A Russian proverb states that “shchi and kasha are our food”, meaning that cabbage soup and porridge are all that a Russian needs. Traditional Russian foods are much more diverse than these two staples, however, with pies, breads, beers, desserts, and soups (not all involving cabbage) all on the menu when visiting Russia.
When in Moscow or St. Petersburg, one benefit of having a local guide, such as those provided by Ulko Tours, is being able to find the great restaurants where locals eat, rather than paying exorbitant prices for simple fare, or, even worse, resorting to a familiar fast food chain for fear of trying to pronounce pirozhki! Russia may have a reputation for stodgy food (alongside your vodka), but there are many excellent restaurants in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and all across Russia. During the reign of Catherine the Great, Russian cuisine was strongly influenced by an influx of cooks from France and Austria and dishes such as Veal Orloff, Chicken Kiev, and even Beef Stroganoff could be considered to be 18th Century Franco-Russian inventions.
Popular Russian foods tend to involve potatoes, bread, butter, eggs, and meat. A Muscovite may make their blini and pirozhki quite differently than a Siberian however, making a trip across Russia a foodie’s dream. Borscht, okroshka, pelmeni, and kasha are major features of many Russian menus, with Kvas a popular nonalcoholic beverage to accompany these foodstuffs. The traditional dishes prove ever popular and each generation learns anew how to make a passable blini to fill with caviar (or strawberry jam if you prefer). The Russian terms for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are zavtrak, obed, and uzhin, respectively, and, during lunch or dinner, a salad, or other appetizer, is usually served first, followed by a soup, and then the entrée. The soup is called the pervoe blyudo, which means ‘first dish’ in Russian, and people in this country certainly take their soup seriously.
When it comes to soups, the Russians are remarkable innovators ladling out hot soups, cold soups, meat soups, fish soups (ukha), and vegetable soups with panache. There are even chilled soups with a Kvas base, such as tyura, okroshka, and botvinya, noodle soups, and meat broth (such as rassolnik and solyanka). If you order oroshka, don’t be surprised if your soup arrives with a heavy topping of creme fraiche or sour cream, or even a boiled egg or two. Botvinya is usually a good chilled-soup option for any vegetarians in the party, as the traditional recipe uses the leafy tops of root vegetables, with Kvas, mustard, horseradish, and garlic.
Shchi (cabbage soup) remains the most common first course served in Russia however, with both rich and poor enjoying this traditional soup that is left to stew after cooking. Shchi usually includes meat and cabbage, alongside carrots, and basil (or parsley), and with sour ingredients, such as smetana, apples, or sauerkraut added to the mix. For vegans and vegetarians there is an alternative shchi option available, largely due to the abstinence from meat and dairy practiced by the Orthodox Christian Church at certain times of year in Russia.
Another particularly festive soup is Kal’ya, a fish soup dating back to the 16th Century and using fat, rich fish with caviar and spices alongside the usual pickle water and cucumbers. Traditional borscht is made using beets, tomato juice, and broth with a mix of vegetables such as onions, cabbage, carrots, and celery. Beef or other meat is usually included and, traditionally, the soup is served with bread and Smetana (fresh sour cream).
Pies, Dumplings, and Dessert
Other traditional Russian foods include little pastry parcels packed with meat, vegetables, potatoes, cheese, and/or cabbage. These are known as pirozhki, and are very popular in Russia. Pelmeny are pastry dumplings, usually filled with meatballs, and often served alone, with a generous dollop of butter or sour cream, although they are often an addition to a soup or broth. Pelmeny (or pelmeni) have a peculiar, ear-like, shape, which is where their name comes from, and these are one of the most traditional Russian foods forming a main dish. The pastry dumplings are made by wrapping a thin pastry around mince or other filling before plunging them into hot water and boiling them until they float.
As well as being afficionados of dumpling-making, Russians are also particularly fond of ice cream. Called morozhenoe, ice cream is a regular feature on restaurant menus and comes with a variety of delicious toppings such as nuts, chocolate, fruit, and caviar (just joking).
Breakfast – Russian-Style
If you’re staying at a hotel whilst on a tour of St. Petersburg or Moscow, a continental-style breakfast is likely to be served, but many Russians have a large breakfast to see them through the morning’s hard work. Cafes are abundant and serve excellent coffee and tasty Russian pancakes (blini) sure to tempt even the most fickle of taste-buds. Blini are like crepes, made from yeast-leavened buckwheat flour, and traditionally filled with red caviar. They can also be served with a jam, cheese, onion, or chocolate filling, or even rice, meat, and vegetables in some restaurants. These Russian pancakes even have their own festival, the Maslenitsa festival in spring. Russians like their pancakes.The caviar served with blini is another food on the ‘must try’ list for any Russian holiday. Ikra (caviar) in Russia is rich, briny, and sharp, a real treat, especially when served on dark, buttered, crusty bread. If unfertilized sturgeon roe is not your idea of a good breakfast however, you could try the warming and nutritious kasha, or porridge, made with a variety of grains and served with honey, milk, or berries. Savory kasha is also popular, including peas, or vegetables.
Traditional Russian Cuisine
Russian cuisine is a key part of the culture and heritage of the country, representing as it does a wide variety of influences from Europe and Asia. Much of the food has its origins in the peasant food relied upon by a rural population in a harsh climate. There is a large amount of respect for the land and what it can provide, with many meals featuring fish, poultry, game, and foraged foods like mushrooms and berries, alongside the cereal crops grown on farmland. Cereal grains are also used to make the popular nonalcoholic beverage Kvas in Russia. This ‘bread drink’ may have fruit or herbs added to it and is considered highly nutritious by most Russians. The fermented aspect of the drink gives it that sour taste that Russians seem so fond of, but the alcohol content is low enough (less than 1%) that even children can enjoy the drink. Russian hospitality is renowned and should you be lucky enough to be invited into a local family’s home whilst visiting Russia you’ll most likely be presented with a table of magnificent food, all fresh, homemade, and delicious. Ensure that you book a private tour with a local guide, such as Ulko Tours, then you’ll be able to bypass the lacklustre tourist-fare and enjoy the delights of real Russian cuisine. Traditional Russian foods are hearty, flavorsome, and sure to have you trying your hand at making pirozhkis when you return home.