Friday, September 9, 2011

Making Samahon, from a Babushka's Recipe

Andrea Wenglowsky is a New York City-based artist currently living in Ukraine as a Fulbright Fellow, studying contemporary art practices in several cities there.  She's generously contributed this piece about making samahon,  something that's a distinct part of many, if not most, Ukrainian gatherings.  You can see more of Andrea's work here.

Since house parties are common with the hip youth of Ukraine, I have had the chance to do things like dance in stockinged feet to random pop or klezmer hits, sample varieties of pickles and sausages, and be served a mysterious amber colored liquid, all in the comfort of a warm living room.

Turns out that the unidentified liquid was home-brewed vodka, or samahon (самогон, literally ‘self-distillate’ or ‘self-run’.) To cut to the chase, it’s moonshine. It is very commonly made in villages in Eastern Europe and Russia and I am sure many ex-pats have tasted these strong spirits and consider it a sort of ritual to aid in understanding, or forgetting, Ukraine a little better with each sip.

However, a small glass of this particular batch did not put  hair on my chest nor did it remind me of gasoline. I came out unscathed. What was the secret? I asked. My friend, whom we will call X for complete anonymity, simply said: It is my babushka’s recipe. We make it in her apartment right outside of Kyiv.

Months later, in the summer air, it was time for X to prepare a new batch, and I had the chance to observe the distillation process. Babushka has been making samahon for decades and it is illegal, and therefore she keeps a tight watch over her recipe, tools and its execution. X was a bit nervous, though didn’t show it, because this was her first batch mixed alone while Babushka was at their dacha, or country summer home.
On the way to the apartment, we had to pick up some key ingredients: sugar and yeast. These are the major players in this concoction. We all know that vodka can be made from grains or potatoes (or things like shoe polish, which is the moonshine one wants to avoid), but it is also very common to use beetroot or other household staples. Since sugar can be expensive, this is not as common, but X claims that this is perhaps why their drink is so good. It doesn’t have to be filtered or strained. The yeast is very special, and the only one Babushka allows. X says that when she buys it she gets a knowing and approving look from the merchant- they know what she is up to.
First, the yeast must be mixed with warm, but not hot, water and some sugar, and left to react in the way that yeast does in the comfort of the warm apartment. X found some random jam in a jar and threw some spoonfuls in there for good measure. She is not sure if it makes it taste any better or perhaps gives it some color. Once the distiller feels that it is ready, this yeasty mixture is poured into a huge tub, and filled with sugar and water. The last ingredient is milk, of course. This dollop of dairy is potentially a superstitious key ingredient, but Babushka swears by it.

My favorite part was taking a large stick and mixing this earthy smelling liquid all together. I felt a bit like a witch at a cauldron. Once the sugar was all dissolved, the lid was put on with a little air for breathing, and the tub was tucked in for a three-week slumber with coats and blankets, encouraged to ferment, react and brew.

Three to four weeks later, X and Babushka transfer the mixture to a special pressure cooker and boil it for four hours. The pot needs to be completely sealed so they sometimes adhere dough for varenyky around the rim to assure that the lid doesn’t come off. The liquid boils down under their close watch and the condensation drips out of the tubing into the jars. Voila! Babushka then adds fruit or tea for color.

Their recipe can never be duplicated, because just like most Ukrainian cooking, everything is done na oko, or by eyeballing it. But in addition to the special equipment, ingredients and know-how, I believe that Babushka’s incredible apartment gives keeps the samohon company and infuses this cultural staple/science experiment with tales, memories, and a special Ukrainian flavor.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article. In the world of home brewing so many different nuances, though not all of them know it. The coil is very important to have a vertical and the water feed from the bottom. Here is a good site o samogone: