December 01, 2019

Shurpa: Gulnaz's Taste of Home


Shurpa: Gulnaz's Taste of Home

Shurpa (sherpa, chorba) is a meat stew or soup that transcends cultures: popular from North Africa to India, it has many different names and variations. For Gulnaz, it’s a taste of home, even if defining what that is might be something of a challenge.

Gulnaz was born in northern Siberia, in a city called Surgut. Her parents were one of the young couples in the USSR who moved to “develop the North.” Working and living there wasn’t easy, with a nine-month-long winters that dipped to -40°. But the money was good, and many were lured into the idea of making a good chunk of money in just a few years. They would work “na severe” (in the North) for a few years and then come home to buy an apartment and maybe even a car. 

Gulnaz’s parents were among those who stayed a bit longer: over 30 years. Her dad drives a bus now, but for many years he would wash sand for precious metal mining. It was hard work, and he would fly out for 15 days, then have 15 days off at home. 

Gulnaz’s mom was a history teacher. She worked at a local school, and made her family's Bashkir dishes at home, including shurpa containing meat, potatoes, carrots, homemade noodles and herbs. 

Life in the North has had a negative effect on her parents' health, and Gulnaz says they look quite a bit older than their age, but they seem to be in no rush to leave. They recently tried to retire, moving back to their village in Bashkortostan (aka Bashkiria) (a region in the Urals, with Ufa as its capital), lived in their house for a month…. but then then they got bored and returned to Surgut to work some more, while they “still had their health.”

“They don’t know how to relax,” Gulnaz says with a sigh. She says she personally would love to go back to her parents’ village in Bashkiria, to reconnect with her culture.

Gulnaz in Georgia in 2017
Gulnaz in Georgia in 2017.

Gulnaz lived in Surgut until she left school at 17. Her mom and sister cooked quite a lot, but Gulnaz says she was more interested in going out with friends, playing sports, and studying biology with her friend Lyuba. The two even won local olympiads (academic competitions). Then Lyuba moved to St. Petersburg to study medicine, and Gulnaz dreamed of becoming a pilot. 

"Mom was very impressed with Lyuba's stories of life and studies in St. Petersburg," Gulnaz says, "so she convinced me to move there, too." She moved into Lyuba's kommunalka with her, and the two studied, lived and cooked together for a few years.

Every Saturday they would go to the local supermarket to stock up on weekly provisions, taking turns paying. Lyuba taught Gulnaz to make soups, including shurpa, as well as pelmeni and other meals. They would also always have a big bag of grechka (buckwheat kasha) and pasta, for the days when they couldn't afford much else. Sometimes they would have pasta with milk for breakfast, and then with ketchup for dinner.

After university, Gulnaz worked as an ambulance doctor for three years before moving to Georgia, where she says she enjoyed the local meat, met her husband, and had two children.

But now she's back to Russia, this time Moscow, and enjoys reminiscing about her summers in Bashkiria, and then the return trips to Surgut with the meat of an entire bull in the trunk of their car (only 18 hours and they were home, filling up their huge freezer with the meat they brought), along with 10-liter jars of honey, and enough forest strawberry jam to last through a long northern winter. 

Gulnaz will still make shurpa every now and again. Her husband is a vegetarian, and the kids are too little to eat a lot, but when guests come over, she goes to the local market to get a good piece of meat, and cooks up her childhood memories to share.

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