I drafted this post on Sunday, and unfortunately all I gave myself were very brief notes, some words in Russian (in the Cyrillic alphabet), and a transcription of a receipt. Believe it or not, this was not a clear reminder of what I intended to write on Sunday.
My notes began with the following: Hence the quest for tkemali. Also, Russian shopping and how I got to use my IFL 7th grade lessons in reading Cyrillic.
They continued with the following list:
What was I trying to tell myself and my readers?
Well, I do recall that this weekend, I went grocery shopping with a friend in East Portland. I mean outer East Portland, not close-in, like where I live now. Out where I used to live and work.
It all started on Friday, 11/11/11, when two of my co-workers began talking about beef stroganoff. I hadn't had beef stroganoff in years, since my mother used to make it, and come to think of it, I hadn't had Hungarian goulash in years, either, and my mother used to make that, too! By the time I left work on Friday, I wanted both.
My co-worker had been explaining how to make beef stroganoff, beginning with where the packet was at the store.
"Well," she paused, looking at me. "You would probably make it from scratch."
"I might not!" I said, defensively. "I use mixes!"
But then I did go home and make it from scratch, only because the recipe in Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table was so easy. It really, really was. I made it with tempeh and dried mushrooms, because you can bet if I was too tired to go to the store to buy a packet of seasoning, I was too tired to go to the store to buy anything, and I just used what I had. It is basically a brown gravy with some spices that you add sour cream to, and then eat with egg noodles. I made Hungarian goulash last night - my mom's recipe - but also with tempeh - and it is basically a red sauce with spices that you add sour cream to. I am beginning to think anything can be made extra delicious if you just add sour cream to it.
Flipping through Please to the Table on a cold, dark, rainy night, in a warm house, with Regina Spektor singing sporadically in Russian on my stereo, Russian and Balkan and Central Asian recipes started to sound very appealing. Of course, Anya von Bremzen's writing could make anything sound appealing!
That is how the quest for tkemali plums got started. I don't actually need them to make any of the Georgian recipes in Please to the Table; Anya von Bremzen suggests plenty of substitutes. But she also writes that you may be able to find dried plums or "sour plum roll." A trip to the Russian store was overdue, anyway. I was out of $4 caviar.
The Roman Russian Market, at 110th and Division in SE Portland, has changed since my last trip, and seems to be equipped with even less signage in the Roman alphabet, let alone English. Fortunately, I took Russian in middle school. Not very much Russian. Just one quarter of seventh grade. So you can imagine it wasn't much of a language education. From that time, I retained the words, "library," "My name is Sarah," and "ice cream."
In my last year of college (the second time), I started a research project on Cakile, a genus of Brassicaceae, on which much of the most research was conducted during the Cold War by scientists in the Soviet Bloc.
A lot of Russian words are actually cognates--words that sound like English words. But they are just in a different alphabet.
So, my memory of the Cyrillic alphabet was put to the test again. I had it printed out and hung on my wall, next to my desk, while I was working on that project.
When I moved to outer East Portland, where lots of signs are in Russian, that knowledge was put to use again. And this is the case every time I visit the Roman Russian Market, perhaps more than ever on this particular trip. Because even less signs were in English than the last time I'd visited.
At first, it was like learning to read for the first time--sounding things out. But by the time we got to the second store, Imperial Euro Market at 110th and Powell, I was starting to pick out words more quickly. When I lived in that neighborhood, the Imperial Euro Market had as its only identifier a sign that said, "русский магазин." This was actually informative, because those are two more words I can read and remember from seventh grade. They sound like, "Roos-key magazine," but actually mean, "Russian store."
Whenever I see the phrase, "русский магазин," I note the location in my memory as a place where I may someday find tkemali plums, as well as my favorite Bulgarian feta, inexpensive cornichons, a variety of ajvar, double-smoked bacon, kasha, and beautiful cookies.
So, my memory of the Cyrillic alphabet is how I was able to find one of the things on my shopping list, паприка, aka paprika. Soon, I was reading the packets of spices, which are apparently all cognates, like a kid opening Christmas presents. "Car-da-MOM! Cardamom!"
I didn't find tkemali, not this time. But according to my receipt, I did pretty well. My receipt from the Roman Russian Market...well, it may as well be in Cyrllic. It reads as follows:
Taramosalata 8 oz.
Wow, that was informative!
What is potentially sad is that the last two items made perfect sense to me. Ajvar is a delicious red pepper dip, and taramosalata is my favorite $4 caviar.
There is no grand conclusion to this story. I'm still looking for those stupid tkemali. I'm making a chicken and quince dinner tomorrow, assuming I have the time and energy. I'll probably learn how to say "thank you," and "goodbye" to the clerks at the русский магазин.
Until tomorrow, до свидания!