"Plain" is how chef Patrick Friesen describes the food he grew up eating in rural Canada: “We had potatoes twice a day.” But his tone of voice betrays just how delicious plain food can be.
The former executive chef of Brisbane's Howard Smith Wharves currently makes his Kowloon Chilli Co. sauces in a catering kitchen in Sydney. But he was raised in Kleefeld, a rural Mennonite community in the Canadian province of Manitoba.
“In summer we’d go to the farmer’s market. The strawberry season in Manitoba is only three weeks long, but they’re the best strawberries you’ll ever taste. And the peaches and cream corn, or the new potatoes at the start of summer before they get big, you boil them with butter and dill … oh that’s yum,” he says with relish.
“Mennonites broke off from the Catholic Church in the 1500s in Europe. We believe in a different view of the scripture, and only get baptised as teens or adults. The main reason we’re in Canada is that Mennonites are pacifists. The Canadian government granted Mennonites immunity from conscription.”
The Mennonite diaspora lives around the world and practices different degrees of conservativism. “We were told that dancing was a sin because it led to sex. And we always joked that you had to sit one Bible length’s distance from the person next to you on the bus.”
But in comparison with the neighbouring Hutterite community, Friesen’s town was liberal. “The Hutterites would buy new pick–up trucks every year and rip out the stereos because they weren’t allowed to listen to secular music. The women all wore ankle-length dresses and kerchiefs (tiechl). By comparison, my mum was a nurse. We felt very worldly next to our neighbours.”
Friesen fondly remembers the Mennonite food he had as a boy. “We ate pierogies or wareniki, rollkuchen (savoury doughnuts) and watermelon, and kielke with schmaunt fat (egg noodles with farmer sausage and cream gravy),” he says.
“I have an obsession with farmer sausage and used to make it at [my previous restaurant] Papi Chulo.”
Faspa, an afternoon tea eaten a few hours after Sunday lunch, reflects the eastern European and Germanic roots of the Mennonite diet.
“At 4pm, when people get peckish, we have faspa. You put out some leftover roast meat, cheese buns, and pickles to make a sandwich or eat on its own. It’s like a version of antipasti or a charcuterie board.”
Crescent-shaped hand pies called perishky (which is the translation of the Russian piroshky), were another staple of Friesen’s childhood diet.
“I grew up eating my mum’s perishky. They’re filled with bacon, ground beef and onion. Some people mix the filling with egg to bind,” he says. “When I asked my mum about them, she did some research and discovered hers aren’t traditional. People normally use leftover roast dinner as the filling, so there would be meat, maybe some mashed potatoes and gravy for moisture.”
After discussing perishky with a family friend, Elisabeth Dyck, who escaped Stalin’s Great Purge (1936–1938) in Ukraine and immigrated to Canada, Friesen’s mum Eunice says perishky have changed significantly in the last century.
“Elisabeth said today’s perishky is not like it used to be. Originally, it was a raised dough that encased whatever leftovers or small bits of food there was to make a more substantial meal,” Eunice explained in an email. “There was no uniform shape. You just took some dough and wrapped it around whatever. Ukrainians often just had vegetables in theirs as meat was hard to come by."
Eunice asked Dyck if anyone fried them. "No," she responded. "Oil costs money."
Friesen’s mum Eunice says perishky have changed significantly in the last century.
Friesen's mum learnt that the yeasted dough in perishky is rich with egg, lard and dairy. Sour cream or cottage cheese are typical additions. While Friesen says many people believe perishky are too labour intensive to make on a regular basis, his mum always had plenty in the freezer, thanks to a 1980s vintage pierogi press named Hunky Bill's, after a Canadian pierogi eatery and its eponymous owner.
Although Friesen stands by his description of Mennonite food as plain, he says people have a lot of pride in the food, and now that he’s far from home, he loves the strictly traditional versions of the dishes he ate as a boy.
“As an immigrant myself, every now and again I want a taste of home – just how it was. For example, I still want pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. My mum makes a pumpkin cheesecake now that she says is much better, but I’ve held onto the memory of that food, frozen in a time capsule.”
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- 200 g bacon, chopped
- 1 large white onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 200 g beef mince
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large potato, boiled in salted water and mashed
- 350 ml beef stock
- 2 tbsp cornflour, mixed with 2 tbsp water
- ½ cup butter
- 1¼ cups milk
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 2 tbsp instant dried yeast
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 eggs
- 5-6 cups flour
- Egg wash, optional
1. Start this recipe the day before.
2. To make the perishky filling, place a frypan on medium heat and add the minced bacon. Cook the bacon in its natural fat until the bacon browns and becomes crispy.
2. Add the diced onion and cook until the onions are soft and caramelised. Add garlic and minced beef and increase the heat to medium-high. Keep stirring and allow the mixture to reduce: it’s important to pan-fry the beef until you end up with lots of little brown crispy bits. This is where the flavour lives.
3. Season the mixture with a tiny bit of salt and heaps of black pepper. The bacon is quite salty so you don’t need to go overboard. Add the stock and bring the mixture to a light simmer. Add the cornflour and water to the mixture, so it thickens. Bring to a boil for two minutes. Set aside and leave to cool. Refrigerate until you need to make the perishky.
4. To make the dough, place a frypan on medium heat and add butter. Once the butter is fully melted, add the milk and take the pan off the heat. Add sugar and mix until the sugar dissolves.
5. Let the mixture cool to around 37°C. Add yeast and let it activate (foam and bubble) for 10 minutes.
6. Add salt, eggs and half the flour. Knead in a stand mixer and add enough flour to make a soft dough. Put in a greased bowl, covered and let rise until double in size. There is a fair bit of yeast, so it will rise very quickly.
7. Once ready, roll the dough until it is quite thin.
8. To assemble the perishky, I use a Hunky Bill's pierogi maker: lay one sheet of dough on the Hunky Bill's device, spoon in a generous amount of chilled filling into the perishky, cover with another piece of dough and use a rolling pin to cut them out. If you don’t have a Hunky Bills pierogi maker, roll out the dough into a 5 mm sheet. Use a circle cutter to cut rounds of dough. Spoon in filling and fold the perishky in half.
9. I brush my perishky with egg wash to get a beautiful brown colour, but this step is up to you.
10. Let the dough rise again. Bake at 200˚C in a convection oven for 10-13 minutes. If not serving immediately, these pastries are a great treat to have in the freezer and they microwave up beautifully.
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