Pelmeni: Eurasian Pillows of Childhood

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A chilling burst of winds rolls in from the Kazakh Steppe, rattling the thin metal walls of the marketplace. I stride through the maze of crudely disassembled shipping containers that hold clothes, toys, and industrial products. I pause, asking a local in Russian, “Food? Where’s the food?” Expressionless, he points a finger toward the back of the market.

Finally, I have found my destination. It’s the only permanently constructed hut in the complex, and a thick steam billows from a crooked chimney on the roof. Inside, I’m enveloped by warmth. Further steamed by a boiling hot mug of tea, I order a bowl of pelmeni in broth. The dumplings arrive, small white crescent-shaped balls submerged in a cloudy chicken broth with a dill garnish.

I sip, feeling the gentle caress of my babushka’s hands, her wrinkled fingers forming minced beef and pork into a dumpling.

Another bite. Now I’m five years old, in my parents’ kitchen. The floor is dusted by a layer of flour. “This is how you roll the dough,” my mother gently guides me. Such sensations act as a caravan of comfort through treasured memory.

The origin of pelmeni is debated between the far Eastern depths of Siberia and the Ural Mountains. Stemming from the word пельнянь, which means ear bread in the Uralic languages of Central Russia, the dumpling’s etymological source does not align with ingredients available in the region. Flour, ground beef, ground pork, and black pepper were not staples of Uralic cuisine.

More likely, the preparation method arrived from the East, through the vast frozen expanses of Siberia, and adapted from China before that. Hunters and nomads of the region favored the dumplings due to their transportability and nutritional subsistence during winter. A frozen food pre-refrigeration, the dumplings would be made by the hundreds by village families and thrown into the snow for preservation. 

A sack of pelmeni became a convenience food before the Industrial Revolution. Once eaten on a cold winter hunt, pelmeni were later prepared by college students living in cramped dorms, boiling water and throwing in a dozen dumplings to nurture a quintessentially Russian manner.

Although pelmeni are a nomadic dish, the centralized Russified unification of pelmeni didn’t occur until the mid–19th century. At the time, pelmeni were only briefly mentioned in writing, always with an Eastern exoticism, not unlike Central Asian manti or Georgian khinkali. To western city-dwelling Russians, pelmeni were either occasionally brought in by immigrants, or a taste described but never experienced.

The Industrial Revolution connected Russia over the Ural Mountains and, bolstered by a nationalist movement, united local cuisines in the process. Pelmeni became the ideal candidate for nationwide distribution: a dish with roots endemic to Slavic-controlled territory, prepared with only a handful of ingredients and simple to transport. A perfect combination of simplicity and identity to sweep across all of Russian-influenced territory, which was rapidly expanding at the time.

The accelerating factory production of the Soviet Union continued to elevate the humble dumpling in ubiquity. Today it is an ethnically universal food, mass-produced in a factory and shipped out to freezers of both bureaucrats and the proletariat. The conformity of all pelmeni thrust the food onto the central stage of Soviet gastronomy. The boiled dough balls cemented the lack of culinary diversity in Soviet times. In the blunt words of Russian food writer Anya von Bremzen, “Bolsheviks were not into food. [Vladimir] Lenin was not a foodie.”

Frozen, pre-packaged pelmeni became a universally recognized flavor for Soviet children. A processed nostalgia, much like instant ramen or Hamburger Helper in the United States. Even in the post-Soviet landscape, the oddly chewy flavor of the ground beef along with the overly thick frozen dough conjures the environs of a late-night meal in a small Russian apartment. A kitschy flower wallpaper, a small pot bubbling on a ceramic stove. An empty freezer, other than a lone bottle of vodka and a package of pelmeni.

So pervasive were the frozen treats that in the restaurant-devoid Soviet Union, one of the few types of eateries was dedicated to the dumplings. Called Pelmentisu, the fast, lunch-oriented spots would boil the frozen food on-premise, per desired count for the customer. Much like fast food, yet long before the arrival of McDonald’s, pelmeni once again found a foothold in enterprise due to their easily marketable nature.

Concurrent with convenience store pelmeni, the dish remains a domestically prepared staple. Tender, convivial moments in the kitchen blossom alongside the creation of the soft pillows.

It is my first recollection of any food experience. I was young enough that my eyes barely grazed above the counter. My grandma’s firm hands wielded a pin, stretching and rolling the dough on a light dusting of flour. She would place a sheet on a pelmenitsa, a concave mold for the dumplings, and task me with inserting the filling. The key would be to avoid excess, maintaining a sealable ratio of ground beef. I felt a duty in maintaining consistency in each dumpling. A uniformity in preparation that decades later passes down among generations of family. In any setting, pelmeni’s creation requires careful consistency.

Through all of their rampant distribution, pelmeni have been stripped of their cultural origins. Russians, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, and Georgians alike do not consider the food as Russian, or Uralic, or Siberian. It’s a perpetuation of post-Soviet cuisine, neither nationalistic nor a retroactive ode to a fallen empire. The filling can change; occasionally, ground chicken or fish is substituted for beef and pork. Yet the essence of pelmeni remains unchanged, rarely modified to local adaptation.

It’s a universal recollection of a Russian-inflected nurturement, a shared cornerstone of an upbringing. A doughy remembrance of warm childhood, of domestic belonging. A bite into the past, evoking a time when all food felt familiar. When the horizons of cuisine were limited to the preparations of caretakers. When sharing a few dumplings was sharing the love of being fed.

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