Traditional Russian cuisine is all about the comfort of home-cooked food offered with warmth and generosity, which every appreciative guest acknowledges with true Russian etiquette: “Etah ohchen koosnah” or “Thank you, the food was good.”
A loaf of bread and a bowl of salt on a small table covered with a white table cloth symbolize what a beaming Russian host puts into words, “Dobro pozhalova” or “Welcome”. This traditional custom speaks volumes of the warmth and hospitality with which guests, even strangers, are welcomed into a Russian home.
Many of Russia’s foods and culinary traditions are born of the country’s harsh winters and have evolved from the Russian countryside and the two great Russian cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Grains that thrive in the cold such as wheat, rye, barley and buckwheat, and sturdy winter vegetables like beetroot, potatoes, turnips and cabbage form the basis of the cuisine which is simple, hearty food designed to provide warmth and energy.
The wood-fired oven-stove or pech occupied pride of place in the home, suffusing the air with the aromas of slow-cooked gruels, soups and stews, and freshly baked bread and pies. Together with pickled vegetables, mushrooms and fish, and meat from farm-reared cattle and poultry, there was always enough at hand to offer a guest.
If nothing else, even today, there is always kasha, a thick buckwheat or cereal porridge which is the most simple and most revered dish in a Russian home. A cast iron pot of boiling kasha on the stove signifies that all is well in the home, giving rise to the Russian saying, ‘Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha” which in essence translates as “Cabbage soup and porridge are all we need to live on”, giving the nod to cabbage soup or shchi ,the other Russian staple.
And so it was until the seventeenth century when travel and colonization brought in influences from the Orient such as noodles and dumplings, the latter winding up as pelmeni or dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables, a Russian favourite food. Later, the division of Russian society into classes, and an increase in number of the nobility with access to refined European, especially French, dining practices, humble Russian cuisine put on a more sophisticated air. Black caviar which is almost synonymous with Russian fine dining today, was introduced in this period.
Foreign chefs at the court of Peter the Great in the eighteenth century introduced new ingredients like the tomato and a variety of cheeses, as well as new cooking techniques for cooking roasts, minced meat, sausages and pâtés. Later, salads made an entry on Russian menus including the famous Russian Salad or Salade Russe in French, and Salat Olivier as it is known in Russia. Mayonnaise which enrobes most salads in Russia today was another lasting contribution of the French. It is interesting that a Russian menu rarely offers leafy green salads, but rather heartier salads based on root and winter vegetables, doused in mayonnaise or sour cream.
The nobility also introduced one of Russia’s most famed culinary traditions – zakuski or smorgasbord of hors d’oeuvres. Tables groan under the variety and quantity of bite-sized snacks and salads including blini or small pancakes topped with sour cream and caviar or smoked salmon, selodka or herring dressed in oil and vinegar, a variety of smoked and pickled fish, thin slices of cold meats, pirozhki or small fried or baked rolls stuffed with meat or vegetables, pelmeni or dumplings, bright yellow mimosa salad and Salat Olivier, slices of brown or black bread spread with cheese and curd cheese spreads, and an unending array of pickled mushrooms and vegetables. Vegetable caviars such as those made from mushroom and beetroot a particularly favoured zakuska.
Zakuski is a common way of dining and entertaining and is a favoured option for the evening meal in many homes. Mornings begin with savtrak or breakfast which is a simple meal of black or brown bread spread with tvorog or soft curd cheese, or syriniki – cottage cheese pancakes. Kasha is a universal option – porridge made of one of a variety of grains cooked in water or milk and enriched with fruit or vegetables. Chai or tea traditionally brewed in a samovar is the beverage of choice at breakfast and is preferred to coffee by most Russians. A chilled glass of kvass, a non-alcoholic beverage of fermented rye bread, and raisins or other dried fruit is a favourite with all Russians, and is both refreshing as well as believed to be a tonic to cure all ills.
Lunch is a hearty meal of hot meat soup, grains and vegetables such as shchi, borscht or beetroot soup, or solyanka, a thick tomato-based soup. Ukha, a trout or salmon soup is a more luxurious broth, while in summer a refreshing bowl of okroshka, a cold vegetable and meat soup begins the meal. Soup is followed by a main dish of meat with vegetables and/or potatoes on the side. Kotlety or minced beef patties, bef Stroganov with mushrooms and sour cream, shashlyk or skewered lamb kebabs, golubtsy or cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice, and various stewed, roasted or grilled meats form the main part of the meal. Dinner menus are much the same as lunch especially today when working Russians eat their main meal at night.
Russian sweets and desserts are like the rest of Russian food, hearty and comforting. Bliny or pancakes are a particular favourite and come into their own on Maslenitsa or Pancake Day, when housewives display a repertoire of pancakes to celebrate both the end of winter by welcoming the sun, as well as the last day before Lent – a period of fasting leading up to the Christian festival of Easter. Crêpes filled with fruit and smetana or sour cream and coin-sized pancakes vie with each other for favour on the day, and indeed at every celebration. Easter brings forth the famous kulich – a cross between bread and cake studded with dried fruit and nuts, and pascha – a dessert made from sweetened curd cheese and set in a mould impressed with Easter designs and symbols. Kissel, fruit juice thickened with arrowroot or potato starch, is a lighter dessert which is also drunk as a beverage. Charlotte Russe – a sponge lined mould filled with fruit puree or mousse, custard or cream invented by the famous French Chef Marie-Anton Carême , and Sharlotka, a simple apple pudding cake are other popular Russian desserts. Ice creams, however, are every Russian’s passion and are, surprisingly, particularly popular in winter!
Finally, traditional Russian cuisine is all about the comfort of home-cooked food offered with warmth and generosity, which every appreciative guest acknowledges with true Russian etiquette: “Etah ohchen koosnah” or “Thank you, the food was good.”