How the joy of Tatar cuisine reunited me with my family roots

11 November 2021
Text: Anastasia Akulinina

Growing up, my family spoke often about my heritage: Russian, Jewish, and Tatar. Born and raised in Russia, I knew that Tatar culture was different from the Slavic Russian tradition; that it was built on the soaring minarets of mosques on the shores of Russia’s Volga river, rather than tightly furled onion domes.

But as my family didn’t really practice Islam or Christianity, I often struggled to grasp at the edges of my identity. There were no serious conversations about our Tatar roots. Instead, there were plenty of small reminders: the colloquial exchange in Tatar between my grandmother and father; my family joking that I drank tea like a “true Tatar” whenever I reached for my third or fourth cup.

The only place where I felt a true sense of Tatar belonging was at my grandmother’s table. My grandmother, Nazira, would serve up plates of pastries stuffed with chopped beef, onions, and potatoes: circular vak belyash and triangular uchpochmack, each with a hole poked into the buttery pastry to reveal the meat inside. My grandmother would diligently ladle extra stock into these holes just before each dish was cooked, adding extra flavour to the lamb or beef caged inside its bread walls. I would devour the pastries with chicken broth, going through five or six in one sitting.

The writer’s grandmother and father. Image courtesy of the author

The writer’s grandmother and father. Image courtesy of the author

Sweet treats would inevitably follow, served with endless cups of tea or “chei.” They included chak-chak, a sticky honey dessert fried in oil, or a sweet pie known as gubadiya. “Chei echebes,” Nazira would declare to my father — Tatar for “let’s drink tea” — and a fervent exchange in Tatar would follow.

Tatar cuisine is unique within Russia, forged by the specificities of Tatar culture. Historically, Tatars were nomadic tribes who travelled long distances in the steppe, requiring dishes that were simple yet filling. Tribes depended heavily on their livestock, adding emphasis on meat in the Tatar diet. It also explains why horse meat is popular.

But it is also one of the few elements of Tatar culture to survive the Soviet era. My grandmother, Nazira, may have grown up within a Tatar family, but she didn’t have the privilege of celebrating its culture.

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My family hails from the Volga Tatar people, a Turkic ethnic group native to the Volga-Ural region of Russia. The Tatar Khanate was conquered by Russia in the 15th century, and quickly assimilated into the Russian Empire. Tatars were first forced to convert from Sunni Islam to Orthodox Christianity — then, following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, prohibited from practicing religion all together. Efforts were also made to suppress the Tatar language. In 2021, only 10 per cent of Tatars speak their native tongue fluently. I don’t speak Tatar at all.

The arrival of the Soviet Union was not, strictly speaking, a negative thing for my family. In fact, my great-grandmother, Fatima Shakirovna Sabitova, became something of a communist poster child. Just before the Russian revolution, Fatima had been forced into marriage while still only a teenager. Denied the chance to finish school, she soon gave birth to three children, isolated in a close-knit but secluded village.

The Russian revolution changed Fatima’s life. New Soviet laws allowed her to divorce her husband without stigma. She was given free schooling. Eventually, Fatima became the first woman to head a kindergarten in Bashkortostan, which was then the republic’s first and only child care centre. My great-grandmother’s achievements were so avowed that her success story was even featured in a book, Women of Bashkortostan. The excerpt lauded her contributions to Soviet childcare and communism.

Fatima’s children also became devoted communists. Tatar culture, and particularly Islam, became a symbol of the dark past when women were forced to marry young and were unable to get an education. Communism and atheism represented the future: a system that allowed anyone to become self-sufficient and independent.

The writer’s great-grandmother, Fatima. Image courtesy of the author

The writer’s great-grandmother, Fatima. Image courtesy of the author

Today, when my father talks about Fatima, he still does so with great pride in his voice. But having the privilege of reflecting on my family’s lineage from a safe distance, I can see that my great-grandmother paid a price for her emancipation. Just as Fatima had been forced into an arranged marriage, she was also later compelled to give up her religion and native Tatar culture. Camouflaged as progress, communism wiped out centuries of cultural and religious values by imposing an atheist ideological system on my Muslim ancestors. Trapped in her marriage, Fatima had no choice but to embrace this system. Maybe communism was the lesser of two evils, but nobody can argue that it was still evil.

Fatima’s story embodies the fate of many of my other family members forced to give up Islam to fit the party system. Some gave up their Tatar names and adapted Russian-sounding nicknames either for career or personal reasons. In order to succeed in the Soviet system, citizens were forced to forfeit parts of themselves.

As a half-Tatar baby born in the 1990s, I didn’t learn about any of this until much later on. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 90s was a tumultuous decade. After 70 years of communist rule, the country was permeated with crime, dubious oligarchy, and political chaos. Regular people like my parents suffered greatly from this economic instability; they didn’t have time to ponder their ethnic identity. I only came to recognise Fatima’s story when I saw the same pattern repeating in myself.

Fatima’s story embodies the fate of many of my other family members forced to give up Islam to fit the party system. Some gave up their Tatar names. In order to succeed in the Soviet system, citizens were forced to forfeit parts of themselves.

After moving to Moscow as a child, I soon learnt that my Tatar identity was something to be kept tucked away. One memory in particular stands out, on a 9th grade field trip to Russia’s Golden Ring. The area is home to numerous churches and cathedrals, adorned with hulking gold domes and slightly eerie icons: we travelled from town to town by bus under cold, grey skies, led by a seemingly tireless guide.

It was during that trip that my peers started asking me about Ufa. I was the only student from Bashkorstostan, a fact the Muscovites found both fascinating and slightly pitiful. When uchpochmack, my grandmother’s beloved pastry, came up in conversation, the laughter was raucous; the word sounding strange in non-Tatar mouths. The trip eventually came to an end, but in the months that followed, repeated mentions of uchpochmack were followed by gales of laughter. I laughed too.

Children at a kindergarten founded by Fatima, the writer's great-grandmother. Images courtesy of the author

Children at a kindergarten founded by Fatima, the writer's great-grandmother. Images courtesy of the author

It was when I was 18, when I left Russia and moved to Canada, that my Tatar identity was struck a final, fatal blow.

As a newcomer to Canada, I prioritised assimilating over reconciling my mixed identity. Since barely anyone in Canada knew what Tatar even meant, I never mentioned it. I was much more concerned with improving my English, which was subpar. Eventually, my Tatarness had become something irrelevant; something I left in Russia when I moved away.

But in my early twenties, I was also dealing with another big change. I started realising that I wasn’t straight. Coming from a homophobic country, accepting my attraction to women was painful, confusing, and even shameful. And, somehow, I had to reconcile it with my Russian and Tatar roots. I couldn’t do it. Something had to go.

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Being gay went against my familial and cultural values. It didn’t fit with the image of a woman I was raised to be. But just like my great grandmother, I wanted to be free to live a life I chose for myself. So I abandoned everything that contradicted my sexuality and shielded myself from things that could hurt me. I cut off most of my Russian friends and acquaintances, unfollowed Eurasian news, and stopped having authentic interactions with my family. I purposefully separated myself from my life in Russia, omitting my Tatar roots as I went along.

Canada became my only home. I was out to all my Western friends and started having queer relationships. At first, I felt ecstatic. But as I got past the exhilarating newness of being an out lesbian, I felt alone. I ostracised myself from my home country to a point where I felt utterly lost and disconnected. My queer community didn’t know of or share my roots; my Russian/Tatar community was missing altogether. I had no one to relate to.

For one reason or another, I decided that once I got Canada’s Permanent Residence Status, I would feel better. Canada would officially become my home, and no one would be able to take it away from me. It would erase my perpetual fear of being forced to move back to Russia and hide my sexuality. I received my Permanent Residence Status in January 2020. And while I am immensely grateful to have a piece of paper that guarantees my safety, it didn’t make me feel any less empty. If anything, my void only got worse.

Even though I had permanent residency and was in a loving queer relationship, I yearned for home more than ever. I hungered to visit my hometown. To see my family. To taste my grandmother’s food. To learn and explore the culture, language, and religion that my ancestors have been practicing for centuries. While my immigration status brings me a sense of security, it didn’t heal the intergenerational trauma derived from my mixed Tatar and Russian identity. Neither did it fix years of denying my heritage, or the internalised homophobia I experience every day as a result of my traditional upbringing. Having concealed key parts of my identity for most of my adult life, I feel myself echoing my great-grandmother’s legacy of Tatar women in hiding.

The writer’s grandmother and father in 1971. Image courtesy of the author

The writer’s grandmother and father in 1971. Image courtesy of the author

I now understand why Fatima gave up her Tatar traditions and religion. She had little choice — as did my parents or grandparents. The Soviet Union didn’t give its citizens an abundance of options, especially those with non-Slavic roots. My ancestors had to sacrifice parts of themselves just to exist. And while I cannot fathom what it was like for Fatima, as a queer Russian I know what it’s like to hide parts of myself, for both my safety and peace of mind.

I feel the pressure of taking on the legacy of the women I so admire and look up to. I want to be good at the one thing they have been able to preserve through so many years of oppression and erasure. But my cooking skills have always been destitute. While writing about my ancestors feels like a step forward, I am still too intimidated actually to make the food I feel connects me to my roots.

Whenever I travel to Russia, my grandmother makes me her famous Tatar dishes and chei. Every single time, I shamelessly overeat. Tatar food remains my favourite, and I miss it every day. Biased towards red meats, flavourful rice and broths, my taste palette stays true to my ancestry despite living on another continent.

I now understand why Fatima gave up her Tatar traditions and religion. She had little choice — as did my parents or grandparents. The Soviet Union didn’t give its citizens an abundance of options, especially those with non-Slavic roots.

Due to the abundance of free time in the pandemic and much to the delight of my family, I have been working on my cooking. I have made some of the more simple Russian dishes for my partner, but she is still eagerly waiting to try the Tatar food she has heard so much about. Slowly, I am feeling more confident both in the kitchen and in my sense of identity, I don’t think she will have to wait long.

While I haven’t seen my grandmother in several years, we speak regularly. Every time, she would say a few Tatar phrases to me. When we last spoke, I told her that I would visit soon, and that I wanted my grandparents to stay healthy and strong. To that, she only said “Allah Birse” — Tatar for ”God willing’‘. Even though I don’t have much urge to open up to her about my sexuality, we are still very close. I recently asked her for her recipe of vak belyash for when I am finally ready to embrace my Tatar side in the kitchen. She sent it via WhatsApp in the most elaborate detail imaginable. At that moment, just as I felt when I was eating Tatar food in her small apartment in Ufa, I felt truly cared for. It felt like home.

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