoke sing along, vodka toasts and a head standing contest. Prof. POLYAKOV, then in his sixties, won without a serious challenge. As night began to fade to morning we had a final night-cap and off to bed. I must say the combination of the cool mountain air, drink and the sauna produced a memorable sleep. Well, we were there another day and night and it was a grand time the last night was so much fun, I didn’t remember to take many pictures, except the ones below.
What a lovely example of a classic before the party and after the party pictures.
So thus, ends this food story and to think, all of this for the sake of a common but tasty meat hand pie.
Have you a meat hand pie that’s famous to your area or culture. Let us know in the comment section below.
The Russian Belyashi
Thanks so much for taking time to join me in this food journey from my past.
Coming up next, a post about a very special Swedish Jul (Christmas) celebration.