Shashlik: Redolent of summer warmth and cookouts
Changes in society and changes in cooking go and-in-hand. Just as moving into separate apartments opened up opportunities for home cooking and stimulated the rise of recipe-sharing, the advent of dachas and cars in the 1960s was the beginning of cooking out which, for Russians, means “shashlik.”
People began “covering the whole of Podmoskovye (areas in the Moscow region) with smoke,” is how Granny put it.
‘Shashlik’ in its most basic form is pieces of meat grilled on a skewer over coals. The “classic” shashlik, Granny says, should be made with mutton. That’s how it’s mostly made in the Caucasus, where the dish originated, and where there are lots of sheep.
In Moscow, however, mutton is less easily available, allowing Russians to become more creative with their shashlik. In Moscow, it is made with chicken, pork and fish, with the meat interspersed with pieces of onion, peppers or tomatoes. Everyone developed their own marinade (ketchup and garlic usually factor heavily). From the beginning, “shashliking” was a competitive sport.
“Sunday tourists,” who would drive out into the countryside for an afternoon or camp out overnight would always bring bowls full of marinated pre-chopped meat to be put on skewers and cooked on a grill over an open fire. Given the popularity of the dish, cafes and restaurants with access to space for an open fire would also try their best to prepare good shashlik.
Even at home, the lack of free flames didn’t stop people from making shashlik. They would just fry the meat on a frying pan, which I’m pretty sure should have been called “fried meat” and not “shashlik,” but the word shashlik conjures up memories of summer, fresh air, sun and songs by the fire with friends; all the things that are so rare in the Moscow climate that it’s worth trying to reproduce them in a frying pan.
Granny still tells the story of her visit to Azerbaijan around 50 years ago. There was a wild car trip on mountain roads, homemade wine picked up at 1 am from a local babushka, juicy watermelon and, of course, shashlik by the seaside. Granny’s colleague had one made of sturgeon with tomatoes, and Granny had made one with lamb. The setting of the beach, summer and an adventure were as important as the delicious flavour of the meat.
I was excited to try making my own shashlik using the Soviet recipe, which says to cook it over hot coals, or “the usual way” – on a frying pan. Luckily I have an Australian husband and, therefore, a BBQ on the balcony and someone to make the fire for me. The marinating method of adding finely grated onion is one that Granny told me she heard a famous chef talk about recently. It’s a good basic method and works well.
We made pork and chicken shashlik; cooking them over hot coals for 20-30 minutes with onions, pepper and mushrooms mixed in with the meat on the metal skewers; and it was absolutely delicious! The Book suggests serving shashlik with boiled rice and pomegranate sauce. I have no idea why anyone would serve boiled rice with shashlik – I certainly didn’t – but the pomegranate sauce was a nice addition.
We had the shashlik while Granny visited us in Tbilisi, and she really enjoyed our shashlik dinner. I hope her second Caucasian shashlik experience was half as good as the first one!
The Recipe from the Soviet Cook Book, page 173-174
Take mutton, wash and cut into small pieces. Put in a bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, add chopped onions, vinegar and a teaspoon of lemon juice and mix well. Cover the dish and let the meat marinate 2-3 hours in a cool place.
Put the marinated meat on a metal skewer alternating the pieces of meat with sliced onion. Cook the skewers over burning hot coals approximately 15-20 minutes, turning the skewer so that the meat cooks evenly. If you do not have hot coals, it’s also possible to cook the meat in a frying pan.
When the shashlik is ready, remove the meat and vegetables from the skewers, sprinkle with oil and garnish with green onions and tomatoes cut into slices, and slices of lemon. You can also serve the shashlik with boiled rice and pomegranate sauce. You can also cook pork this way.