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Ethnic Cuisine: Russia

by Alla Lopatin, photos by Marina Kocherovsky

introduction  |  recipes  |  restaurants

Russia, stretching from eastern Europe across Asia to the North Pacific Ocean, is as diverse as it is vast. It is nearly twice the land mass of the United States, with a population of 150 million. Large plains cover much of the land, with a number of mountain ranges in the eastern and southern regions. The Ural Mountains serve as a natural boundary between European and Asian Russia. The country’s coastline stretches nearly 37,000km along the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, with Baltic, Black and Caspian seas inland. Russia boasts innumerable rivers and lakes, steppes and forests, swamps and tundra. The harsh continental climate and tough terrain leave large parts of the country uninhabited.

Nearly three quarters of Russians live in urban areas. In addition to the greatly varied terrain and climate, there is much diversity in the Russian populace. While the majority of the population is ethnically Russian, there are over 100 ethnic groups that constitute the minority. It is no wonder then, that Russian food is greatly varied, with its fair share of ethnic and regional crossover. In this article, I will concentrate on the traditional food of European Russia.

The Russian meal is not simply about food, it’s an event, a celebration. Even an informal meal can become a festivity with a string of dishes punctuated with toasts, stories and laughter. Russian hospitality is a long-standing tradition and a source of pride for the host. A guest in a Russian home is invariably showered with drinks, refreshments, and more often than not, a full meal. Russians are prone to dropping by unannounced, and the hosts will always rise to the challenge of quickly (and creatively!) assembling whatever ingredients are at hand into a beautifully presented spread. When my Moscowite friend gave his mother an hour’s notice of our impromptu visit, she greeted us with cake fresh out of the oven, brewed tea, and an assortment of finger foods. We were not allowed to leave until we tried one of everything, with our hostess apologizing profusely for not having more food to offer. A visit is incomplete without a proper gathering around the table, no matter what the occasion.

The first course is typically an assortment of salads, pickles, and cured savories called “zakuski”, which loosely translates to “accompaniments”, eaten along with shots of vodka. Much like Spanish tapas or Mediterranean meze, these appetizers are small tastes of a variety of dishes. Zakuski could be as simple as smoked meats, cured fish, caviar and marinated mushrooms, or more elaborate dishes such as vegetable salads. Salted herring under a thick layer of shredded beets, carrots and walnuts is called “ sel’odka pod shuboy” which literally translates to “herring under a fur coat”. Despite its intimidating name, this is a very tasty dish. A cooked eggplant salad, “baklazhanaya ikra” is also very popular. Similar to Romanian “gvetch”, eggplant is stewed with carrots, onions, garlic and tomatoes, and served chilled. A cold salad of potatoes, beets, pickled cabbage and onions called “vinegret” is a Russian classic, as is “salat olivier”, a potato salad with eggs, peas, pickles and meat. Many Russian salads are dressed with mayonnaise or sour cream, and are hearty enough to be eaten as a main course.

Soup is always part of the dinner menu. A soup course offers a variety of vegetarian and meat- or fish-based soups. The most well-known Russian soup is “borscht”, a tangy dish that gets its sweetness from beets and tartness from sour cream. Borscht is exceptionally versatile—it can be vegetarian or meaty, served hot or cold. Everyone seems to have their own recipe for this wonderful soup, but the more authentic versions always include beets, cabbage, potato, and carrot, with the meat-based broth made with beef. Another common soup is “shchi”, a hearty cabbage soup. Ingredients can vary somewhat, but it is typically made of cabbage, potato, onion, herbs, and optionally, beef and dumplings. Much like borscht, it is usually served with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of hearty rye bread.

Russian entrees run the culinary gamut, from stews to stuffed vegetables to fried fish and meat. Many main courses are accompanied by thick, flavorful sauces, and are served with buckwheat or potatoes. Mushroom sauces are particularly popular, and tend to go well with many dishes. “Kotlety Pozharskie” are ground chicken cutlets prepared with lots of butter. While not exactly dietetic, these cutlets are fluffy and melt in your mouth. Dumplings filled with meat or potatoes are called “Pelmeni”. The meat filling, which is often made of ground pork, is encased in thin, light dough. I especially love serving pelmeni with a dip made of sour cream, scallions and dill. “Golubtzy” are cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and beef, and roasted in tomato sauce. Stuffed cabbage tends to be a labor intensive endeavor, but well worth it. A number of dishes, such as beef stroganoff and chicken kiev have trickled into the western culinary vernacular over the years. Although these dishes have lost their exotic edginess, it’s good to see that they represent Russia’s contribution to international palates.

No meal is complete without lingering over cups of strong tea and sweets. Even large meals are usually followed by a dessert course, which, much like the savory assortment of zakuzki, consists of a sweet assortment of cookies, candies, and cakes. Rich layered tortes are composed of sweet butter creams and nuts in between sheets of cake. Candy is often just as rich, made of nuts, marzipan, dried fruit or wafers dipped in dark chocolate. A variety of candy and cakes can be found in most Russian food stores, but the tastiest desserts are homemade. “Vareniki” are dumplings filled with fruit or sweet cheese. Not only are they delicious, but they are easy to make at home. “Medianyk” is a wonderful honey cake, and “Medianyky” are honey cookies, based on the same recipe. A fresh fruit compote is the perfect summer dessert, but can also be made from dried fruit off-season. Cherries, apples, and stone fruit are best in this dish, and berries can be added to enhance the flavors. Compote can also be poured over vanilla ice cream or sweet crepes. I can’t think of a better way to end a wonderful meal. And just when you think you can’t possibly eat one more bite, you will be talked into having one last cup of tea.

For further reading, there are a number of good recipe sources and cookbooks. Lynn Visson’s “The Russian Heritage Cookbook” is one of my favorites. Online, http://www.russianfoods.com/ and http://www.ruscuisine.com/ offer recipes and a wealth of products and information. A culinary dictionary is always helpful when navigating recipes and menus: http://russia-in us.com/Cuisine/dictionary.html. Whether cooking at home, or dining in a restaurant, the most enjoyable, authentic Russian meal is to be found at a table where loved ones have gathered to celebrate, eat, and drink to good health. Priyatnovo Apetita!

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