Benyamin Mikhaylovich Yakubov was born in Derbent, 5,000-year-old town in the republic of Dagestan in southern Russia. Now he sits at a small, round table in a blue-and-white dining room, smoking an unmarked cigarette and drinking a cup of warm tea. He speaks of his favorite childhood meals — harcho, a type of soup made with long grain rice, cubed lamb, onions, carrots and tomato; and hinkal, a savory soup his mother served to him during his sick days.
His eyes glisten under a single overhead light as he emphasizes how old-style Russian cooking uses only the freshest ingredients, and that in his restaurant, Little Europa, everything is made by hand, straight down to the sour cream for the Siberian pelmeny dumplings. Through his translator, Olga, he boasts of the two professional chefs he plans to bring straight from Moscow to work with him once their immigration papers are processed, yet shakes his head in frustration as the Russian word for “immigration” and “visa” fall heartbreakingly from his lips. It will be a while before their papers are processed, Olga adds. For now, Yakubov cooks alone, creating each honest dish from scratch.
He is a master. With more than 20 years of professional experience as a chef throughout Russia, specifically in Moscow, Yakubov has cooked for cosmonauts, the Russian army and other unmentionable, high-profile individuals at a private restaurant called the Central House of Architects of the Soviet Union. Members of Moscow’s A-list privy to its clandestine location carried special identification cards just to get in the door. As head chef, he created classic Russian dishes (with many of the 200-plus-year-old recipes passed down orally) such as Kaluzhskiye, country-style meatballs served over mashed potatoes in a homemade sour cream sauce. His own creation, jarkov, features beef tips slowly simmered until fork-tender in individual ceramic pots with mushrooms, onions and dried plums. Poppy-seed bread is then baked on top.
Smiling whimsically, Yakubov recounts that at 16 he found his love of cooking, and through continual mentoring from other Russian chefs, he learned that the most complex of dishes are often created with the simplest of ingredients such as potatoes. Have them as a salad, with creamed herring, fried, mashed or distilled as vodka. The pierogi, filled with ground beef and cabbage, are encased in a yeast-risen dough then baked to perfection with the dough rising with the aid of sour milk instead of pre-packaged yeast.
Yakubov is kind, yet mysterious, as he offers only a few words here and there. When asked what led him to bring such genuine Russian cuisine to Richmond, he replies simply, “God directed me.” His recipes are born from ancient cities and steeple-pointed, stone churches. They are benevolent meals, filled with stories of empresses and czars and secret places where handcrafted foods were served to the privileged few in a dim dining room. And now they are ours.Little Europa: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. 1308 Gaskins Road. 754-4466.
1 pound chicken
1 teaspoon salt
2 ounces grape vinegar
2 cloves garlic
« pound. tomato
Boil the chicken in 1 gallon of water. Skim the froth out. Add salt. When the chicken is ready, take it out. Peel the tomato, cut it in small cubes and put it in the chicken broth. Boil for about 15 minutes.
Press the garlic and mix it with grape vinegar. Add a pinch of black pepper and stir.
Serve the soup and the chicken separately. Pour hot soup in a bowl and add some sauce. Put a piece of chicken on a separate plate and pour some sauce over it. Eat your soup very hot when you are catching a cold as many times as you can. And be healthy!
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