The culinary traditions of Tatarstan are inextricably linked to the culture and history of the Tatar people, yet they are also of great interest to those who were raised in other backgrounds. The history of Tatarstan cuisine is a tasty epic with its own hero, the charismatic and inquisitive chef Yunus Akhmetzyanov, who has helped to preserve culinary traditions of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Tatar cuisine was strongly influenced by Volga Bulgars, who grew grain crops, as well as Turkic nomadic tribes that adhered to more of a meat and dairy diet. Their typical dishes were made from cooked dough dumplings similar to the Russian pelmeni, or manty, or pies friend in oil. At the time there were no capabilities for baking pies, a method that emerged in Tatar cuisine only later, when Tatars had settled.
The introduction of baked pies marked an interesting development in Tatar cuisine, as pies were increasingly filled with ingredients unusual for Tatars, such as potatoes, which were promoted during the time of Tsar Nicholas I.
Over the course of 150 years, the potato became an integral part of echpochmak, a triangular pie stuffed with potatoes, onions, pepper, and minced meat. Echpochmak is a staple of Tatar cuisine.
Years later, the same rolled-out dough became the starting point for the culinary experiments of Yunus Akhmetzyanov to rebuild and rethink many traditional Tatar recipes, including, for example, belesh.
Belesh looks like a pot with a lid. The biggest of its kind, zur belesh (big belesh) looks like an enormous, elaborately decorated korovai, a stuffed loaf of bread. Rather than cutting the belesh into pieces, its top is cut off, as if removing the lid off a hot pot. Traditionally, hot broth is poured into Tatar meat pies while they cook to keep all of the ingredients juicy and fragrant.
In addition to these classic pies, broths and soups serve as a foundation of Tatar gastronomy. Before the advent of flour, traditional ingredients did not come together on a baking sheet, but rather in a cauldron, a massive pot that, like the sun, became the center of the small nomadic universe.
Nonetheless, the real masterpieces of Tatar culinary art are now dishes made from flour. Visitors to Tatarstan are particularly fond of elesh, a round pie with a patterned rim similar to echpochmak. The stuffing of the elesh is made from poultry meat, complemented with a strong broth.
The favorite sweet treat of Tatar cuisine is chak-chak, airy pieces of dough friend in oil and drenched in a honey syrup to hold everything together. Chak-chak pieces can be large and round, or small sticks. Chak-chak is somewhat similar to kaleve, formed from oblong pieces of dough into a pyramid shape. The dough is so petite, though that the kaleve pyramid melts on the tongue like cotton candy. These pyramids are called “talkysh kaleve,” a dish also invented by Yunus Akhmetzyanov. Friends returning from Kazan often give kaleve as a gift.
Also be sure to try gubadia, a layered pie of rice, sweet raisins, eggs, and kort, a sweet, orange-colored fried curd.
It is impossible to describe the flavors of this diverse cuisine with words alone. Thus, it is strongly recommended that you visit the Chak-Chak Museum in Kazan to get acquainted with the venerable guardians of Tatar culinary traditions. Be prepared that it will take you at least several days to sample the entire spectrum of Tatar dishes.
Every year, February 28, the birthday of Yunus Akhmetzyanov, is celebrated as the Day of Tatar Cuisine. On that day, Kazan turns into a capital of gastronomic tourism.
Bon appetit, or as the Tatars say, “Ashlar temle bulsyn!”