Have you had the pleasure of the Russian shashlik experience? Shashlik is a barbecue, but maybe a little different than you’re used to.
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- When can I eat shashlik?
- Where is shashlik originally from?
- Where can I have shashlik parties?
- Shashlik in the park
- The Mangal
- Shashlik meat
- The marinade
- Preparation for cooking
- Making the fire
- Start cooking
- Other food
- What else?
- Time to go home
- Shashlik in restaurants
When can I eat shashlik?
It might seem strange to you (if you haven’t been to Russia), that Russians would have their own style of barbecue. After all, the weather here is bad, it’s always freezing in Russia! Not barbecue weather at all.
Wrong! Spring and summer (well, at least summer) can be quite hot in Moscow and other places, especially in the south of the country. And the first thing people think about when spring starts is the first shashlik party of the season.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t eat shashlik in winter, because we do. It’s still cooked in some cafes in parks, where you can buy a plate of your favourite shashlik and eat it in the fresh air – even when it’s minus 10 degrees C!
The biggest problem you could have with the weather during a shashlik party is the rain. It can rain a lot in spring and autumn, so an umbrella is useful. If you don’t have an umbrella, and I don’t, just put your jacket on your head!
Where is shashlik originally from?
Shashlik is actually native to central and west Asia (no, it’s not traditionally Russian, but I’m eating it in Russia with Russians, therefore I’m calling it Russian shashlik) and has a variety of flavours, depending on where it’s from (or who’s prepared the marinade!). The different countries where shashlik traditionally comes from all have their own variations for good shashlik.
Where can I have shashlik parties?
Where do we have our shashlik parties? Good question, because, especially in Moscow, we all live in flats and it’s illegal to cook shashlik on your balcony. I think it’s also illegal to have a shashlik party on the land surrounding residential buildings, but that didn’t bother the 2 guys we walked past last weekend at lunchtime, happily cooking their shashlik at the side of their block of flats. It’s the first time we’ve seen this happen, and we wondered how long before the neighbours complained and they were asked to move on.
Anyway, we can’t cook shashlik at home, so we have to move to a park, or forest, for the shashlik ceremony. If you’re lucky like us, you’ll live walking distance to a park which has areas set up for this very purpose – tables, bins, and even fixed mangals (the actual barbecue) if you don’t bring your own.
If you don’t have a park near you, you have to travel to one. Or to a forest that’s more or less isolated enough not to attract the attention of those employed to hunt down illegal shashlik makers (I’m pretty sure it’s ‘illegal’ to cook shashlik in any forest, except in designated areas, at least in Moscow, but people still do it).
Basically, any area where there’s nature is a great place for a shashlik party. If you’re lucky enough to know someone with a house with a big yard, you can have a shashlik party there too!
Shashlik in the park
In our local park, there are places specifically for putting your mangals. You can’t just put them anywhere, they’re a fire hazard and we don’t want to burn the whole park/forest down just for a serving of shashlik, do we? No, we don’t. In our park, for the past few years, there’s been ‘park police’, or rather, ‘shashlik police’. They come around and tell you to move to the official cooking area if you’ve been naughty and set up your mangal in another, much more isolated and more comfortable, unofficial area.
So, you have to move. Like this guy did.
You will have to pay a fine if they come back a bit later and find you’ve gone back to the previous unofficial place they moved you from earlier. It’s 5000 roubles if they want to get serious. ($110AUD, $76USD, 70Euro). So far, we haven’t been fined, but we’ve had to move a couple of times. They are also ready to tell you not to drink alcohol openly, although it’s ok if you keep the cans or bottles in paper bags so they’re not visible to other people. It’s so you don’t corrupt the children.
As a result of the shashlik police possibly turning up at any time, it’s better to cook in the official place. And so you do that, often alone (because it’s not the place to sit with friends – it’s just for cooking), while the rest of your group waits for you in a more comfortable place, where they’ve set up the table (or sheet on the ground), and have a very fun, social time without you.
And, it’s not unheard of to have a shashlik party for one – like this guy.
Mangals come in all sizes. From the romantic ‘2 people’ version Olivier and I have used sometimes, to the enormous super party size that we’ve seen at corporate barbecues. The small ones are usually disposable, although you can buy more permanent ones that you take home with you. You can also make your own, if you didn’t have time to pick one up at the shop. There’s often old pieces of mangal metal, or bricks and other non-flammable material around that you can use to construct your own personal, temporary mangal. Here are some examples of different mangals.
Shashlik parties are a wonderful tradition. And even though they’re quite similar to Australian barbecues, and probably similar to barbecues in your part of the world (I mean, meat and beer and friends is universal!), they really are different because of the way the meat is prepared and cooked.
Let’s look at the meat. I think the most popular meat for shashlik in Russia is pork (Russians, please correct me if I’m wrong!). But you can use any meat for shashlik. Pork, beef (although I’ve rarely seen this), lamb, chicken, even salmon or other fish can be used. The meat is cut into large cubes, or, if it’s chicken pieces on the bone, for example, it’s left as is and a different device is used for cooking (more on that later).
And then you have vegetables like potato, eggplant (aubergine), red and green peppers (and yellow if you want!), onions, mushrooms etc. Of course, this also means that vegetarians aren’t left out of the fun.
The meat is first marinated to get it tasty and tender. There are so many different marinades that it’s impossible to tell you what is the most common. The main thing that all marinades have in common is an acid – vinegar, wine, lemon juice or some other variety. The acid helps make the meat more tender (I’m not going to give you a science lesson right now, if you want to find out how this happens then Google is your friend).
Then, in the marinade you can also have chopped/minced onion, some spices (it varies depending on which version is being made), some peppers and green herbs. It’s best to marinate the meat overnight, but a few hours can be enough.
If you don’t want to marinate the meat yourself, it’s not a problem. Marinated shashlik meat is available everywhere. You can buy it loose, by the kg, or you can buy it in big buckets already to pick up and take with you. This meat is usually surprisingly good, and tender, even though it’s produced in bulk.
Preparation for cooking
Then, when you’re ready to start the proceedings, you thread the meat onto long metal skewers (called ‘shampurs’). It’s important not to pack the meat too tightly, otherwise it won’t cook evenly. Often pieces of red or green peppers, or chunks of onion, are placed between the cubes of meat. Disposable plastic or rubber gloves are often worn for this procedure, because threading marinated meat chunks onto skewers can get very, very messy!
Making the fire
But wait, we haven’t talked about the fire yet. You don’t actually cook shashlik over fire, but over the hot coals that are left after the fire burns down. It’s for this reason that Russians often use coal as their choice of shashlik fuel, and not wood. It’s also why you see big bags of coal for sale in the supermarket. So, the fire is made in the mangal and is left to die down a bit before putting on the meat.
By the way, let me add something right here before we go any further. Cooking shashlik is a man’s job. No question at all – not much different from the Australian barbecue. He starts the fire, keeps an eye on things, and cooks the meat. That is, until he gets distracted or drinks too much, then the women take over the task.
After the fire dies down and it’s not too hot, the meat skewers can be put on the mangal and the cooking begins. Because you’re cooking on hot coals, it’s often necessary to fan the coals to keep up the required level of heat. But be careful, it can’t be too hot or the meat will burn before it’s cooked inside. The fanning can be done using any number of items at hand – a paper plate, or better still a plastic one, cardboard from a box, the lid of a plastic container, a hat…you get the picture. I believe that you can even buy a special shashlik fan for this purpose.
The meat (and vegetables if that’s your preference) is periodically turned until it’s evenly cooked on all sides and inside. It’s often difficult to keep the skewers where you want them, but with all hands on deck it can be achieved with some tricky placing of the sticks.
But, what about the chicken pieces we mentioned earlier? Yes, you’re right. You can’t skewer chicken pieces because of the bones. Well, you probably can but it’s not often done. Same for fish and some vegetables. So, we have a special device, like a cage, where you can place your food, lock it in, and cook it on both sides until it’s done.
So, when one lot of meat is ready, it’s removed from the shampurs and put on a plate in the middle of the table (or picnic sheet if you don’t have a table) for sharing with everyone, and the next lot of meat is put on the skewers or in the cage for round 2.
But, what other food accompanies this shashlik? In some places, it’s traditional to put the cooked meat onto lavash (flat bread) and roll it up, although it’s not something we often think of doing. We have salad vegetables, like tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, green (spring) onions, bread, cheese and cold, sliced meats like ham or different versions of ‘salami’, and other ‘finger’ foods (although knives and forks are usually used for eating). And don’t forget the tomato sauce! It can be regular ketchup, or more often it’s a tomato sauce with a little less ‘manufactured’ taste, a bit more tomatoey than ketchup.
The other thing not to be forgotten is alcohol and other drinks. Of course, alcohol isn’t compulsory, and not everyone drinks it, so all kinds of drinks are welcome at a shashlik party. But, what would a shashlik party with Russians be without at least a little beer and vodka. Although I’ve also been known to take a bottle of wine or two. Olivier and I usually take wine when we’re just having a shashlik party for 2.
Another popular happening at a shashlik party is sport. Yes, sport. Badminton is a favourite here in Russia and it’s often played without a net or rules. It’s just a way of moving after eating. Or they play football. Again, no rules, just friendly kicking of the ball for a while. It depends what equipment people bring, but there’s usually some kind of sporting activity going on at a shashlik party.
So, here we are. We have meat, vegetables, bread, salad, and drinks. For us, that’s just about all that’s required. But for others, there’s a missing ingredient. Yes, the hookah (also known as a shisha, and I guess there’s a lot of other different names for this around the world). A water pipe for smoking. I’ve never used one myself, and our friends have never brought one to a shashlik party we’ve been to, but in the park near our flat it’s possible to see them.
Music can also be present at a shashlik party, often too loud and audible to everyone in the surrounding area. Don’t worry, just enjoy the cultural experience!
And, I think that’s all there is to a successful shashlik party. Friends, of course, are a big part of the success, the more the merrier. However, as I mentioned above, sometimes Olivier and I take our mangal, shampurs, a bag of coal and some food, and head down to the park just the 2 of us for a romantic shashlik party.
Time to go home
At the end of the feast, after everyone’s eaten enough and conversation has petered out, and everyone’s tired, it’s time to go home. We first pour cold water over the coals to make sure that they won’t start a fire. Water has been brought from home in a big plastic bottle especially for this purpose. Then the mangal goes in the nearest bin (or, we may have to locate a bin on the walk home).
Whatever food is left gets shoved into a bag and taken by someone (the hungriest). Everything else is packed up, the surrounding area is checked so we don’t leave anything behind, and off we go. Full and very satisfied.
Shashlik in restaurants
One last thing, shashlik is also a popular item on restaurant menus. It’s not the same experience as eating it in a park or in a forest, but the meat is usually just as good. It often comes with a small salad and some fried potatoes (or some other side dish – depending on the restaurant). It’s one of Olivier’s favourite foods, as you can see in the following photos.
If you’re not sure you’ll remember everything you need for an amazing shashlik party, just click on this link and it will take you to an all-inclusive check-list of everything you need to take with you! You can even print it out if you want!
There’s nothing quite like a shashlik party in Russia, and I’m happy that it’s time now to start the season. I can’t wait for the first shashlik party of the year!
PS. To all my Russian friends reading this, let me know if I’ve forgotten anything!
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