The biggest Russian Orthodox celebration of the year is Easter (Paskha) – a time for friends, family, food and, of course, vodka.
For Marsha and Nick Tsitovitch, having a big party at their Strathfield home in western Sydney is a yearly occurrence. If they don’t throw an extravagant Easter party, it will be Christmas, a birthday or another memorable event. 'We love entertaining and having our friends and family over," says Marsha, 'and Easter is a really special time."
Marsha and Nick were both born in Australia to Chinese-born Russian parents and Russian is their first language. Their sons, Michael, 20, and Leo, 18, also learned Russian before they learned English. 'For us, it’s important to sustain the language and culture," Nick explains.
Like all Christian Russians in Australia, they celebrate Orthodox Easter according to the Julian calendar (predominantly used in Europe until it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar). First and foremost, Easter is a religious festival. The spirtual preparating begins with 40 days of abstaining from meat, eggs and dairy produce. Midnight mass is the highlight of the year's religious calendar and, after the liturgy, families go home to break Lent together, eating krashenoye krutoye yaitso (dyed hard-boiled eggs) and kulich, a traditional Easter bread.
For Marsha, organisation is the key to the event’s success. Weeks before, she creates a colour-coded roster for party jobs and it’s still hanging on the fridge when family members start to arrive mid-morning to help. The cooking is shared, with Marsha making the bulk of the festive banquet using recipes learned from her mum, grandmother, friends and cookbooks. “It’s always a surprise,” she laughs. “I just cook how I feel that day.”
Her culinary repertoire now includes Russian classics she’s tweaked, as well as recipes developed over the years.
Today she’s preparing a Russian feast and, with about 50 people attending, the food will be served as a buffet. Her fingers swiftly dice the beetroot for the vinegret (beetroot vinaigrette salad) while she chats with her two sons.
Leo is carefully topping the varyonye yaitsa s ikroy (boiled eggs with caviar) – a popular Russian delicacy – while Michael is helping his grandad Con with the befstroganof (beef stroganoff).
Marsha’s mum, Mila, is setting the table while Nick greets guests. The first to arrive is Marsha’s cousin Tatyana and her husband Evan, who are in charge of the kotleta po Kievsky (chicken Kiev). Because of the size of the party, they’ve stuffed and crumbed the chicken breasts at home, but frying them will take at least a few hours, so they’re starting early.
The most time-consuming and complex dishes to prepare for the day are the two must-have desserts: kulich and paskha, which is a dessert made with tvorog (farm cheese). Every Russian household, from the very modest to the really lavish, will have these two desserts on the Easter table. Traditionally, the kulich and the paskha are decorated with the initials XB for Xpnctoc Bockpece or Kristos voskrese (Christ has risen).
Marsha has begun the two desserts in advance, and today she just needs to unmould the paskha and glaze the top of the kulich. Friends join in, garnishing the kulich with bits and pieces they find around the kitchen. One adds some cherries, another attempts to make the XB symbol out of icing sugar. The kulich ends up looking rather interesting, but that’s how Marsha and Nick like things to be - casual, fun and traditional with a twist.
Russian Easter eggs
Known as krashenoye krutoye Yaitso, these eggs occupy a central role in Russian Orthodox Easter celebrations. Blessed during the Easter liturgy, they are often the first thing to be eaten to break Lent after the service. Families dye them with non-toxic food dyes, typically using a variety of colour combinations; some use oil to create a marbled effect, while others might use candle wax for a more structured result. The popularly used red dye is thought to symbolise the blood of Christ.
These eggs have two purposes. Firstly, they decorate the house. Secondly, they are used to play a game where two players hit the eggs together to see which cracks first. The loser with the cracked egg always has to eat it, while the winner at the end of the game is believed to have good luck.
Photography by Alan Benson & Derek Swalwell.