Portraits of Irkutsk

Beloved Potsticker

Siberians have been rolling out the dough for centuries now, creating batch after batch of small dimpled dumplings called pelmeni. Call them Siberian soul food.

Usually filled with ground meat, the little pillows are not just hearty sustenance in a cold climate, but tasty fare for good times with loved ones. “For Siberians, you could say that pelmeni are like a celebration,” said Irkutsk chef Yaroslav Svistunovich, recalling evenings on winter weekends in his youth when his family made pelmeni together: Mom made the dough, his older brother rolled it out, and Yaroslav and his sister ground the meat. “It is a tradition for us. We gathered in the kitchen, made dumplings and talked. And we ate dumplings together after we made them.”
As it turns out, however, the so-called Siberian dumpling was not born in Siberia. William Pokhlyobkin (1923– 2000), a prolific Russian culinary scholar who examined topics ranging from what Lenin ate, to the history of vodka to the wonders of Russian gingerbread, traces the potsticker to the Urals, the dividing line in Russia between Europe and Asia.

According to Pokhlyobkin, the word pelmeni comes from the word pelnyani, which is an amalgam of two words in the ancient Uralic language: pel’,which means “ear” and nyan’, which means “dough.” Among the Permians, as well as among Siberian Tatars, the meat-filled pillows had a ritual meaning, he adds. In her self-published book “Pelmeni: How to have a great day with your friends and cook delicious Russian dumplings,” Anna Pantsireva writes that for these peoples, pelmeni “symbolically embodied the sacrifice of all types of livestock.”

The ear-shaped dumplings appeared on the Russian plate at the end of the 14th or early 15th century, Pokhlyobkin writes, and as settlers pushed east beyond the Urals, they took the potstickers with them.

The frosts of Siberia gave pelmeni a distinctive flavor. “Pelmeni become particularly delicious when they are frozen after preparation,” Pokhlyobkin notes. “Naturally this method was used in Siberia, where freezing was one of the usual forms of preservation of food products. In the process, the taste of the pelmeni dough improves. This is how the name ‘Siberian’ dumpling came to mean the best type of pelmeni.”

Traditionally, families would sit down together and form the dumplings, hundreds at a time, which were then placed on a board to freeze and then stored in bags placed in barrels to protect them from animals. All it took was a boiling pot of water to ready a meal from the frozen stores.

Ultimately, the birthplace of pelmeni may be that great dumpling power, China. “It is highly likely that [the dish] was brought to the ancient Urals (ancient Perm) from the east, from China or the ancient sovereignties of Central Asia, but it developed and became internationally recognized under its Uralian name,” Pokhlyobkin notes.

Though the earliest pelmeni of yesteryear were associated with ritual celebration, today’s pelmeni are the comfort food of everyday, a fast food that can provide quick sustenance to students, professionals, families and tourists alike.

In Irkutsk, which can reasonably be called a dumpling lover’s paradise, pelmeni can be enjoyed in a specialized eatery called a pelmennaya, in cafes that that serve various types of dumplings, in elegant restaurants or at home.

The plump cushions, typically a first course or main dish at lunch or supper, are most often boiled and can be served with or without broth. They can also be baked or fried.
Usually the filling is a mixture of ground beef and ground pork, but lamb, venison, chicken, duck and in centuries past even moose and bear have been used as stuffings. In Siberia, fish also became a traditional filling.

Most often the only accompaniment is a condiment. Sour cream is traditional, but other options range from butter to white vinegar to mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup to a touch of horseradish or various sauces.

Although the popularity of pelmeni has not dimmed through the years, the tradition of making them at home appears to be fading. At the Slata grocery store near the corner of Deputatskaya and Zvereva streets, at least 14 brands of frozen pelmeni are on offer. The various brands echo a nostalgia for home cooking and times past with labels like Едим дома (We eat at home), Добрыня (a reference to an epic knight in the folklore of Rus’) and Пельмени старорусские (Pelmeni of Old Russia). Next to these packages, another brand unabashedly trumpets modern-day convenience – “boil in the bag, no need to stir, they don’t stick together.”

Around the corner at Usolski meat shop No. 27, saleswoman Yulia Bugaenko said the store sells on average 144 kilograms (317 pounds) of their house-brand of pelmeni a day. The store is bustling, with customers usually lined up at the door before opening time. Although the store sells meat and pork cuts, as well as meat already ground for those who want to make their own dough and fill it, the prepared dumplings are a welcome time-saver for many customers.



No matter the brand, the prepared pelmeni are a significant improvement over the polufabrikaty of Soviet times.


Even inveterate cook Galina Efremovna Rozova admits to buying the occasional bag of frozen pelmeni since moving to the city.

Rozova, who lived many years in a village and arrived in Irkutsk five years ago, remembers making her first pelmeni at 18. In the nearly six decades since then, she has put thousands of homemade pelmeni on the table.

The meaty dish sustained those who lived a life of physical labor in the countryside, said Rozova, who, like Svistunovich, described the dumplings, though an everyday staple, as a “celebration.”

The country dumpling of Rozova’s memories has gone upscale at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Irkutsk. There, Svistunovich, the executive chef, has created his own interpretations as part of the Nouvelle Siberian cuisine menu at the Место встречи (Meeting Place) restaurant: Fish Pelmeni with Omul Caviar, Cream and Chamomile Broth; Fish Pelmeni with Apple-Ginger Sauce; Meat Pelmeni with Cedar Nuts; Baked Meat Pelmeni with Mixed Mushrooms and Cheese. Alongside the new flavors are traditional Homemade Meat Pelmeni, with or without broth.

The price is upscale as well: For 17 pelmeni, customers pay 400 rubles (450 for the fish with apple-ginger sauce), as compared to prices at the Lenin street Baikal Love café, where the same serving of pelmeni, also made on the premises, is 120 rubles if the dumplings are filled with meat, 150 if filled with fish.

Svistunovich, 27, began cooking as a boy in Ulan Ude and made his first pot of borscht at 6. He learned how to make pelmeni and other dishes by watching his grandmother, a cafeteria cook. Although he enjoys innovating on the theme of pelmeni, the top selling version at the Marriott – and Svistunovich’s own ideal – is the meaty classic, which he prefers without broth. The chef says the filling should be 70 percent ground beef, 25 percent ground pork, and five percent onion and garlic, with salt and pepper to taste. The dough must be elastic – which is why some recipes add vinegar or vegetable oil, he noted, adding, “The ratio of meat to dough should be, in my view, equal, that is 5 grams of meat to 5 grams of dough. I like the kind of dough that absorbs the flavor of the meat. Sometimes I even like eating the dough more than the actual meat.”

Both professional chef and country cook are doing what they can to keep the made-from-scratch tradition alive. Rozova taught her children to make pelmeni, and now she and her 13-year-old granddaughter make the dumplings together.

When he has children, Svistunovich will be passing on far more than a recipe or two. “For me this is about memories, it’s something emotional…it’s something that unites a family, because you make the pelmeni together, as a family, instead of children in one room on their Smartphones, Mom in the kitchen and Dad somewhere else,” Svistunovich said. “It’s psychologically healthy, making pelmeni.”


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