- Russian cuisine
Russian cuisine (Russian: Русская кухня, tr. Russkaya kuhnya) is diverse, as Russia is the largest country in the world. Russian cuisine derives its varied character from the vast and multi-cultural expanse of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate, with a combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Soups and stews full of flavor are centered on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. This wholly native food remained the staple for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century.
Russia's great expansions of territory, influence, and interest during the 16th–18th centuries brought more refined foods and culinary techniques, as well as one of the most refined food countries in the world. It was during this period that smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, chocolate, ice cream, wines, and liquor were imported from abroad. At least for the urban aristocracy and provincial gentry, this opened the doors for the creative integration of these new foodstuffs with traditional Russian dishes. The result is extremely varied in technique, seasoning, and combination.
From the time of Catherine the Great, every family of influence imported both the products and personnel — mainly French and Austrian — to bring the finest, rarest, and most creative foods to their table. This is nowhere more evident than in the exciting, elegant, highly nuanced, and decadent repertoire of the Franco-Russian chef. Many of the foods that are considered in the West to be traditionally Russian actually come from the Franco-Russian cuisine of the 18th and 19th centuries, and include such widespread dishes as Veal Orloff, Beef Stroganoff, and Chicken Kiev.
Soups have always played an important role in the Russian meal. The traditional staple of soups such as shchi (щи), ukha (уха́), rassolnik (рассо́льник), solyanka (соля́нка), botvinnik (ботви́нник), okroshka (окро́шка), and tyurya (тю́ря) was enlarged in the 18th to 20th centuries by both European and Central Asian staples like clear soups, pureed soups, stews, and many others.
Russian soups can be divided into at least seven large groups:
- Chilled soups based on kvass, such as tyurya, okroshka, and botvinya.
- Light soups and stews based on water and vegetables.
- Noodle soups with meat, mushrooms, and milk.
- Soups based on cabbage, most prominently shchi.
- Thick soups based on meat broth, with a salty-sour base like rassolnik and solyanka.
- Fish soups such as ukha.
- Grain- and vegetable-based soups.
Okroshka is a cold soup based on kvass or, less often, sour milk. The main ingredients of both types are vegetables that can be mixed with cold boiled meat or fish in a 1:1 proportion . Thus vegetable, meat, and fish varieties of okroshka are made.
There are typically two types of vegetables in okroshka. The first must have a neutral taste, such as boiled potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, or fresh cucumbers. The second must be spicy, consisting of mainly green onion as well as other herbs—greens of dill, parsley, chervil, celery, or tarragon. Different meat and poultry can be used in the same soup. The most common ingredient is beef alone or with poultry. If it is made with fish, the best choice would be tench, European perch, pike-perch, cod, or other neutral-tasting fish.
The kvass most commonly used in cooking is white okroshka kvass, which is much more sour than drinking kvass. Spices used include mustard, black pepper and pickled cucumber (specifically, the liquid from the pickles), solely or in combination. For the final touch, boiled eggs and smetana (a heavy sour cream, similar to crème fraîche) are added.
For sour milk based okroshka, well shaken up natural sour milk(often with the addition of seed oil) is used with the addition of pure water and ground garlic. Sometimes manufactured kefir is used instead of natural sour milk for time saving reasons, though some say it detracts from the original taste of okroshka.
Tyurya is very similar to okroshka, the main difference being that instead of vegetables, bread is soaked in kvass. It is rather historical meal, that was consumed during rough times (WWII, WWI, Revolution) and by poor peasants. Also, due to its simplicity, it was very common as a meal during religious fasting.
Botvinya is another type of cold soup. The name of the soup comes from the Russian word botva, which means "leafy tops of root vegetables", and the ingredients are in line with the name: leafy tops of young beet, sorrel, green onions, dill, cucumbers, and two types of kvass, then some mustard, garlic, and horseradish as spices. The vegetables are rubbed through a sieve and kvass is poured over.
Shchi (cabbage soup) had been the predominant first course in Russian cuisine for over a thousand years. Although tastes have changed, it steadily made its way through several epochs. Shchi knew no social class boundaries, and even if the rich had richer ingredients and the poor made it solely of cabbage and onions, all these "poor" and "rich" variations were cooked in the same tradition. The unique taste of this cabbage soup was from the fact that after cooking it was left to draw (stew) in a Russian stove. The "Spirit of shchi" was inseparable from a Russian izba (log hut). Many Russian proverbs are connected to this soup, such as Shchi da kasha pishcha nasha (Russian: Щи да каша — пища наша, "Shchi and porridge are our staples"). It can be eaten regularly, and at any time of the year.
The richer variant of shchi includes several ingredients, but the first and last components are a must:
- Meat (very rarely fish or mushrooms).
- Carrots, basil or parsley roots.
- Spicy herbs (onions, celery, dill, garlic, pepper, bay leaf).
- Sour components (smetana, apples, sauerkraut, pickle water).
When this soup is served, smetana is added. It is eaten with rye bread. During much of the year when the Orthodox Christian Church prescribes abstinence from meat and dairy, a vegan version of shchi is made. "Kislye" (sour) schi are made from pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), "serye" (grey) schi from the green outer leaves of the cabbage head. "Zelyonye" (green) schi are made from sorrel leaves, not cabbage, and used to be a popular summer soup.
Ukha is a warm watery fish dish, however calling it a fish soup would not be absolutely correct. "Ukha" as a name for fish broth was established only in the late 17th to early 18th centuries. In earlier times this name was first given to thick meat broths, and then later chicken. Beginning from the 15th century, fish was more and more often used to prepare ukha, thus creating a dish that had a distinctive taste among soups.
A minimum of vegetables is added in preparation, and in classical cooking ukha was simply a rich fish broth served to accompany fish pies (rasstegai, kuliebiaka, etc.). These days it is more often a fish soup, cooked with potatoes and other vegetables. A wide variety of freshwater fish is traditionally used.
Rassolnik is a hot soup in a salty-sour cucumber base. This dish formed in Russian cuisine quite late—only in the 19th century. About this time the name rassolnik was attached to it, originating from the Russian word "rassol" which means brine (pickle water). Pickle water was known to be used as base for soups from the 15th century at the latest. Its concentration and ratio with other liquids and soup components gave birth to different soups: solyanka, pohmelka, and of course rassolnik. The latest are moderately sour-salty soups on pickled cucumber base. Some are vegetarian, but more often with products like veal or beef kidneys or all poultry giblets (stomach, liver, heart, neck, feet). For best taste there has to be a balance between the sour part and neutral absorbers (cereals, potatoes, root vegetables). Typical rassolnik is based on kidneys, brine (and pickles), vegetables and barley.
Kal'ya was a very common dish first served in the 16th–17th centuries. Subsequently it almost completely disappeared from Russian cuisine. Often it was incorrectly called "fish rassolnik." The cooking technique is mostly the same as of ukha, but to the broth were added pickled cucumbers, pickle water, lemons and lemon juice, either separately or all together. The main characteristic of kal'ya is that only fat, rich fish was used; sometimes caviar was added along with the fish. More spices are added, and the soup turns out more piquant and thicker than ukha. Formerly kal'ya was considered a festivity dish.
Solyanka is a thick, piquant soup that combines components from schi (cabbage, smetana) and rassolnik (pickle water and cucumbers), spices such as olives, capers, tomatoes, lemons, lemon juice, kvass, salted and pickled mushrooms are make up a considerably strong sour-salty base of the soup. Solyanka is much thicker than other soups, about 1/3 less liquid ratio. Three types are distinguished: meat, fish, and simple solyanka. The first two are cooked on strong meat or fish broths, and the last on mushroom or vegetable broth. All the broths are mixed with cucumber pickle water.
Lapsha (noodle soup) was adopted by Russians from Tatars, and after some transformation became widespread in Russia. It comes in three variations: chicken, mushroom, and milk. Cooking all three is simple, including preparation of noodles, cooking of corresponding broth, and boiling of noodles in broth. Noodles are based on the same wheat flour or buckwheat/wheat flour mix. Mixed flour noodles go better with mushroom or milk broth.
Borscht [pronounced without the t at the end in Russian] is made of broth, beets, and tomato juice with various vegetables. Vegetables include onions, cabbage, tomato, carrots, and celery. Borscht always includes meat, usually beef in Russia, pork in the Ukraine. The mistake is frequently made of serving borscht cold, though nothing can be further from tradition. Borscht must be served very hot, with a dollop of sour cream, chopped chives or parsley, and crushed garlic. The mistake is due to the existence of another red, beet-based soup, also eaten with sour cream, but usually vegetarian--svekol'nik, from the work svekla, meaning 'beet'. One occasionally chops sausages or deli meats into a plate of svekol'nik, but this is not necessary. Unlike borscht, a cold-weather dish, svekol'nik is a light summer soup, and is indeed always served cold, preferably accompanied by kvass. Borscht is traditionally served with black bread and ice-cold vodka. The bottle must be kept in the freezer, not the refrigerator, and placed back there between shots. The vodka accompanying a plate of borscht (ideally thick enough to stand a spoon in) must never be taken on the rocks or in any other way diluted. A shot of ice-cold vodka is followed by a spoon of very hot borscht and a mouthful of black rye bread, with or without butter.
In traditional Russian cuisine three basic variations of meat dishes can be highlighted:
- a large boiled piece of meat cooked in a soup or porridge, and then used as second course or served cold (particularly in jellied stock—see Kholodets' below)
- offal dishes (liver, tripe, etc.), baked in pots together with cereals;
- whole fowl dishes or parts of fowl (legs or breasts), or a large piece of meat (rump) baked on a baking tray in an oven, so-called "zharkoye" (from the word "zhar"(жар) meaning "heat")
The 16th century "Domostroi" aimed at affluent households also mentions sausage-making, spit-roasted meats, stews and many other meat dishes.
As a garnish to meat dishes in the past the most common were porridges and cereals, in which the meat was boiled, later on boiled or rather steamed and baked root vegetables (turnips, carrots) as well as mushrooms; additionally the meat, without taking account its type, was garnished with pickled products—pickled cabbage, sour and "soaked" (marinated) apples (mochoniye yabloki), soaked cranberries, "vzvar"s. Pan juices, alone or mixed with sour cream or melted butter is used as gravy to pour on garnishing vegetables and porridges. Meat sauces i.e. gravies based on flour, butter, eggs and milk, are not common for traditional Russian cuisine.
Kholodets (or Studen'): Jellied chopped pieces of pork or veal meat with some spices added (pepper, parsley, garlic, bay leaf) and minor amounts of vegetables (carrots, onions). The meat is boiled in large pieces for long periods of time, then chopped, boiled a few times again and finally chilled for 3–4 hours (hence the name) forming a jelly mass, though gelatine is not used because calves' feet, pigs' heads and other such offal is gelatinous enough on its own. It is served with horseradish, mustard, or ground garlic with smetana.
Pelmeni (пельмени in Russian, singular pelmen, пельмень; пяльмені in Belarusian) are a traditional Eastern European (mainly Russian) dish usually made with minced meat filling, wrapped in thin dough (made out of flour and eggs, sometimes with milk or water added). For filling, pork, lamb, beef, or any other kind of meat can be used; mixing several kinds is popular. The traditional Ural recipe requires the filling be made with 45% of beef, 35% of lamb, and 20% of pork. Traditionally, various spices, such as pepper, onions, and garlic, are mixed into the filling.
Russians seem to have learned to make pelmeni from Finnic and Tatar peoples of the Taiga, the Urals and Siberia. The word means "ear-shaped bread" in Finnic languages such as Udmurt and Komi. In Siberia they were made in large quantities and stored safely frozen outside for several winter months. In mainland Russia, the term "Siberian Pel'meni" refers to pel'meni made with a mix of meats (whether the 45/35/20 mix mentioned above, or another ratio), rather than a single meat. By the late 19th century, they became a staple throughout urban European Russia. They are prepared immediately before eating by boiling in water until they float, and then 2–5 minutes more. The resulting dish is served with butter and/or sour cream (mustard, horseradish, and vinegar are popular as well). Some recipes suggest frying pelmeni after boiling until they turn golden brown.
Pelmeni belong to the family of dumplings. Akin to vareniki: Ukrainian variety of dumplings with filling made of mashed potatoes, farmer's cheese, or cherries, to mention the most popular three. They are not dissimilar to Chinese potstickers, Tibetan mo-mo and Italian ravioli, as well as the Manti of the Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures. The main difference between pelmeni and other kinds of dumplings is in their shape and size — the typical pelmen' is roughly spherical and is about 2 to 3 cm in diameter, whereas most other types of dumplings are usually elongated and much larger.
The process of making pelmeni is somewhat labor-intensive, but a device known as "pelmennitsa" greatly speeds up the task. It consists of a typically round aluminum plate with a matrix of holes surrounded by ridges. A sheet of dough is placed over the matrix, filling is scooped into each "cell", and the dough sags under the weight of the filling, forming the body of the dumpling. Another sheet of dough is placed on top, and a wooden roller is rolled over the top, pressing the dough layers together, cutting the dumplings apart by the ridges, and forcing the dumplings to fall through the holes. Using a pelmennitsa, the chef can quickly manufacture batches of dumplings at a time (illustration shows a traditional pelmennitsa configuration with a hexagonal pattern of 37 holes, although other forms and shapes exist).
Various minced meat dishes were adopted from other cuisines and became popular only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; for traditional Russian cuisine they are not typical.
Kotlety (cotelettes, meatballs), a Western European dish popular in modern Russian households, are small pan-fried meat balls, not dissimilar from Salisbury steak and other such dishes. Made primarily from pork and beef (sometimes also from chicken or fish), they are easily made and require little time. Milk, onions, ground beef, and pork are put in a bowl and mixed thoroughly until it becomes relatively consistent. Once this effect is achieved, balls are formed and then put into a hot frying pan to cook. When meat was in short supply, a portion of it could be substituted with bread to protect the size and flavour of the kotlety.
Shashlyk is a form of Shish kebab (marinated meat grilled on a skewer) popular in former Soviet Union countries, notably in Georgia, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. It often features alternating slices of meat and onions. Even though the word "shashlyk" was apparently borrowed from the Crimean Tatars by the Cossacks as early as the 16th century, kebabs did not reach Moscow until the late 19th century, according to Vladimir Gilyarovsky's "Moscow and Moscovites". From then on, their popularity spread rapidly; by the 1910s they were a staple in St Petersburg restaurants and by the 1920s they were already a pervasive street food all over urban Russia. Shashlik is also used in Russia as a food to be cooked in outdoor environment, similarly to barbecue in English-speaking countries.
Fish was important in pre-revolutionary cuisine, especially on Russian Orthodox fast days when meat was forbidden, similar to the Catholic custom of eating fish instead of meat on Fridays. Strictly freshwater fish such as carp and sudak (Sander lucioperca, Zander) were commonly eaten in inland areas, as well as anadromous sturgeon and in northern areas salmon, pike and trout. A greater variety of fish—including saltwater species—were preserved by salting, pickling or smoking and consumed as "zakuski" (hors d'oeuvres).
Pies and pancakes
Pirozhki (singular: pirozhok; diminutive of "pirog" [pie]) are small stuffed buns (pies) made of either yeast dough or short pastry. They are filled with one of many different fillings and are either baked (the ancient Slavic method) or shallow-fried (known as "priazhenie", this method was borrowed from the Tatars in the 16th century). One feature of pirozhki that sets them apart from, for example, English pies is that the fillings used are almost invariably fully cooked. The use of chopped hard-boiled eggs in fillings is another interesting feature. Six typical fillings for traditional pirozhki are:
- Chopped boiled meat mixed with sautéed onions
- Rice and boiled eggs with dill
- Fish sautéed with onions and mixed with hard-boiled chopped eggs and rice
- Mashed potatoes mixed with dill and green onion
- Sautéed cabbage
- Sautéed mushrooms with onions and sometimes carrots
Blini are thin pancakes made with yeasted batter which are often served in connection with a religious rite or festival. The word "blin" (singular of blini) comes from Old Slavic "mlin", which means "to mill". Blins had a somewhat ritual significance for early Slavic peoples in pre-Christian times since they were a symbol of the sun, due to their round form. They were traditionally prepared at the end of the winter to honor the rebirth of the new sun during Maslenitsa (Масленица, Butter Week; also known as Pancake Week). This tradition was adopted by the Orthodox Church and is carried on to the present day, as the last week of dairy and egg products before Lent. Bliny are still often served at wakes, to commemorate the recently deceased. Blini can be made from wheat, buckwheat, or other grains, although wheat blini are most popular in Russia. They may be topped with butter, smetana (sour cream), fruit preserves or caviar.
Vatrushka is a kind of cake with a ring of dough and tvorog (cottage cheese) in the middle, often with raisins or bits of fruit, from about five inches to two and a half feet in diameter.
Cabbage, potatoes, and cold tolerant greens are common in Russian and other Eastern European cuisines. Pickling cabbage, cucumbers, rutabagas and other vegetables in brine is used to preserve vegetables for winter use. Pickled apples and some other fruit also used to be widely popular. These are sources of vitamins during periods when fresh fruit and vegetables are traditionally not available.
Many traditional drinks are indigenous to Russia and are not present in other national cuisines. The most notable of these are vodka, sbiten', kvass, medovukha and mors. Many of them are no longer common and have been replaced by drinks originating in Europe. Nonetheless, these beverages were formerly drunk as a complement to meat and poultry dishes, sweet porridge, and dessert. Of particular note is sbiten, an immensely popular medieval drink which has since been replaced by tea as the Russian mainstay beverage.
Of Russia's alcoholic beverages, perhaps the most ancient is Medovukha, a sweet, low-alcohol drink, made with fermented-honey with the addition of various spices. A stronger honey-based beverage, stavlenniy myod, also exists in Russia and is broadly equivalent to Scandinavian mead; it is typically made with the admixture of berry juices.
Vodka is the most well-known of Russia's alcoholic products and is produced, with some variation, through-out the country. Vodka can be either grain or potato based and is frequently flavored with a great variety of ingredients ranging from hot-pepper and horseradish to fruits and berries.
Beer has been manufactured in Russia since at the very least the 9th century. Its popularity was for many centuries concentrated in the Lands of Novgorod. Beer continued to be made throughout Russian history, but real growth came in the 18th century when many breweries were founded in order to supply the newly modernized and expanded imperial army and fleet. A real explosion in the popularity of beer came in the last decades of the Soviet Era and has continued into the present day, with Russia now ranking as the fourth largest producer in the world.
Wine is manufactured in the southern regions in the country, but lags far behind other alcoholic beverages in popularity. The wine industry, which was somewhat notable in imperial times, is slowly expanding, but most Russians that drink wine tend to prefer imported foreign varieties, including those little known in the outside world (Specifically Georgian and Moldovan wines).
Kvass is an ancient and still widely popular bread-based drink. The basic method of preparing kvass includes water, flour and malt liquid; these ingredients are then used to make a dough which is subjected to fermentation (which results in the beverage being low-alcoholic, commercial kvas is often around .5 % alcoholic). This fermented liquid, referred to as "zator" is diluted with water and mixed with yeast, sugar and aromatic additives. This final mixture is allowed to brew for several days. Flavor additives may include fruit and berry juices (cherry, raspberry, lemon, etc.), as well as ginger and mint.
Sbiten, a non-alcoholic (or very little alcohol) drink, is made of honey, water, fruit juices and spices. Sbiten was once the most popular non-alcoholic bevarage in the country, but in the last centuries has, been superseded and largely replaced by tea.
Another popular drink is mors, which is made of sweetened fruit juices diluted with water.
Tea is by far the most common drink in contemporary Russia. First introduced to Russia from China in the 17th century, its popularity has since spread throughout the country. Black tea has always been the dominant variety of this drink, but after the Russian acquisition of Central Asia, awareness of and interest in green tea began to increase slowly. Today Russia remains one of the largest tea consumers in the world.
Most tea is imported, and until the Sino-Soviet split, originated mostly in China. Now Russia imports most of its tea from India and Sri Lanka, with Darjeeling being the most prized variety. Domestic cultivation exists in the southern regions of the country (mostly in Krasnodar Krai), but local supply is very limited compared to national consumption.
Coffee, although popular, has never caught up to tea in popularity. Peter The Great is credited with introducing coffee to Russia, with the drink becoming steadily more pervasive since that time. Coffee is commonly made either using the turkish or common European method.
Salads and other foods
- Olivje (from French surname Olivier) salad: a mayonnaise-based potato salad distinguished by its diced texture and the contrasting flavors of pickles, capers, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and peas. Russian salad is a similar salad.
- Vinegret (from French vinaigrette): boiled red beet root salad with onions, pickled cucumbers, boiled potatoes, carrots, and herring.*
Sel'd' pod shuboy (or Shuba, from Russian шуба (fur coat)): also known as "dressed herring" is chopped salted herring under a "coat" of shredded cooked beet, sometimes with a layer of egg or other vegetables 
- Varen'e (Варенье): a dessert from cooking berries; similar to jam.
- Blog about Russian cuisine
- Russian cuisine restaurants outside of Russia
- Articles about Russian cuisine with recipes
- Russian cuisine restaurant in Moscow
- The best New Year's recipes from Russia Irakli Iosebashvili, December, 16 2009, Russia Beyond the Headlines
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