“Food is our common ground, a universal experience”
– James Beard
Why is it that all the magic happens in the kitchen? During my travels and throughout my life as a self-proclaimed foodie, I have learned that food and cooking are magical phenomenons. You see, food transcends cultural boundaries; you don’t need to understand someone else’s language to understand their passion for food. It is merely demonstrated to you by way of pleasant sounds, facial expressions, and hand gestures. You can learn so much about a culture by entering their kitchen, especially in the home of a local person.
During our four weeks in Russia, we were very lucky to be able to visit with Sasha’s family and have lots of home-cooked meals. I had been introduced to Russian food by Sasha’s parents while visiting them in Boulder, but experiencing it with the local ingredients from the region itself was a whole other world. (They don’t mess around with meals; the table is always ornately dressed with their finest silver and crystal.)
Russian food may come across as bland to some people, as they are not overly zealous about sauces; just a simple topping of sour cream, chopped green onions, and salt will make them happy. Because Russia is such a massive country and far away from countries who love heavy sauces and bold flavors (i.e. India and Mexico), and because not many people immigrate into Russia, there isn’t a great deal of influence from other countries when it comes to food. While there are some Korean, Chinese and Japanese sushi restaurants popping up in the big cities, they still have a ways to go in terms of making these cuisines taste fully authentic without the “Russian flare”.
As an example of Korean food, below are some photos of a decent Korean restaurant we stumbled upon on the same street as our Thai Massage called Kim & Chi. This place had quick service, but most sit-down restaurants in Russia will take quite a while for food to come out because they typically make everything to-order and from scratch, unlike many American restaurants where lots of sauces, marinades, etc. are prepared ahead of time and just slapped on the grill when it is ordered.
Before getting into home-cooked Russian cuisine, I should inform you that the eating schedule in Russia is quite different from U.S. (with the exception of breakfast, which is in the morning when you wake up.)
Breakfast (“zavtrak” pronounced zaftrek) is typically some form of oatmeal or grain, topped with local whipped raw honey and fresh fruits. (For my American taste buds, I added a few non-traditional items as you can see below): oatmeal with honey, bananas, strawberries, peanut butter and yogurt.
There are several different types of oats and grains and they are a cherished breakfast food for locals. Below is Kasha, and the closest translation I can think of in English would be porridge (think Little Red Riding Hood) This one is topped with fresh apricots, a home-made black currant jam, and peanut butter (again, the peanut butter is not traditional, I just love it and it adds extra protein. It’s probably one of my favorite food items to travel with.)
Or sometimes, if you don’t have anything in the refrigerator and you just want a quick fix before a morning run, you put this strange concoction together. I call this the “Lisa Sugar Special” and I must note that this is in no way, traditional Russian, I just thought the photo was pretty. 🙂 Below we have bananas, raw whipped honey, bee pollen and one chocolate truffle for each of us. (Don’t worry, we promptly ran off the calories.)
Syrniki is another popular breakfast item and is basically a cheese pancake made from tvorog, eggs and a small amount of flour. These are formed into small patties and fried on a cast iron pan in some sort of oil. You can turn it into a sweet or savory bite by adding desired toppings. Below I have sour cream and two types of home-made fruit preserves.
Tvorog doesn’t really have a proper English translation, but is often referred to as “farmer’s cheese” or “quark”. I had never heard of this before visiting Russia, as it is not at all a common ingredient found in the U.S. Tvorog is a dairy product made by warming sour milk to 20 – 27 C until the desired degree of curdling is met, then straining it. It is soft in texture, white in color, unaged and has no salt added. This is how it looks fresh from the market. They cut out as large a piece as you want and fill it into a container to take home.
You can make many things with tvorog. Sasha loved to eat it for dessert with fruit or as a mid-day snack with honey. It is high in protein and sticks to your bones to tide you over if you need a quick-fix. Below it is served with fresh cream, strawberries, raw honeycomb and bee pollen, all from the market in Kazan.
Lunch (“obed” pronounced “abiet”) is typically around 3:00 or 4:00 PM and is the largest meal of the day. Lunch consists of several courses followed by chai (tea) or coffee, desserts, and lots of chatting around the table. (Naps typically follow such an event).
Everyone in Sasha’s family is an amazing cook! I only wish they had passed on the skills to Sasha, who knows how to cook (sort of), but doesn’t particularly take initiative to do so. I am definitely the cook in our relationship! 😉
Dinner is typically served around 9:00 PM and is a very light meal, usually leftovers from lunch or a light salad. By the way, potatoes are probably the staple food of Russia.
So what exactly do Russians eat and drink here? Let’s take a walk through Russian culinary bliss…
It seems that nearly every country has its own form of dumpling. In Russia they have pelmeni, a meat or veggie-filled pasta pillow that come in all sizes. We must have eaten pelmeni at least 8 times during this trip. You can purchase them frozen at any grocery store and there are heaps of varieties. Sasha says that I am revolutionizing traditional Russian ways by adding cheese (I eat cheese on top of practically anything) and other sauces on top. The traditional way to eat pelmeni is simply by adding sour cream on top and mixing it in. Here I’ve added sour cream, pesto sauce and parmesan cheese.
Tomato, Radish and Cucumber Salad with Dill
Oh, the dill! Dill and parsley are the two most commonly grown herbs here in Russia where not much grows in such cold temperatures. They also just so happen to be the only two herbs that I’m not particularly fond of. However, I learned to like them here because they’re in literally every dish. 🙂
Russians love their soups. Borsch is typically made with a base from tomatoes or beets, and contains cabbage and some sort of meat. (Photo below from Google; I could have sworn that I took a photo of borsch as we ate it at least four times, but I can’t seem to find it so this beautiful stock photo will do.)
Fish and vegetable soup with carrots and cabbage.
Blini is a sort of crepe, typically filled with things such as smoked salmon, dill, cucumber and sour cream, or topped with roe (ikra) which I won’t include here because I really dislike the taste of it, even though it is a delicacy!
There are heaps of varieties of fish (mostly white river fish) in Russia. The most common ones found especially in SPB in Lake Ladoga, are Pikeperch and Sudak, both white mild soft fish with lots and lots of tiny bones, so be careful!
While at the Market in Kazan, we purchased salmon steaks which I cooked up with some vegetables and seaweed salad (left photo).
Dried fruits are common here, especially in Kazan where there is a big Turkish influence.
Kvass is a fermented beverage similar to kombucha, brewed from rye bread. It resembles beer but tastes like a mixture between kombucha, fizzy soda and prune juice. It’s an excellent beverage to drink on a hot day, but beware of lots of sugar!
There are thousands of varieties of mushrooms and ways of preparing mushroom dishes. One that I particularly enjoyed was called Julienne. This style includes mushrooms, almost pureed, with sour cream, salt and garlic. It has a slimy consistency but tastes delicious!
Georgian cuisine to Russia is what sushi is to Hawai’i, or Mexican food is to California. This is the most commonly found cuisine after their local Russian fare, found all throughout the streets of SPB and Moscow.
Learn more about Georgian cuisine in my post on Moscow under #6 under “things to do”, titled “Eat Georgian Food!”
No matter what your culinary preferences are, you are sure to enjoy Russian cuisine, and perhaps even learn to love dill and parsley if you don’t already!
Language & Culture
The Russian alphabet has 33 letters….33!!! Cyrillic is an intimidating language to try to wrap your head around because of the various nuances that can completely change the way a word sounds. If you are visiting Russia, I do recommend that you try to learn a few basic words so that you can get by, as few people in Russia speak English and if they do, it is only the very basics. I also encourage you to look up these words (just copy/paste them into Google), as the way they are spelled are not at all how they sound aurally. Listen to the audio and practice saying it so that you are well prepared. Your efforts will be highly appreciated by locals here, and they will be much more forgiving once they know you are a tourist and you are trying to speak such a complicated language that they understand isn’t easy, so don’t be afraid of botching the sound! At least you’re trying!
At the market, when you say thank you “speciba”, they say “nazdarovya” which literally translates to “for your health”. (I love that!)
Russians have an adorable way of nicknaming their loved ones and calling them names of endearment. Endings in “chka” are an adoring term that you can add on to just about any name. For example, Sasha would become Sashachka and Lisa would become Lizochka. You can even add it on to Mom and Dad, so Mammachka and Papachka. These terms of endearment are saved only for close friends and family, so don’t go around on the street calling people this!
BASIC HELPFUL RUSSIAN WORDS
Zdravstvuyte – hello (formal)
Privet – hello (informal) – used for children, family and friends
Dasvidaniya – goodbye (formal)
Poka – goodbye (informal)
Speciba – thank you
Nezachto – no problem/you’re welcome
Pozhaluysta – please
Dobroye utro – good morning
Dobroyy den – good day (afternoon)
Dobroyy vecher – good evening
Khorosho – good
Vkusno – delicious
S gazom – with gas (for bottled water)
Bez gaza – without gas (for bottled water)
Gde tualet? – where is the toilet?
Kholodno – cold (referring to outside temperature)
Zharko – hot (referring to outside temperature)
Ya s Ameriki – I am American
Morozhenoye – ice cream
NEXT UP: SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA