The humble pelmeni-like dumpling is something you can find nesting in pretty much every cuisine in the world. From Italian ravioli to Polish pierogis, Japanese gyoza to Tibetan momos: the simple act of wrapping a bit of meat or some vegetables in a pastry circle and then boiling it has caught on in every corner of the globe.
The chilly tundra and taiga of Siberia is no exception: pelmeni – ground beef and pork dumplings – is the Siberian national dish and a local staple that reaches as far as the dinner tables of western Russia across the Ural mountains.
Pelmeni have been around for so long and are so widely disseminated, it’s hard to get a definitive take on their actual origins. The most likely scenario is that the Chinese wonton took a stroll up north over the border and spread like wildfire thanks to its portability, convenience and simplicity of ingredients.
Cooking in the Arctic Circle
The Siberian diet is not generally known for being nutritionally diverse. Around one-fifth of Russian territory falls north of the Arctic Circle, an area where only the skilled and the hardy can eke out their own food on the inhospitable tundra where not even the most resilient trees can grow. There, the sun barely rises in the winter and the average annual temperature is in the 20s.
For indigenous people in this region, meat and fish have always been the main source of sustenance. They are often eaten raw, cut immediately from a just dead or dying animal in order that the flesh be consumed before rigor mortis sets in.
Blood, Milk and Fermenting Stomachs
Fresh blood is another favorite in these parts, with methods of blood letting from the arteries of reindeer and horses expertly developed so that the blood can be drawn without harming the animal at all. Adding milk fresh from the udder to a cup of blood is also considered a delicacy, and is the drink that has given rise to the Russian phrase ‘krov’s molokom’ – literally, blood with milk, when referring to a healthy complexion and ruddy glow of the cheeks.
Subarctic conditions also made it hard to get enough metal together to forge cooking implements, so for the most part, indigenous northern Siberian people cooked on open fires or used stone pots.
A hungry man’s ingenuity in the face of no cooking utensils knows no bounds, a point perfectly illustrated by the Chukchi people of the north of the country who perfected a dish called vilmulimul. Making vilmulimul involves fermenting reindeer blood by pouring it into a stomach, adding liver, kidneys, ears, hooves, as well as a few berries and sorrel, sewing the whole thing up and leaving it to fester until spring when it would be bursting with nutrients and fruit flavor.
Pelmeni – Siberia’s Seminal Frozen Food
Further south in Siberia, food foraging is a little easier. Plant-based ingredients are more common, though still scarce. Flour is probably the most ubiquitous of them all and so gives rise to the possibility of pelmeni aplenty.
The reason pelmeni most likely took off among the hunter communities in Siberia was the sheer convenience of the dish. Once made, they can be frozen and easily stored, as well as easily transported and reinvigorated with nothing more than a simple pot of boiling water. Even today, all around Russia, ready-made pelmeni are easily found in the frozen aisle of supermarkets.
All Hail the Pastry Ears
Pelmeni were most likely christened by the Komi people who live in the Ural area of the country. In Komi, ‘pelnyan’ means ‘pastry ear’, a reference to their shape which we’d prefer to associate with Italian orechiette than a certain scene from Reservoir Dogs. A plate full of severed ears isn’t, after all, our idea of a tempting meal.
And if you thought you loved dumplings, step aside: Siberians’ love of pelmeni is so great, it’s even spilled over into idolatry, as we can see from these examples of pelmeni statues in Izhevsk and Chelyabinsk.
About the Recipe
The ingredients of pelmeni might be pretty simple, but it takes a village to make a batch. At least traditionally, pelmeni-making in Russia is a family affair, with the menfolk as well as children pitching in with the women to roll, cut, fold and pinch the pastry. So if you do have idle hands in need of a job, this could be the perfect moment to wrest them off the Wii and into the kitchen!
The secret to getting a good filling for the pelmeni is varying the meats that go inside. The most traditional combination is a mix of beef and pork, and that is what we have decided to go for in our pelmeni recipe. The salt and onion are important too – not just for flavor, but in the days when the pelmeni had to go the distance of a Siberian hunting trip, they worked well as preservatives.
Prepare Your Ingredients
There is no need to pre-prepare anything when making pelmeni, so you can go ahead and get all your ingredients ready at the same time. You can use a food processor to chop the onions and the garlic to make them nice and fine. Leave them in for longer and add a tablespoon or two of water if you’d like to actually make a puree. Either way is good, and the puree will make for smoother pelmeni.
Meanwhile, prepare your filling by mixing the ground pork and beef together with the chopped onions and garlic. At this point, you can also add the salt and pepper. Mix it all together well.
When the dough is ready, break it up into smaller sections and place them one by one back on your floured surface. Shape them into balls and slowly roll them out flat with a floured rolling pin. Try and maintain an even thickness of the dough as well as the shape of the dough, keeping it circular or rectangular, whichever is easier.
Now fold the circle in half and pinch all the way around the edge of your new semi-circle, sealing the meat in the middle. Once that’s done, bring the two corners of the semi-circle together in the middle and you will magically have your ear shape. At this point, you can gather all the leftover strips of dough and roll them out again.
If you have too many pelmeni at this point, the best way to freeze them is by putting the whole board into the freezer for about half an hour and then transferring the dumplings into a ziploc bag. If you are planning on eating them right away, then put a large pot of water or vegetable stock on the boil along with some salt and bay leaves. Place your pelmeni on a slotted spoon, and insert them gently into the water in batches.
Transfer the hot pelmeni into a dish and add butter as soon as you can, so that it melts well over the dough. Serve with sour cream and, if you’re feeling up to it, a shot of vodka. Warm blood milkshake, optional.
Our Take on the Recipe
What can we say; dumplings are dumplings, and these pelmeni really are of the most simple and straightforward variety. Which is why we really appreciate them. Sometimes it’s good to get back to a basic dish that showcases the taste of just the meat itself without too much other flavor or seasoning.
Having said that, were we to make it again, we might experiment with some extra flavors, particularly herbs. We’d think about adding perhaps some cilantro and chives, and maybe even a handful of finely-chopped green onions into the mix.
The source recipe we used had an excellent formula for the dough, which we found came out with an excellent texture which was both firm and springy – the holy grail of dough-making!
And speaking of holy dough trials, the most difficult part of the process was definitely making the dumplings themselves. It’s a process that takes practice and years on the tundra to perfect, we imagine, but there were some curses that rose up from our kitchen counter as we tore the odd dough circle or overstretched the pouch and spilled the meat, forcing a restart several times during the preparation.
For the dough:
- 1 egg
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup milk
- 3-4 cups flour, sifted
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Extra flour for rolling the dough
For the filling:
- ½ lb ground pork
- ½ lb ground beef
- 3 onions, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp black pepper
For boiling the pelmeni:
- 5 quarts of water or vegetable stock
- 5 bay leaves
- Sour Cream
Step 1: Prepare the dough
- In a large bowl, whisk the egg with the milk, water, oil and salt. Mix well so that the mixture is even.
- Add the flour and continue to mix with a wooden spoon, making sure you don't create any lumps or pockets of flour.
- Work the dough with your hands, kneading it for 5-8 minutes on a well-floured surface. If you have a mixer, set it to knead for the same amount of time.
- Roll the dough into a large ball. Cover it with plastic and leave it in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Step 2: Prepare the meat filling
- Meanwhile, prepare your filling by mixing the ground pork and beef together with the chopped onions and garlic. Add salt and pepper and mix together well.
Step 3: Constructing the pelmeni
- When the dough is ready, break it up into smaller sections and place them one by one back on your floured surface.
- Shape them into balls and slowly roll them out flat with a floured rolling pin. Try and maintain an even thickness of the dough as well as the shape of the dough.
- Take a 1½ -inch round cookie cutter and cut as many circles out of the dough as you can.
- Arrange the dough circles on your floured surface and spoon some of the meat mixture into the bottom half of the shape.
- Fold the circle in half and pinch all the way around the edge of your new semicircle, sealing the meat in the middle.
- Bring the two corners of the semi-circle together in the middle and you will magically have your ear shape.
- Gather all the leftover strips of dough and roll them out again.
Step 4: Boiling the pelmeni
- Put a large pot of water or vegetable stock on the boil along with some salt and bay leaves.
- Place your pelmeni onto a slotted spoon, and insert them gently into the water in batches.
- Cook them for about eight minutes. You'll know they're ready when they rise to the surface of the water.
- Remove them gently, again using the slotted spoon.
Step 5: Serving the pelmeni
- Transfer the hot pelmeni into a dish and add butter as soon as you can, so that it melts well over the little dumplings. Serve with sour cream.