Authentic Russian pirogi

I first tasted pirogi (perogie) when I was on a volunteer vacation in Russia couple of years ago. The lady who cooked for us at the volunteer home in Yaroslavl made this authentic Russian bread stuffed with mushrooms. Being a fan of both breads and mushrooms, this was one of my favorite dishes in Russian cuisine.

No wonder then when my house guest, Marsha from Russia asked me if I would like for her to cook something traditional for me, I asked her for pirogis. We planned for an entire evening of cooking (making pirogi is easy but time consuming). Since we were going to a farewell dinner for the GCIV hosts and delegates the following day, we decided to make two kinds – one stuffed with mushrooms and onions, and the other stuffed with cabbage and boiled eggs (like it is done traditionally).

Here is the basic recipe for one pan of dough: In a stand mixer, combine .5 liter of milk, 8 cups of flour (one cup at a time), 2 eggs and 250 grams butter until well blended. Add 40 grams wet yeast, 2 tablespoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt and leave paddle on medium setting until a thick dough is formed.

Add more flour if needed. This will take a few minutes. Once the dough is not sticking to the sides of the mixer, transfer to another bowl and allow to rise for an hour.

In the meantime, prepare the filling. Boil 4 eggs. Finely chop 1 medium onion and shred 1/2 green cabbage. Heat 2 tablespoon olive oil in a large wok on medium heat. Add the onion and cabbage and let it sweat for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently. Finely chop the boiled eggs and add to the cabbage mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Keep aside.

Heat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 12×16 cookie sheet. Divide the prepared dough into two. Flour a flat surface. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough till it fits a cookie sheet. Fit it directly onto the sheet.

Spread the filling mixture evenly onto it. Top with remaining rolled out dough to form a blanket covering the filling. Use the left over dough to make the decoration.

Roll out thin long strings of dough with your fingers and create a criss-cross pattern on the pie. Beat one egg yolk and baste the top of the dough lightly with a brush. Bake in oven for one hour or until golden brown.

We also added a 5 Ruble coin into the pie. It is believed that whoever gets the piece with the money will have his/her wish granted. It happened so that Marsha got it (among the 20 people at dinner) and her wish is to return to US very soon!

While we drank wine and nibbled on snacks, we got our hands into pounds of dough. The final result was three pans of pirogis – much more than we anticipated. So we decided to make a breakfast type as well  – topped with sliced bananas and apples, sprinkled with sugar and baked till crispy.

Everyone at the party loved the pirogis. The Russian delegates were very excited to get a taste of home during their visit!

Open world program opens homes and forms new friendships

I gave Mariya a Christmas ornament of The Fox Theater from Atlanta

Last week a delegation from Russia came to Atlanta to discuss social issues and healthcare through the Open World Leadership Program. The six delegates were hosted with families who have opened up their homes by being members of the Georgia Council of International Visitors (GCIV).

Mariya Yuryevna Solodunova, a young lady from St Petersburg was assigned to live with us for a week. She is a child psychologist who works in an orphanage providing counseling to children, parents and the care takers. Having volunteered in an orphanage in Yaroslavl in Russia couple of years ago, I was eager to learn more about what she did. Mariya (pronounced Marsha) is absolutely passionate about her work. She told me about how cutting edge her orphanage was and how her team has been on a mission to replicate its model to other places. Basically, they hired mothers to work as care taker with the orphan babies between the age of 0-4, a delicate age when they are most in need of emotional and physical care. This has changed their psychological behavior completely leading them to grow up to be healthy kids. More on that in my next post.

Mariya and I had a wonderful time together. This was her first visit to the US. Even though we live across the world from each other, we found we have a lot of similarities and could converse on practically any subject (even though Mariya said her English was limited which I disagreed with). One evening we had a girl’s day in and cooked pirogues (Russian stuffed bread), drank wine and shared stories. Needless to say I got to learn a lot about Russian traditions. Did you know that Christmas in not celebrated on Dec 25th in Russia? Also, they do not put presents under the tree till Christmas Eve and the children actually have to earn them by doing a performance or a recital.

One thing Mariya shared with me brought about a self awakening. She said that in Russia people are generally cautions about their belongings and their privacy, and would not leave their home open to a complete stranger. The fact that I gave her a key to my home after only a few hours of knowing her surprised her that I would trust someone so much so soon. I explained to her that we humans try to protect our materialistic things and forget that we came into the world with nothing and will leave with nothing. It is only our gestures towards each person leave an everlasting impact on one individual or an entire society. Then why do we give so much importance to the materialistic thing? A Buddhist believer, she found me to be. She said after staying with us, it has opened her heart and she will now be more trusting of people as well. Perhaps she will sign up to be a host family in her city.

GCIV Farewell party

The last evening, all the delegates, host families and GCIV staff members got together for a farewell celebration. We ate, drank and sang Russian songs. One of the ladies from Sibera even sang us a song in Hindi called “I am a disco dancer.” She did not speak English but her Hindi singing was awfully good!

It was wonderful to meet other like minded people who open up their homes to complete strangers and want to share their lives with others. Because of such people, visitors to the US have a warm welcoming feeling and great memories to take back home. Mariya was emotional when she was leaving us. She said she had not met such kind and compassionate people as she did during this entire visit and that she would love to come back soon.

I believe getting to know people from different countries actually teaches you a thing or two about life as well. In addition to learning about the culture, you get to learn more about yourself and your own culture.  I had a similar experience in India last month which I encourage you to read about.

Becoming a host is easy. All you need to provide is boarding, some meals, a friendly spirit and an open minded attitude.

CCS to Russia and Morocco

I went to Russia in May 2009 through Cross Cultural Solutions Insight aboard program. I picked Russia because I had heard about their large numbers of orphanages, in par with India where I saw the plight of orphans first hand at Mother Teresa’s homes. Since this was my first time and I was traveling alone, I decided to volunteer for 1 week and sightsee for another. After going for my second volunteer program to Morocco in 2010, I noticed that every experience with CCS tends to be very different. A lot of people have since approached me asking me about the differences in the programs and how I would rate one against the other. Both programs were very unique, and offered different perspectives on life, but here is a basic breakdown of my observations.

volunteering in Russia with cross cultural solutions


The base camp in Russia was in Yaroslavl, about four hours by car from Moscow. The city was relatively small, and everything closed by 5-6pm. The people there did not speak much English either. Even though there was daylight till 11pm (being summer), our evenings were quiet because we weren’t able to do much. Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, and a bustling city any time of the day. There was a lot to do, from shopping, visiting medinas, malls, casbah, beach, museums, monuments, restaurants, etc. I never found any down time while I was in Morocco.

cross cultural solutions home base in Rabat MoroccoThe home base:

We were 22 people at the home base in Rabat, Morocco and only 5 volunteers in Russia, so that made a huge difference. I enjoyed the larger group better because you could always find someone who had common interests or was willing to do an activity at that time of the day. Pretty much any hour of the evening, you will find someone who is going shopping, wanting a Gelato, go running, smoking hookah, playing games, reading, or chatting.  On the other hand, having a full house in Rabat, we had bunk beds (for 2-8 people per room) and a few common toilets to share. In Russia, I had a room to myself and shared the toilet with only four other females. The house in Rabat was s stand alone, three-story home with gardens and open spaces. Our home in Russia was in a building. It had many floors but no outdoor space.


In Russia, we went to a different placement each day and worked from 9am-4pm with lunch break at home in between. We went to boarding schools/orphanages, children’s hospital, women’s mental hospital and old person homes. Since we did not speak Russian, our interactions were mainly non-verbal through games, crafts and sports. We engaged the kids and adults in various activities that gave them a break from their daily routines.  It gave me an overall perspective on how life was in Russia. I learned a lot, especially from the old home and the women’s hospital. In Morocco, there was a fixed routine and I went to the same placement, a women’s empowerment center to teach English, every day. Other volunteers were placed at a children’s hospital, university, center for street kids and a refuge community college. We only worked during the morning hours and were free after lunch. I felt like I could make a bigger impact by working at the same place each day and was able to connect with the people better.

Cultural activities:

Both the countries had organized activities for us after work. I felt like there was a more organized schedule in Rabat, than in Yaroslavl. We had cooking lesson, Arabic lessons, talks on Islam, women and Morocco, excursion to the Casbah and pottery village during our stay in Rabat. In Yaroslavl, we had Russian lessons, a visit to the art museum, talk on history, a field trip to Kremlins, ceramic factory and city tours.

Food:volunteering in Rabat Morocco

Food is an important part of my experience when travelling abroad. Obviously, Russian and Moroccan food differ by night and day, so I can’t really compare. In terms of offerings by the CCS program, I felt that we were served more luxuriously at Yaroslavl as the group was small. Also, the chef had formerly been employed at an upscale restaurant so she prepared some gourmet meals and attended to each of our preferences (one of us was vegetarian). Eggs were made to order in the mornings and there was always a special dessert treat each day. We had set times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and were expected to sit at the table, before meals were served. In Rabat, we were served buffet-style meals. There was a lot of variety to chose from (soup, salads, breads, lot of vegetables, one meat entrée and fruits was dessert).  A line would form instantly once the bell rang and the food was generally gone within 15 minutes. We dined at the traditional round tables with low stools ad couches around them.

Weekend travel:

In Russia, CCS offered a three-day weekend, so volunteers went to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where there is a lot to see. Train was the best way to travel. I also went to neighboring countries, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark after my trip. In Morocco, I had gone with two friends, so it made weekend travels much more fun. We went to Casablanca and Marrakesh. One weekend, about 12 of the volunteers went for a dessert safari into the Sahara. It was very economical once we split the cost between ourselves and hired a small bus with a guide. My friends and I also did a day trip to Fes, which was a lot of fun. I found that people who didn’t know each other connected during their stay and went for weekend trips together.