On the southern and eastern shores of Lake Baikal is the Republic of Buryatia, one of the subjects of the Russian Federation. The Buryat people are closely related to Mongolians, so much so that Mongolians refer to Buryats as Russian-Mongolians. Buryatia has its own distinct language, culture, and history, distinct from other nearby tribes and Mongolia. While the culture and history surrounding Buryatia are fascinating, my favorite aspect of Buryat culture in our two-week escapade there was a little dumpling full of meat: the buuza.
The buuza (sounds like booza) is not a difficult food to make, nor does it consist of exotic or numerous ingredients. It is made of ground meat, traditionally pork, diced onions, salt, and pepper, all wrapped in a thin layer of dough with a little water inside. The slight difficulty in preparation comes from folding the dough. Whether or not the attractive folds falling diagonally away from the top are necessary is another question, but the whole at the top is important for even cooking and the special way you eat it. To cook the buuzy (transliteration is hard with plural Russian), it is best to steam them, given that boiling foils the whole purpose of preparation and baking wouldn’t cook it properly.
So, we come to the eating of the delicious dumplings. This is no easy task. First, one must grasp the small, slippery dumpling with both hands, holding it at a slight downward angle. Then, you must bite a small drinking hole in the bottom edge of the buuza—remember the water in the ingredient list? The water helps the meat produce a little more juice, and the dough surrounding the meat is loose to create almost a miniature bowl from which to drink. And so, before biting into the meat, you must drink all the juice from the hole you just made. The juice warms your mouth, washing over your tongue with all the warmth of hot chocolate on a cold day and the taste of a celebratory dinner. It entices your taste buds into seeking real meat, making the first real bite into the dumpling all the more satisfying.
The buuza is not a complicated dish, nor is it one of complex flavors and gourmet sauces. But it is delicious. And this simple truth describes most of Russian cuisine in my opinion. Last term I took a class on Russian cooking, and while Soviet food is marked by a lack of ingredients and improvising based on what was available, Russian cuisine more broadly has a lot to recommend it. A plethora of soups that are both delicious and simple, pies that can be complicated beyond measure or just be a pile of cabbage inside bread, and little baked pirozhki with almost whatever you want hidden inside. Russian cuisine is not generally considered high-brow, most high end restaurants in the US are Italian, or French, or steak houses, and the quintessential Russian home cooking restaurant Teremok only has one store in the entirety of the US. But the more I eat Russian cuisine, the more I feel that these dishes all have the same feel of homemade cooking. We all have that memory of the old family recipe we ate as a kid. I can’t help but recall Anton Ego’s sudden flashback to eating ratatouille as a child in Pixar’s Ratatouille as being a perfect representation of this. Food is not always about exploring eccentric flavor combinations. Sometimes food is more about the company around the table, the satisfying of hunger, and simply tasting good. Buuzy are simple, tasty, and filling, and frankly are a good enough reason on their own to trek to Siberia.