Russian cuisine is as diverse and eclectic as the country itself. The largest country in the world, Russia has a vast, multi-cultural population and the roots of its cuisine are firmly embedded in the traditional peasant foods of the rural population.
Add to this Russia’s great expansions of culture, influence and interests during the 16th – 18th centuries which brought with them more refined foods and techniques which blended to create one of the most refined food cultures in the world.
Black bread is commonly available while pirozhki, blini and syrniki are native types of pancakes.
Smetana (a heavy sour cream) is often added to soups and salads.
Shchi has been the predominant course in Russian cuisine for millennia. It has survived many changes in taste and is not restricted by social or class boundaries. If the rich had the richer ingredients and the poor made it solely of cabbage and onions, it is cooked in the same traditional manner. The unique taste comes from the fact that after cooking it is left to draw or stew. The “Spirit of shchi” is inseparable from the izba (a Russian log hut) Shchi can include a number of ingredients but cabbage and sauerkraut (a sour component) are a must.
Ukha is a warm fish broth to which a minimum of vegetables is added during preparation. In classical cooking ukha is simply a rich fish broth served to accompany fish pies (rasstegai, kuliebiaka, etc.) for which a wide variety of freshwater fish are traditionally used.
Kal’ya was a very common dish during the 16th and 17th centuries but subsequently it almost disappeared from Russian cuisine entirely. The cooking technique is mostly the same as of ukha, but to the broth were added pickled cucumbers, pickle water, lemons and lemon juice. More spices are also added, and the subsequent soup turns out more piquant and thicker than ukha.
Solyanka is another thick, piquant soup that combines components from shchi (cabbage, smetana) and rassolnik (pickle water and cucumbers) with the addition of olives, capers, tomatoes, lemons, lemon juice, kvass, salted and pickled mushrooms. It can be made from fish, meat, vegetables or any combination thereof.
The first is as a boiled joint (that also provides a stock for soups), second using offal (liver, tripe, etc.) baked in pots together with cereals and thirdly whole, or part, fowl dishes baked on a baking tray in an oven or “zharkoye”
The most common additives to meat dishes are porridges and cereals and baked root vegetables (turnips, carrots) Mushrooms and pickled products served in the pan juices or resultant broth are also fairly common. Pan juices, alone or mixed with sour cream or melted butter is used as gravy to pour on vegetables and porridges. Meat sauces such as gravies that are based on flour and butter are not common in traditional Russian cuisine.
Pelmeni (similar to dumplings or ravioli) are a traditional Eastern European dish usually made with minced meat filling, wrapped in thin dough (made out of flour and eggs, sometimes with milk or water added) For the filling, pork, lamb, beef, or any other kind of meat can be used though mixing several kinds is popular. The resulting dish is served with butter or sour cream while some recipes suggest frying pelmeni after boiling until they turn golden brown.
Kotlety (minced cutlets, meatballs), are a Western European dish popular in modern Russia. Ground beef, pork, onions and bread are put in a bowl and mixed thoroughly until it becomes relatively consistent. Balls are then formed and fried in hot oil.
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. The kebabs did not reach Moscow until the late 19th century but from then on their popularity spread rapidly and by the 20’s they were already a pervasive street food throughout urban Russia.
Pirozhki (diminutive of “pirog” or pie) are small stuffed buns 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”) One feature of pirozhki that sets them apart from English pies is that the fillings are invariably cooked. Meat, rice, fish, potato cabbage and mushrooms can all be used as fillings.
Blini are thin pancakes made with yeasted batter which are often served in connection with a religious rite or festival. A symbol of the sun, due to their round form, they were traditionally prepared at the end of the winter to honour the rebirth of the new sun during Maslenitsa
(also known as Pancake Week) Blini can be made from wheat, buckwheat, or other grains and are often served with caviar.
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 and is broadly equivalent to Scandinavian mead.
Vodka is the most well-known of Russia’s alcoholic products and is produced, with some variation, throughout the country.
Vodka can be either grain or potato based and is frequently flavoured with a great variety of ingredients ranging from hot-pepper and horseradish to fruits and berries.
Beer has been manufactured in Russia since the 9th century, but real growth in the industry didn’t come about until the 18th century when many breweries were founded in order to supply the newly modernized and expanded imperial army and fleet.
Tea is by far the most common drink in almost all parts of Russia. First introduced from China in the 17th century, its popularity has since spread throughout the country. Black tea has always been the dominant variety, but after the Russian acquisition of Central Asia, awareness of, and interest in, green tea began to increase slowly.
Coffee is also popular but has never caught up to tea in popularity. Peter the Great is credited with introducing coffee to Russia. Coffee is commonly made either using the Turkish or European methods.