We feed on the words of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov, but what was the daily sustenance that fed these great minds? Russian food might not exactly be making waves on the mainstream #foodie circuit but if you’re willing to go beyond the vodka and caviar cliché, this huge country has more than its fair share of delicious culinary surprises tucked in the heart of every Russian kitchen.
What it is: A traditional Russian beet soup. There are many variations but the classic version contains meat, an assortment of vegetables and a dollop of Smetana (Russian sour cream) on top.
Backstory: Russian cuisine is big on soups but the humble borscht is the true star to which all other regional soups aspire to. Many countries have tried to lay claim to this (originally Ukrainian) beetroot soup, but regardless of its origins, we can all agree it would an offense for you to leave Russia without having a bowl of this delicious belly warming broth.
What it is: A thick spicy and sour soup that contains thick chunks of beef and/or pork and pickled cucumbers.
Backstory: Sources differ as to the origin of the word “solyanka” but we do know it was first mentioned in Russian literature in the 15th century. Like most Russian soups, the recipe of solyanka is not carved in stone. Some variations feature fish, others have mushrooms but they ALL contain pickled cucumbers. Russian nobility used to turn their nose up at the hearty soup, believing it to be the food of commoners as it was warming, filling and energizing after a hard day’s labour.
What it is: A tortellini shaped dumping made from thin unleavened dough. Usually stuffed with minced meat or mushrooms.
Backstory: Nobody knows where pelmeni originally came from. Rumour has it that the Mongols brought these stuffed dumplings to Siberia and the Urals, where it eventually made its way to Russia. Nourishing and easy-to-make, we can certainly see why pelmeni is popular amongst Russian college students in addition to being an integral part of Russian cuisine.
What it is: A cold salad made from diced eggs, potatoes, carrots and peas, doused in copious amounts of mayonnaise.
Backstory: No Russian celebration is complete without the inconspicuous Salad Olivier gracing the dinner table, but did you know this national favourite has decidedly non-Russian roots? Salad Olivier came into being during Belgian chef Lucien Olivier’s culinary stint at the Hermitage. The dish was such a hit with patrons that it became one of the restaurant’s signatures. Over time, people began recreating the dish at home, and the rest, they say is history.
Shuba aka “Herring Under Fur Coat”
What it is: A traditional layered salad made from diced pickled herring, buried beneath layers of beets, carrots, potatoes, eggs and dressed with either mayonnaise or a sour cream base.
Backstory: Legend has it that the salad was created by restaurant merchant Anastas Bogomilov during the Russian Revolution. To dispel the drunk fights and arguments happening at his restaurant, the clever Anastas devised a dish that was to be a symbol of national unification for all. The first shuba salad was served on the eve of New Year’s Day, 1918 and since then, the shuba tradition has continued into modern times, with Russians of all ages enjoying the dish on New Year’s Day.
What it is: Marinated lamb on skewers. Can also be made of pork or beef, depending on regional tastes. Similar to Shish kebab.
Backstory: Shashlik’s history is long and vague. Although now a common street food in the urban areas of Russia, the dish was unheard of until its arrival in Moscow in the late 19th century. Russians have since put their own spin on this Middle Eastern delicacy with smaller meat pieces and vegetables interspersed between. The dish makes is a popular choice during summer BBQ’s.
What it is: Cabbage leaves stuffed with shredded ground beef, lamb or pork, seasoned with garlic and sometimes topped with sour cream.
Backstory: Although the direct heritage of golubty can’t be determined, we do know the humble cabbage roll has since grown to become a dish that makes an appearance at the dinner table on Christmas, New Years and other festive celebrations.
What it is: Russian baked milk prepared by simmering milk on the lowest heat for the longest hours. Also known as baked milk. Think of it as the healthier version of dulce de leche.
Backstory: Cultured milk is consumed on a daily basis in Russia but the dairy drink that holds special place in the heart of Russians is ryazhenka. Historically prepared in a traditional Russian oven, ryazhenka is baked until it turns into a beautiful café con leche colour with a creamy texture. Although not sweet, ryazhenka is considered more of a dessert drink in Russia and unlike most desserts, this one has multiple health benefits, from making your skin more luminous to treating inflammatory diseases of the liver, pancreas and gallbladder.
What it is: Crepe-like pancakes made from buckwheat flour. They can be sweet or savoury depending on the fillings, which range from caviar to cream cheese and raspberry jam.
Backstory: Blinis or Russian pancakes were a culinary staple during Maslenitsa (Pagan festival celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring) where they were consumed in huge quantities to celebrate the arrival of spring. Today however, blinis are eaten all throughout the year and most Russian restaurants will have the entrée dish listed on their menu.
What it is: Deep fried donuts with powdered sugar on top.
Backstory: Russian donuts are called pyshki and while they may resemble your average bakery donut, they are far lighter and crispier in taste. Rarely will you find a psyhki coated with anything other than powdered sugar. Cheap, greasy and convenient, psyhki is a sweet, no-frills introduction to snacks from Soviet times.