Nikita

Interview by John Harrison

Claudia Bianconi was born in Belgium, from Italian family, and has been an expat most of her life. Nikita, her latest literary self, appeared shortly after her arrival.

I met Nikita, I mean Claudia in a café in Moscow in June, and was impressed by the way that she talked about Nikita.
Claudia explained… “Nikita is an international observer of the Russian culture and habits and life. Nikita tries to look at what is happening here without prejudice, showing full respect; Nikita picks up on the differences that there are in this world. But instead of dwelling on the differences, she tries to find affinities with other cultures that she has been living in. So basically Nikita is trying to bring more tolerance and understanding between cultures.”

“Is Nikita an observer, or does she live here and have an opinion, after all, she has a Russian name?” I asked. “Nikita has an opinion after all and this is usually showed in the Moral of the articles. Nikita was born in Moscow as a Russian pen name, but quickly became a character with its own personality, thoughts and beliefs. The articles show in a witty and humorous way the different timing of historical recurrences thus both Expat and Russian share the same interest and amusement in reading them.”
Nikita, alias Claudia Bianconi, lives in Moscow and writes about all things that happen in Moscow and with Russians. She writes in English, Russian and Italian. You can find her writings on: http://by-nikita.com

Here is what Nikita has been up to recently:

Russian Cuisine: where East meets West by Nikita, 2014

I had been in Moscow for just a few days, when I received an invitation for dinner at a Russian restaurant. A “Russian” restaurant? Why the need for clarification? It is uncommon to say I am having dinner at an “Italian” restaurant when I am in Rome.

The reason I learnt was that in Moscow there are, by tradition, countless restaurants from the countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Uzbeks, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, and so forth. How exciting. Sitting at the table I looked to my new acquaintances hoping upon hope that one of them would order for me, since I was facing a menu packed full of dishes written in Cyrillic – (I may be a quick learner but the two day Cyrillic course was beyond me). Who would have thought that Russian cuisine was so rich? The lady next to me noted my dismay and told me “As you can see, there are sup, (soups), such as Sci, made with cabbage and bits of meat, the Borsch, made from beetroot, the Ukha, with fish. Then there are different types of Russian salads”. Here my focus increased, and I thought, ‘isn’t the Russian salad by definition a dish of your own choosing where you put everything and the opposite of everything, and blend into a mayonnaise?’ I discovered that at the base of the “Russian” Russian salads are always more or less the same vegetables, the key variable sitting in the type of meat or fish, which reminds me of an old English proverb – “you can never have too many salads.” Well, I actually made that up but I’m sure you agree it should be an old proverb. The most famous Russian salad is the Olivie’ which takes its name after Lucien Olivier, the acclaimed Belgian chef, who composed it in 1860 in Moscow. Maybe a similar thing happened to the Earl of Sandwich, that is, to name bits of bread after himself. Then there is the Mimosa, with salmon, and the Shuba, commonly called “herring under fur coat salad”, because of the grated beetroots that cover it all – obviously. The latter, in addition to the herring, presents ingredients such as potatoes and red beets, in short, a main classic dish of Swedish and German cuisine: the Heringssalat. Continuing west, we “return” to Belgium where we visit Malmedy where Russian salad with herrings is consumed for carnival.

Malmedy, in the province of Liege, was an outpost of the Kingdom of Prussia, which was extended eastwards up to Königsberg (Kaliningrad), now Russian territory. My new friend suggested that I try the Pelmeni. When I saw the dish that had been placed in front of me I thought I had ordered a bowl of Wonton, Chinese tortellini. In fact, Pelmeni find their roots in Siberia as a reworking of Wonton. Despite the mixed filling ofbeef and pork, I tentatively try them but it is not the memory of Chinese cuisine that emerges, but the flavor of the Germany’s monumental ravioli – the Maultauschen possibly due to the type of spices. Other variants of these dumplings, are Vareniki, of Ukrainian origin and Polish Pierogi. All of these are themselves cousins of the Manti, steamed ravioli, and not boiled in broth like the Pelmeni, which are found in Turkish, Kazakh, Nepalese, Tibetan, Uzbek, Chinese, Korean and Japanese cuisine. According to some theories the Manti may have origins in the Middle East and had reached East Asia via the Silk Road, and not vice versa. Maybe Marco Polo took a few with him during his legendary journey of the 14th Century? In Russia today, Italian machines are often used to produce these tortellini, cappelletti, ravioli, agnolotti, of Russian, Asian or Italian origin. The lion’s share, however, is the incontournable, inescapable Smetana, which may be translated as sour cream. “Inescapable,” (or indispensable), because it seems to appear everywhere from appetizers to desserts. It is eaten with salad, especially tomatoes and cucumbers, with Borsch, with Pelmeni, with the Stroganoff, pieces of beef in a sauce, with Blinis (pancakes) and Syrniki, fritter dessert with Tvorog, cottage cheese. The Smetana can be found, with different percentages of acidity, in other Central and Eastern Countries, across North Europe and in the United States. Russians have a certain propensity to drink. Indeed they drink a lot of tea, maybe even more than the English who are famed for it. The origin of Russian tea is possibly Chinese, seen that in Russia it is called chai and Chinese cha, but in India it is chai again and even in England it is known in slang as char. Amazing. Long before Nikita, the English language had caught these food “affinities” and found precisely generic terms such as dumpling, porridge, pancake, sour cream, cottage cheese but it is commonplace for all these dishes and products to be characterized by local variations that make them exquisitely and unequivocally Russian.Our dinner comes to an end; we have neglected many pages of the menu, many Pirozhki, Pirog, (pies), but I have many more days in Moscow ahead of me. I can pace myself.