Listen to the story.
Carol Hills: This next story is also about something green that you could have in a salad, but perhaps also best consumed in small quantities. I’m talking about dill. You might put a few twigs of it on a few select dishes, but in Russia it’s on everything. The Guardian’s Shaun Walker has written about what he calls Russia’s weird obsession with dill. So Shaun, what is it with Russia and dill?
Shaun Walker: Well, I think what’s interesting about it is that, you know, I’ve lived in Moscow for about ten years and it’s something that I noticed straight away and many foreigners notice. And if you were to ask a lot of Russians about what you said that I would call Russia’s obsession with dill, what’s interesting is that many of them would claim that, yes, Russians like dill, sometimes they eat it, sometimes it’s on their food, but it’s no big deal, it’s not everywhere, it’s not like they’re putting it on everything. And for me, I had a very different view of this, that, you know, quite often you will end up, especially if you’re outside Moscow in the provinces, you’ll end up ordering a pizza or ordering gazpacho or ordering even sushi and it will come covered in dill. And one of the interesting things is that Russians seem to see it--I mean the best comparison is perhaps how we would think of salt and pepper.
Hills: So if you walked down the street and went to a restaurant, grabbed some lunch, would most things that you order have dill on them?
Walker: Well, I mean, there’s a little bit of artistic license probably in my comment piece, which is something that’s built up after what I would call years and years of being abused by dill, that I have seen a dish in Russia that has been served without dill. But it does certainly appear much more often than you would think, and it’s never on the menu because, as I say, it’s seen as almost a salt and pepper-like substance. For example, I had a piece of halibut for lunch in a rather nice restaurant in central Moscow today, and lo and behold it came with a sort of blanket of dill on top which I had to very carefully surgically remove before consuming it.
Hills: You’ve called the herbs flavor--you’ve called dill’s flavor--ruthlessly aggressive. Do you think Russians enjoy stronger aromas like dill or have they simply become immune to it?
Walker: I’d love to see a sort of in-depth scientific study on this, but I think they’ve really become immune to it. I mean, Russian food is generally not full of incredibly strong flavors. It’s sort of pretty hearty, solid, traditional food based on things like potatoes and cabbage, so it’s not like this sort of palette of flavors. What I find with anything with dill in it is that dill just sort of smashes into the dish, overpowers all the other flavors and all you’re left with is sort of a really rather vile mouthful of dill.
Hills: Now, you actually created a Facebook group a few years ago dedicated to documenting inappropriate sightings of dill. Give us some examples.
Walker: How long have you got, you know? Just today, somebody posted a dill merengue which someone had been served in a posh Moscow restaurant; we really see the green flecks kind of clinging to the merengue.
Hills: So, is there any kind of pride about dill? Is there some story about where it comes from and why it’s so pervasive in Russia?
Walker: Well, I mean, my personal theory for this is that Russia is obviously a huge country, it’s a very cold country, and with the exception of some parts of the south of Russia it’s not the most fertile country and there’s a sort of limited number of things that you can grow in much of the country. So my theory is that dill, it is grown in Russia and it’s clearly a rather hearty herb--or weed, as I like to think of it--and, you know, I think probably it’s one of these things that has come from necessity, come from it being one of the few things that will grow in tough conditions and has sort of just become a staple almost by default.
Hills: You describe the herb as “ruthlessly aggressive,” as we mentioned. Do you think that the character of dill is somehow related to the character of Russians?
Walker: Well, I think that’s probably--Russians are, by virtue of climate and their history, they’re certainly a very hearty people, they can survive a lot of hardship, they’re not easily ground down, they’re used to sticking it out. And there’s certainly, in that sort of aggressive perseverance to sort of destroy all the other tastes against all the odds in dill, perhaps you might be on to something there, yeah.
Hills: The Guardian’s Shaun Walker. He’s recently written a piece about the ubiquitousness of dill on Russian food. Shaun, thanks so much for speaking to us.
Walker: Thank you.