A rise of travel food shows is indicative of a renewed appreciation for culinary experiences to help visitors get in touch with a local culture. One day is not enough to treat yourself to a whole range of flavors and my Russian palette knew what to expect from the culinary scene of Minsk. Russians love the exquisite quality of the Belarusian food produce. People with a vague sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union believe that it is due to higher production standards dating back to this era -in Belarus they seem to be complied with up to this day. Along with the search for linguistic and architectural symbolism, I started craving for a more tangible piece of the Belarusian national identity, i.e., potato pancakes (драники).
Even though this is not distinctively foreign food (it is a popular dish back home), in Russia we think of it as a staple of the Belarusian cuisine. This was why I was hoping to find these potato pancakes distinctively tastier here, in their homeland. I guess in that part of the former Soviet Union, or even the whole Eastern Europe for that matter, we all love our potatoes. But it is incredible how they offer enough culinary space for our distinct national identities. For a taste of Belarusian potato pancakes I decided to go to a traditional local restaurant in Independence Avenue that I had chosen based on the largely positive reviews.
Its interior was adorned with traditional towels so I could enjoy another display of the country’s national identity. The waiters were also wearing national costumes. This place might have seemed like a tourist trap, but I could feel a genuine touch of our Slavic hospitality here. I had my драники served with мачанка(honestly I’d never heard this word before), which is a traditional Belarusian stew made with meat. On this somewhat chilly day pork ribs would be perfect for keeping me warm. I decided to wash the calorie-rich dish down with a glass of local beer. I remember tasting one of the best beers in my life here in Minsk six years ago. I have been to quite a few places since but very few beers I’ve had matched up (so far). When my perfectly Instagrammable dish arrived, I had to do what actually hurdles mindfulness – I took multiple photos of my meal to send home and posted one on my Instagram. I was on my own so the only way for me to share my excitement with a larger world was to disconnect from the one around. I couldn’t wait to give the food a try – my lunch was beautifully filling and tasty. The Belarusian national identity seemed more distinct now with those deliciously and uniquely made potatoes! The beer was OK, but I guess at that particular moment I didn’t feel like having another glass.
My elaborate architectural walk left me no time for a proper dinner – I could have tried the famous potato pancakes at another restaurant as virtually every place had them on the menu. All I had time for was to grab a coffee at a lovely place in Independence Avenue. I didn’t see as many coffee shops as I had expected in a place so close to the European Union, though. For my chocolate fix I popped out into a confectionery shop selling the produce by the Kommunarka Factory, one of the largest manufacturers of confectionery in Belarus. My Mum’s internship in Minsk was also in the food industry, but it was a bread-manufacturing enterprise. The sensual smell of freshly made chocolate made me imagine I was up for an ultimate Willy Wonka experience. I got a few bars for my family members and myself.
There was also a coffee shop here and it looked very busy and somewhat chaotic. I was hoping to sit at one of these tables overlooking the night lights of Independence Avenue and reminisce about leisurely coffee breaks on my European travels as well as numerous conversations over a steaming cup with fascinating people on the other side of the Atlantic. Also, it would be another pensive moment enjoying being alone together and contemplate our own thoughts and ideas with some other solo visitors. But it wasn’t meant to happen as before I knew it, the last vacant table got occupied. I was still clinging to the hope of grabbing a seat while I was making my order of ginger hot chocolate and an éclair. While I was watching my hot chocolate being made, I was thinking of Christmas gingerbread till I could smell actual ginger being added to the mix. It jerked me back to my first cold days in the U.S. when a roommate suggested me eating ginger for my cold. Even though I come from a country which is known for extremely cold temperatures, up until then I hadn’t been aware of the medicinal properties of ginger. But while on the other side of the Atlantic, whenever I had similar symptoms, I forced myself to have some ginger tea. Here in Minsk my coffee experience was somewhat rushed as I gulped my steaming cup standing, which I wasn’t sure was completely acceptable. It would have certainly been in numerous coffee shops in the Penn Station area in NYC where I had my long-awaited morning coffees to give me energy after a commune into the City. For my cheese fix I checked out an airport duty-free store where I got some imported cheese from France, Poland and Lithuania at a very reasonable price – I think a few Russians lining up behind me did as well. As I had some time to kill before boarding, I had my final taste of the Belarusian food at an airport café. I had a sandwich with some locally made mozzarella that I washed down with another glass of beer. I grabbed a few bottles to bring back home as well. I spent my final hour in Belarus mindfully enjoying my food and beer and toasting the Slavic food and hospitality!
Well, on this trip to Minsk I have accomplished my goals of contemplating the language(s), architecture and food, which I hope might give my travel writing a new direction. What I did fail though was to describe my adventures on a reasonable amount of pages – sorry about that! I guess at least it shows how one doesn’t have to go too far or be away for too long to come back home with a sizeable story to tell. Of course, it’s much more interesting to explore somewhere at least indistinctly different from home. The feeling of landing back in your bed after a day abroad is too surreal to miss out on!
As COVID-19 restrictions haven’t been lifted yet, a lot of us are now turning into storytellers engrossed in our own mix of memories. On May 9 I remembered Belarus again. This is when we celebrate the defeat of the Nazi Germany in the post-Soviet space. Due to the growing COVID-19 threat, the Russian government chose not to have a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the glorious victory, meanwhile the Belarusian authorities decided to go through with the Victory Day celebrations. I don’t think I am not in support of either of these moves. It might have been difficult to find a way to handle this holiday which has such a “sacred” status in this part of the world- the costs we paid for this victory were tragically immense. But I have to admit that watching this parade in central Minsk being broadcast on a Belarusian TV channel made me contemplate not only our ongoing disagreements but also the shared history. Even though it was being celebrated under the red-and-green flag, it struck an emotional chord leaving me feeling happy that regardless of the global health crisis OUR victory has been honored… Our ancestors were strong enough to rebuild the country and at times renegotiate their own identities following the unprecedented devastation of what we refer to as the Great Patriotic War. I hope now we owe it to them to find a minuscule of strength in us to get back to normality. Once we do that, more travel stories will certainly follow…