September 01, 2005

Scratch Russian Cuisine

Place an order for fried clams, and they are likely to come with Tartar Sauce. Go to a bistro, and you might find Steak Tartare on the menu. How did these two vastly different foods come to be associated with the Tatars – or Tartars, as English would have it? 

The English word “Tartar” comes via the Latin. Because the Romans considered the Tatars – the Central Asian Turkic nomads – savage, they inserted an “r” in their name, thereby linking them with Tartarus, or Hell. Even in our day, the idea of barbarism underlies the names of these foods. 

In the case of Steak Tartare, legend holds that the fierce horsemen of the Golden Horde tenderized their meat by packing it under their saddles. When they reached their destination, they retrieved the meat, now so tenderized from the saddle’s friction that they could eat it raw, as befits barbarians. In fact, there is no historical evidence that the Tatars ate raw meat. More often than not, they boiled meat for soups and stews, as they still do today, or placed it on skewers to grill, or minced it to fill rounds of dough that they fried. Nevertheless, the myth lives on. 

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