Concerning Samovars


We have two in the house.  Passed down through the generations in my wife’s family, they currently sit in our living room as decorations, whispering to us of bygone times.

They once played a central role in the cultural life of the Russian emigre intelligentsia.  Alexandra Kropotkin evokes images of this bygone world in her wonderful book on Russian Cooking:

Among Russians who have gone away to dwell in other countries, it is easy enough to arouse mild attacks of homesick longing for Russian life and Russian flavors.  But to launch the expatriate Russian soul on a really unbridled jag of nostalgia, try mentioning our vechernyi t’chai, our evening tea.

There is the magic phrase that reawakens all out dearest memories of home!

When the samovar goes on the dining-room table, usually about 10 o’clock in the evening, the entire family gathers for the most intimate kind of get-together.  This is the hour of comfortable relaxation, with old and young meeting as equals in talk, drinking innumerable glasses and cups of tea while wandering conversationally into all fields of anecdote and gossip, of thought and speculation.

The babies and younger children are in bed.  The adolescents feel grown up.  The oldsters are sure of an audience.  And guests always drop in.  It is perfectly correct for friends to drop in, uninvited, for evening tea at any time between 10 P.M. and midnight.  The lady of the house is not expected to set out anything special for company.  There is no fuss or formality.  The scene is cozy and homelike.  When you come for evening tea, you take potluck with the family.

The dining-room table is covered with an embroidered tablecloth.  Beside the lady of the house, at her right hand, the steaming samovar stands on a little table of its own.  Or if there is no side table, the samovar will be standing directly on the dining-room table, with the hostess peeking around it to see and take part in whatever is going on.

A small china teapot fits into a metal fixture on top of the samovar.  The hostess herself has measured tea leaves into the china teapot, has brewed the tea with boiling water from the samovar, and has set the pot of tea on top of the samovar to keep on brewing.

The tea is made as strong as household supplies permit.  A few drops of this strong tea from the small china pot will be poured into each cup or glass, which will then be filled with hot water from the samovar.

Tea glasses in metal or silver holders that have handles, like American ice-cream-soda glasses, are set out for the men.  In Russia the men drink tea from glasses, adn the women drink tea from cups.

On our evening tea table are plates of cold cuts and plates of sliced cheese.  We don’t serve fish at evening tea unless the season is Lent, or when times are particularly hard.  The bread basket offers slices of black bread and slices of white.  Unsalted butter is on the table in a pretty dish … Plenty of sweet things will be arrayed in front of us in any case.  There will be homemade preserves, crystallized fruits, fruit confections known as pastilla, and the semi-jellied fruit candies that Russians call marmelade …

At vechernyi t’chai, it seemed that the tea was consumed endlessly, most Russians taking it with thin slices of lemon.  The hostess always sliced the lemon herself with a special silver knife.  After cutting the lemon she always held the knife for a moment in the steam from the samovar to prevent the knife from tarnishing.

Everyone at the tea table had a plate and a small saucer, usually of cut glass.  The saucer was for preserves, which you either ate with a spoon or put into your tea.  Many Russians like preserves better than sugar as a sweetening for their tea.  After years in America it still irks me not to be able to find saucers of the right size for preserves to go with Russian tea.  We call these saucers blewdichki dlia vareniya.  They are about 3 inches across.  Very few Russians take milk or cream in their evening tea.  They take it that way on for breakfast.

The best breakfast in the world, of course, is a hot bowl of pho, which is a part of my cultural heritage.  My mother makes it for us whenever she visits, and I generally have it for lunch at least two or three times a month.  Nevertheless, the best time of day for ph? is the morning.  It includes a strong beef broth for protein, noodles for carbs, and spices to help you wake up as well as a variety of herbs, bean sprouts and citrus. 

Andrea Nguyen has written an excellent series of articles about pho for the Mercury News which covers the history and the rituals surrounding the flavorful soup.  She even provides a recipe, though it is a bit of a lark since few people will have the patience to actually try it out.  It requires some unusual herbs as well as long hours of boiling bones and meat for the broth.  My mother typically boils two chickens (either Vietnamese or Thai chickens, since she says American chickens have no flavor) as well as a large beef bone for about 8 hours until the meat has practically disintegrated into the broth.

Garnishing pho is like putting together your own hamburger — you can have it your way. So, before putting any pho into your mouth, add your own finishing touches. Then dive in with a two-handed approach: chopsticks in one hand to pick up the noodles, the soup spoon in the other to scoop up broth and other goodies.

Your pho ritual may include:

Bean sprouts: Add them raw for crunch or blanch them first.

Chiles: Dip and wiggle thin slices of hot chile in the hot broth to release the oil. Leave them in if you dare. For best fragrance and taste, try Southeast Asian chiles such as Thai bird or dragon rather than jalapeños. Serranos are better than jalapeños.

Herbs: Strip fresh herb leaves from their stems, tear up the leaves and drop them into your bowl. Available at Viet markets, pricey ngo gai (culantro, thorny cilantro, saw-leaf herb) imparts heady cilantro notes. The ubiquitous purple-stemmed Asian/Thai basil (hung que) contributes sweet anise-like flavors. Spearmint (hung lui), popular in the north, adds zip. [For details, see Essential Viet herb page on this site.]

Lime: A squeeze of lime gives the broth a tart edge, especially nice if the broth is too sweet or bland.

Sauces: Many people squirt hoisin (tuong) or Sriracha hot sauce directly into the bowl. I don’t favor this practice because it obliterates a well-prepared, nuanced broth. But I do reach for the hoisin and Sriracha bottles to make a dipping sauce for the beef meatballs (bo vien).

I typically do put both hoisin and Sriracha in my soup because this is the way my mother has always made it for me.  Additionally, I squirt some of each into a dipping bowl, pick out thin slices of rare beef out of my soup bowl with chopsticks and alternate between dipping the slices in the chile sauce and the sweet hoisin.

Unlike the Russian tea ritual, the Vietnamese pho ritual is no time to talk about politics or religion.  Eating soup is a serious business, and involves the constant motion of chewing on noodles and preparing carefully for the moment when one swallows one’s noodles by synchronized hand motions, with the chopstick hand picking out pieces of meat from the bowl and dipping them in the sauce dish, while the soup spoon hand gathers more noodles to chase the slices of beef.

Talking generally resumes after the meal, as all participants look with satisfaction at the empty soup bowls and the pieces of discarded herbs and sprouts strewn across the table.

The Vietnamese are a coffee rather than a tea people, having been colonized by the French rather than the English.  For breakfast I like a strong cup of coffee with my pho, and I like to sweeten it with condensed milk.  A meal like this generally leaves me full well into the dinner hour.

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