For some time I have been under the erroneous assumption that beef stroganoff is a Hungarian dish. Must be the paprika and sour cream. The fact is, beef stroganoff originated in Russia with nary a dash of paprika. It was originally flavoured with mustard.
I learned this culinary fact in September when I visited Russia for the first time, specifically the city of St. Petersburg, where the Stroganov family lived in opulent comfort. Their home — a grand pink palace near the centre of the city — is now a museum and nearby restaurants proudly serve their namesake dish of beef, mushrooms and sour cream.
How did it come to be? The story of beef stroganoff is a mix of fact and fancy. A popular legend says the dish was created by a French chef in the employ of the Stroganov family. As the story goes, Count Stroganov had such poor teeth he could no longer eat steak. A dish of tender bits of beef in a creamy sauce fit the bill. At least that’s what the tourists are told.
At the time, Russian aristocracy loved everything French so it’s easy to imagine the richest family in Russia had a French chef. That part rings true. As such, the original recipe for beef stroganoff was a marriage of French cuisine (seasoning with mustard) and Russian tastes (a good dollop of sour cream). The recipe was first published in a popular Russian cookbook in 1871 and soon became a favourite in home kitchens and restaurants. With the communist revolution of 1917 and the civil war that followed, many aristocratic Russian families fled their country for China, taking the recipe for beef stroganoff with them. Whereas in Russia beef stroganoff was (and still is) traditionally served with potatoes, in China it was served with noodles or rice. Eventually, Russian émigrés made their way to America, bringing their taste for beef stroganoff with them. The rest, as they say, is history.
The original recipe did not include paprika or mushrooms, but both are a popular variation on the theme, as is the practice of serving beef stroganoff over egg noodles. Nor is beef the required meat. I made a delicious version of beef stroganoff using beaver, the meat provided by friends who trap. If you would like to make beaver stroganoff, heed this advice: trim the meat of visible fat, boil for 20 minutes in plenty of water, remove and cool, then proceed with the recipe. Honestly, you’ll hardly know it isn’t beef.
I’ve included a picture (at top) of beef stroganoff served in a restaurant just a few blocks from the Stroganov Palace in St. Petersburg. On mashed potatoes, of course.