Pel’meni :: Siberian Dumplings

My Quest for Pel’meni

Pel’meni – Siberian Meat Dumplings – hail from the frozen reaches of the Russian Far East. The dumplings are of Mongolian origin and the word Pel’meni is always plural, I was told by Russians.  Apparently you can neither make nor eat just one..

Pel’meni warm tummies all over Russia and the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. It could be Russia’s answer to fast food — filling and ready to eat, assuming you have a supply of pre-made Pel’meni in the freezer or a local restaurant specializing in dumplings.

Pel’meni are food for the masses, but not mass-produced.  Workers chow down at pelmennaya (pel’meni restaurants) but the dumplings are still made by hand.  I haven’t yet seen canned pel’meni by Chef Boyar. The boyars were the landed gentry class during Moscow’s formative years, some centuries ago.

In permafrost regions, pel’meni were made in quantity, frozen and stored outdoors in sacks slung high away from dogs or other scavengers. Then the dumplings were cooked as needed.  We can imitate those resourceful Siberian cooks by freezing the pel’meni on a tray and putting them in re-sealing freezer containers to be cooked later.

Pel’meni can also be prepared and served immediately, but purists insist that pel’meni should be frozen before cooking.

In the old days — and possibly in remote areas of Siberia today — cooks just took a frozen haunch of whatever mammal wandered into a trap and shaved or scraped off the meat needed for a batch of pel’meni.  The traditional horsemeat filling might be difficult to find, or stomach nowadays.  Modern Russians use ground beef, lamb and pork or mushrooms for the pel’meni filling.

My first taste of Pel’meni occurred in St. Petersburg.  Larissa Davidyuk, my Siberian-born hostess rolled, stuffed and folded a pel’meni mountain which three adults and a teenager leveled at dinner.  Later, I read of a 19th century banquet at Lopashov’s Tavern in Moscow where twelve people dined on 2,500 pel’meni.  [The Art of Russian Cuisine by Anne Volokh, Collier Books, 1983].

Larissa urged me to try other versions of pel’meni during my stay in Siberia, and compare them with hers.  Did I detect a hit of smugness in her smile?  With Larissa’s pel’meni as the benchmark, how could I find such steaming morsels of flavor again

Like its kitchen-kin, ravioli, the bite-sized dumplings are made of ground seasoned meat wrapped in soft dough.  They are cooked in boiling water or broth and served with butter, sour cream or vinegar.  Sometimes pel’meni are served in the broth under a baked crust.

Pel’meni shapes vary according to the cook’s preference and dexterity.  Basically a small circle of dough is folded over a dab of meat filling, the dough edges are sealed and the ends brought together to make a loop.


Larissa Davidyuk’s Pel’meni

Larissa was my hostess in Moscow.  A scientist, she was unemployed when I visited her in the mid-1990’s.  She wrote her recipe in longhand and my Russian teacher at Montgomery College translated.

Make an egg pasta dough: that was Larissa’s instruction for making the dough.  Since she did not write a dough recipe for me, I adapted this from Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen & John Welchman, Workman Publishing, N.Y. 1990.

3 cups flour

1 tsp. salt

1 egg

1 cup cold water

Using a mixer with bread hooks or food processor, blend four and salt, add egg, then add water gradually until dough forms a ball.  Transfer to a floured surface and knead about 2 minutes until smooth.  Cover and let stand for 1/2 hour.

Larissa’s meat filling: Mix of 1/3 pound each ground lamb, beef and pork.  Mix with salt, pepper, 2 tbsp. finely chopped garlic and the 1/2 cup minced whites of scallions.

Roll out the dough appx. 1/8″ thick. Cut circles with a glass. Place small spoonful of filling on the dough. Fold over and pinch closed.  Bring ends together.

Boil water.  Cook the pel’meni in boiling water until they rise in the water, then 5-7 minutes more.  Serve with butter or sour cream. Serves 4.


Natalie’s Pel’meni in Taiga Manner

When I reached Siberia, I was eager to pursue the quest for pel’meni.  In Khabarovsk, a port on the Amur River bordering China, the hunt for ultimate pel’meni took me to Natalya Mamadzhanova, a spirited businesswoman who opened a homey little restaurant specializing in Russian traditional food called V/Gostiakh u Natali, “As Natalie’s Guest”.

Make a soft dough.  (see recipe above)

Make the filling:

To 1 pound of ground pork, add 1 large finely chopped onion and 6 chopped cloves of garlic.  Roll out dough to about 1/8″. Make the pel’meni by putting filling on a small circle of dough.  Fold dough over and seal.  Twist ends of half-circle around to form a ring.

Prepare the sauce:  Make a clear soup from meat bones. Put chopped onion, carrot, pepper, tomato and boiled paparnick (collard greens) in a soup kettle.  Cover vegetables with the hot bouillon.  Add sour cream, black pepper and Korean sauce (soy sauce).  Cook, covered, over warm heat, not boiling.

Meanwhile, cook the pel’meni in boiling salted water, about 8 minutes.  Put in a small serving dish and cover with the vegetable sauce.  Add garlic and warm dish on stove. Serves 4-6.


Intourist’s Pel’meni

In the cavarnous, heavily curtained dining rooms of what was once the Khabarovsk Intourist Hotel, pel’meni come to the table in a small ceramic pot which has been covered with a crust and baked.

Meat mixture:  1 lb ground beef, salt, 1 1/2 cups minced onion, fresh ground black pepper.  On a piece of dough the size of a half-dollar piece, place a small amount of meat mixture.  Fold the dough over and press the edges together. Pull the ends around to  make a halo effect around the top.  Cook in boiling water, 5 minutes. Place pel’meni in small serving crock.  Add meat broth. Cover dish with a round of dough and press dough into sides of serving crock.  Bake in oven. Serves 4.


Sveta Gridin’s Pel’meni

Sveta Gridin lives in Petropovlosk, the port city and capital of Kamchatka. A college student at the time I met her, she was maintaining a demanding course load while fulfilling the Russian woman’s traditional role of  devotion to family, household and spouse.  For her, pel’meni making is reserved for special occasions so I sampled Sveta’s pel’meni at a farewell party she gave for an American graduate student.  Her pel’meni are larger, more like meat dumplings and the cooking broth and vegetables form part of the meal.

Filling: grind together 1 to 1-1/2 lb meat, 4-5 small onions, and salt and pepper.

Dough: Mix 3 cups flour, 1 cup milk, 1/2 tsp salt, 3 eggs. Knead and refrigerate.  Roll into log 3/4″ thick and cut into 1/2″ slices.  Press or roll into circles 1 1/2″ diameter, 1/4″ thick.

Make the Pel’meni: Place small tsp of meat in center of each rolled dough circle.  Pinch closed.  Place on a floured cooking sheet.  Boil water with chopped carrot, cabbage, salt and bay leaf.  Remove vegetables with slotted spoon. Drop pel’meni into the boiling vegetable water and cook for 10 min.  Serve with butter.  The broth becomes the soup course and the vegetables are served on the side.

Back home, I researched pel’meni recipes in Russian cookbooks and I wanted to try the various recipes I’d collected in Russia.  The dough recipes were all more or less the same, no problem there.  I did chill the dough before rolling and cutting the pel’meni jackets.  For the filling, I mixed ¾ pound each ground beef and pork, two minced onions, salt, pepper and a dash of ground clove.

Labor intensive pel’meni shaping followed.  After a half-hour of nimble fingered filling, sealing and turning, I realized why all the cooks I’d seen making pel’meni were sitting down and working in teams.  Next time I convene a pel’meni party, I’ll invite the guests into the kitchen to cut dough and stuff.

Other resources:

Classic Russian Cooking, Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewives, Translated, introduced and annotated by Joyce Toomre, Indiana University Press, 1993.

Please to the Table, The Russian Cookbook, Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman, Workman Publishing, 1990.

The Art of Russian Cuisine, Anne Volokh with Mavis Manus.  Collier Books, 1983.


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