Learn more about Russian cuisine
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Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural 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. Flavorful soups and stews centered on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. These wholly native foods, along with the spices and techniques used for grilling meat and making sour clotted milk brought by the Mongols and Tatars of the thirteenth century, remained the staples for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century. Lying on the northern reaches of the ancient Silk Road, as well as Russia's close proximity to the Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire has provided an inescapable Eastern character to its cooking methods.
Russia's great expansions of territory, influence, and interest during the 16th-18th centuries brought more refined foods and culinary techniques. 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 German, Austrian, and French - 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 Sharlotka (Charlotte Russe).
Soups have always played an important role in the Russian meal. The traditional range of soups such as shchi, borsch, ukha, rassolnik, solyanka, botvin`, okroshka, and teur' 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 7 large groups:
- Cold soups based on kvass, such as teur', okroshka, and botvin'ya.
- Light soups and stews based on water and vegetables.
- Noodle soups with meat, mushroom, 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 and kal'ya.
- Grain- and vegetable-based soups.
 Cold Soups
Okroshka is a cold soup based on kvass. The main ingredients are vegetables that can be mixed with cold boiled meat or fish with a proportion 1:1. Depending on this, okroshka is called vegetable, meat, or fish.
There must be two sorts 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.
Kvass that is most commonly used is white okroshka kvass, which is much more sour than drinking kvass. Spices used include mustard, black pepper and cucumber pickle (the water used), solely or in combination.
And for the final touch, boiled eggs and smetana (sour cream) are added.
Teur is very similar to okroshka, the main difference being that instead of vegetables, bread is used.
Botvin`ya is one of the most typical cold Russian soups, that almost went extinct because it is very hard to make. You can find recipes in some modern cookbooks showing how to prepare it "easily" by substituting some of the ingredients, but much of the real taste is lost by cutting corners.
A full botvin'ya consists of three parts:
- The soup.
- Boiled "red" (most prized) fish (salmon, sturgeon, or stellate sturgeon), that is served separately from soup.
- Crushed ice, served on a separate platter or cup.
The name of the soup comes from the Russian word botva, which means "leafy tops of root vegetables," and the ingredients keep in line with the name: leafy tops of young beet, beetroots, oxalate sorrel, green onions, dill, cucumbers, and two types of kvass, then some mustard, lemon juice, and horseradish as spices.
It is eaten as first course or right after a hot soup, before the second course as an appetizer. You have to eat it with two spoons and a fork: the fork is used to take the fish, the first spoon to sip the soup and the second spoon to put ice into the soup, so it stays cold for a long time. Botvin'ya is eaten with fresh rye bread.
 Hot Soups
Shchi (cabbage soup) had been the main Russian first course over a thousand years. Although tastes 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. "Spirit of shchi" was inseparable from a Russian izba (log hut). Many Russian proverbs are connected to this soup, such as "Shchi - vsemu golova" ("Shchi is head to everything"). 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 or parsley roots.
- Spicy herbs (onions, celery, dill, garlic, pepper, bay leaf).
- Sour components (smetana, apples, cabbage, pickle water).
When this soup is served, smetana is added. It is eaten with rye bread.
"Kislye" (sour) schi are made from pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), "serye" (gray) 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.
Stews are first-course dishes that are actually strong vegetable broths.
Unlike shchi or other soups based on meat broths, stews are light soups based on vegetables and water.
One vegetable always prevails in stews, hence the name: onion, potato, turnip, rutabaga, lentil, etc. Preference is given to tender vegetables with short boil times and strong unique taste. Beans, sour cabbage, or beetroot are never used.
Ukha is a hot 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 can be used. There is an opinion that you cannot make a good ukha from seafish, but this is untrue. Fresh fish is best to be cooked, so if it is frozen it is better not to defrost it. Preference is given to smaller, younger fish, with the tail part of bigger fish discarded.
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: kal'ya, 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). Like most Russian soups, rassolnik is whitened with smetana (sour cream).
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. Formerely 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.
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.
 Main Dishes
In traditional russian cuisine three basic variations of meat dishes can be highlighted: - large boiled piece of meat cooked in a soup or porridge, and then used as second course or served cold as a snack:
Studen` (or Kholodets) - Jellied chopped pieces of pork or veal meat with some spices added (pepper, parsley, garliс, 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 young meat contains enough glue substances. It is served with horse radish, mustard or grinded garlic with smetana.
- subproduct dishes (liver, caul fat, rennet), baked in pots together with cereals;
- whole animal (bird) dishes or it's part (leg), or large piece of meat (rump) baked on a baking tray in a stove, so called "zharkoye" (from the word "zhar"(жар) meaning "heat")
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; additionaly the meat, without taking account its type, was garnished with pickled products - pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), sour and soaked apples (mochoniye yabloki), soaked cranberries, "vzvar"s. In modern day conditions baked vegetables to accompany meat dishes can be cooked in foil. Succus formed in the meat roasting as well as melted "smetana" or melted butter are used as gravy to pour on garnishing vegetables and porridges. Meat sauces i.e. gravies on flour, butter, eggs and milk, are not common for traditional Russian cuisine.
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.
Katlyeti (cutlets, meat cakes), a Western European dish popular in modern Russian households, are small pan-fried meatloaves, not dissimilar from Salisbury steak and other such dishes. Made primarily from pork and beef, they are easily made and require little time. Milk, onions, ground beef, and pork are put in a bowl and whisked thoroughly until it becomes relatively consistent. Once this effect is achieved, the hands are usually powdered with flour to keep the mixture from sticking while you reach to form them into balls (or any shape you'd like, really) and then placed on a frying pan to cook. When meat is in short supply, a portion of it can be substituted with bread to protect the size and flavour of the katlyeti.
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. Traditional Ural recipe requires the filling be made with 45% of beef, 35% of lamb, and 20% of pork. Often various spices, such as pepper, onions, and garlic, are mixed into the filling.
Pelmeni became the "national" dish of Russian Siberia, where they were made in large quantities and stored safely frozen outside for several winter months. By 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 to fry pelmeni after boiling until they turn golden brown.
Pelmeni belong to the family of dumplings. They are closely related to vareniki - Ukrainian variety of dumplings with filling made of mashed potatoes, cottage cheese, or cherries, to mention the most popular three. They are also similar to Chinese potstickers. The main difference between pelmeni and other kinds of dumplings is in their shape and size - 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.
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. Three typical fillings for traditional pirozhki are:
- Fish sauteed with onions and mixed with hard-boiled chopped eggs.
- Chopped boiled meat mixed with sauteed onions and eggs.
- Mashed potatoes mixed with eggs and sour cream.
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.
Blini are thin pancakes (very similar to French crêpes) which are often served in connection with a religious rite or festival in several cultures. 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. Bliny were once also 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 are slathered with butter and may be topped with sour cream or caviar, but never with two of them together on a same blin.
Syrniki are fried curd fritters, garnished with sour cream, jam, honey, and/or apple sauce.
Almost all Russian traditional drinks are original and are not present in other national cuisines. Those are sbiten', kvass, medok, mors, curdle with raisins, and boiled cabbage juice. Many of them are no longer in use. Long since they were drunk as a complement to meat and poultry dishes, sweet porridge, and dessert. Standing apart from all of them was sbiten, which was replaced by tea by later times in Russia.
The most ancient drink is medok (medi, medki), this word in Russian is the diminutive form of the word "honey." It should not be confused with the so-called "stavlenniy myod"(brewed honey, mead); medok is made in water with small amounts of honey and hops, "stavlenniy myod" is a strong alcoholic drink, composed of berry juice, large amount of honey, and vodka.
Mors is made of berry juice, mixed in different proportions with water, slightly fermented.
Curdle is prepared on raisins and is slightly fermented as well.
Cabbage juice (fresh, but more often sour, from fermented cabbage) is boiled with a small amount of sugar. These drinks do not keep long and are made in small amounts in household conditions. Kvass and sbiten' on the other hand were always mass-produced drinks. Most widespread was kvass, having a few dozen variations.
The basic method of preparing kvass is that out of water, flour, and malt liquid, a dough is made which is subjected to fermentation. This fermented "zator" is diluted by water; yeast, sugar, and aromatic additives are mixed in and then it is brewed. The role of additive can be played by fruit and berry juices (cherry, raspberry, lemon, etc.), as well as ginger and mint.
Compared to kvass, sbiten' is very simple to prepare. Separately, honey and sbiten' flavor (spices, juices) are boiled down and then these two parts are combined and boiled again. It is a hot winter drink.
 See also
- Mushroom picking in Slavic culturecs:Ruská kuchyně