Spotlight on Russia

By | Category: Travel destinations

While sparkling wine and salty caviar represent Russia at its most extravagant, the national cuisine is largely based on simpler fare that is robust, filling and delicious. Steaming soups and chilled vodka go a long way to seeing one through the cold, dark winter









According to an old Russian proverb, ‘Shchi (cabbage soup) and kasha (porridge) is our nourishment.’ This saying emphasises the important role played by soups and grains in sustaining generations of peasants. Known as krestyanskaya or `peasant’ fare, Russia’s traditional food remains firmly based on the ingredients gathered, grown and prepared by rural cooks over the ages: fish, poultry, potatoes, mushrooms, berries, grains and garden fruits and vegetables. During the tsarist period, the Russian upper classes took their cues from Europe, for example, speaking French and English amongst themselves. France, especially, was considered the epitome of high culture, an estimation reflected in Russian food. Grilled fish and meats, usually topped with rich sauces, are the essence of haute-russe cuisine.


Roughly translated as ‘butter week‘, Maslenitsa is the traditional festival that takes place in the week leading up to Orthodox Lent. The food of choice for this week-long feast is blini, thin pancakes that are filled with caviar, cheese, mushrooms, meats and sweets. In pagan times, the round shape of the pancake was symbolic of the sun, and so an appropriate way to bid farewell to winter. For Easter Sunday, Russians bake the saffron-flavoured buttery loaf kulich, on which is spread the Easter cheesecake known as paskha, a delicious mix of tvorog (cheese curd), egg yolks, sugar, butter, sour cream and vanilla.


Visitors to a Russian home can expect to be regaled with stories, drowned in vodka and served enormous amount of food on tiny plates. Once the festivities begin, it is difficult to refuse food or drink — guests are sure to go home stuffed, drunk and happy. Dining with friends or strangers inevitably involves copious amounts of toasting. Traditionally, the first toast is always offered to the ladies present, while the second tributes the host. After that, toasting can get creative, often involving long, heartfelt speeches. Guests are also expected to offer a toast — be prepared!



Borshch is the classic Russian soup: ruby hued and steaming hot, it’s a warming blend of beetroot, carrot, cabbage and garlic. The soup may be vegetarian or meaty, with the addition of anything from sausage to chicken hearts. It’s always served with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of fresh dill. In summer, vegetarian beetroot soup served cold (svekolnik) is a refreshing alternative.



Caviar was once the food of Russian imperial luxury reserved for tsars and nobility. Russians spread the fish roe on buttered bread or blini, and wash it down with a slug of vodka or a toast of sparkling wine. The most highly prized is from the roe of the Caspian beluga, but sterlet, ossetra and sevruga sturgeon also yield caviar. Unfortunately, due to overfishing, sturgeon populations have declined drastically in recently years, driving up prices and threatening the fish with extinction. Fish-friendly travellers might consider sticking to ‘red caviar’ (salmon roe) until the sturgeon is in a better place.


When Mongolian invaders stormed across the Siberian steppe in the 13th century, they packed their saddle bags with pelmeni, or dumplings, which made a high-energy snack for hardworking horsemen. This nourishing comfort food has been a staple of Russian cooking ever since. Traditional pelmeni are crafted from an egg-and-flour based dough, and filled with a blend of beef, pork and lamb mince. A few minutes’ hearty boil cooks the dumplings. Then they are served in a clear broth or heaped in a deep bowl with plenty of sour cream and a sprinkle of dill.


The aptly named `fatback’ is the layer of fat on the back of a pig. Cut a slab; cure it with salt, pepper and garlic; store it for a few months in a wooden barrel; and you’ve got the Russian and Ukrainian specialty salo. It might be used as an ingredient in soups or sausage, but most often, it is smothered onto a wedge of black bread and eaten raw, as an accompaniment to vodka or spirits. It’s enough to make health-food fiends wince. But if you can get past the idea of eating pure pig fat, it will make you salivate for more. The rich meaty flavour and melt-in-your-mouth texture of the fat are enhanced by the earthiness and chewiness of the rye bread.




Beer and wine
These days, beer sales outstrip those of traditional vodka. The market leader is Baltika, while fine microbreweries have opened in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities. Wine is also becoming more popular, although it is not really produced locally. Russians drink sparkling wine, or Sovietskoe shampanskoe, to toast special occasions and to sip during intermission at the theatre.


Russians make tea by brewing an extremely strong pot, pouring small shots of it into glasses, and topping the glasses up with hot water. This was traditionally done from the samovar, a metal water urn with an inner tube filled with hot charcoal. Modern samovars have electric elements, like a kettle, which is actually what most Russians use to boil water for tea these days. Putting jam in tea instead of sugar is quite common for those who like it a little sweeter.


The word ‘vodka’ is the diminutive of the Russian word for water, voda, so it means something like ‘a wee drop’. Vodka is normally served chilled and straight up. One person makes a toast, then everyone clinks glasses and knocks it back. Chase with a lemon or a pickle (if necessary). Women can usually get away with sipping, but men will be scoffed at if they don’t knock back at least the first round.





 This extract is adapted from The Food Book © Lonely Planet 2013
A journey through the great cuisines of the world, packed with beautiful food and inspiring destination photography, The Food Book is out now, priced at £14.99


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