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As well as travelling around the globe I also like to take an interest in the cuisines of the countries I visit. It's not that I love food and eat a lot - I don't but I am interested in the history of foods and like to educate myself as much as possible in other countries cultures, customs and the food they eat. I have already reviewed Polish and Jewish cuisine so today I am going to review the eating and drinking habits of Russia.
First, some history;
The region occupied by Russia, Poland and the Ukraine has a tradition of peasant cooking, defined by the tart flavours of sourdough rye bread, pickles and sauerkraut, and complimented by mushrooms, herring, onion and sausage. The simple foods reflect what the often poor soil yielded in the harsh climate, and what could be preserved by traditional means (in salt or vinegar or by drying) for year round use. Hardy root and vegetable crops, a variety of grains, and flavours of garlic, mustard and horseradish, and sour dairy products, such as yogurt and buttermilk (the Russian kefir), were the region's staples. Cabbage and cucumbers, fresh or pickled, were the primary sources of vitamin C in what, for centuries, was a highly restricted diet.
In Russia and those parts of the Ukraine where the Russian Orthodox Church determined popular eating habits, at least until the beginning of the 20th century, the Church made a virtue out of economic necessity. It divided food into two groups. For over half the days of the year only Lenten fare was allowed: vegetables, fish and mushrooms. Milk,eggs and meat were permitted on the remaining days.
The result of the intervention was a good number of simple, versatile recipes. A full meal might consist of a cabbage soup with a grain porridge called Kasha. Meat, if available, would be cooked in the soup but served seperately afterwards. On full fast days, mushrooms could be substituted for meat to give the soup flavour and perhaps to fill little pies or pirozhki to eat alongside it.
Buckwheat pancakes and soured cream, typical of the meat-free Carnival Week, now rank among the best liked Russian dishes in the world. Russian Easter food, centred on roast suckling pig basted in soured cream and a cake, kulich, served with sweet cream cheese, is a splendidly rich contrast with the simpler Lenten food that precedes it.
Two factors in the 19th century began to modernise the East European peasant diet. One was the industrialisation that brought country people into the towns and saw middle-class cooking influenced by cosmopolitan ideas. The other was the impact of the eating habits of the royal courts on the cuisines of both Russia and Poland, which eventually filtered down through the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie.
In the 19th century, access to French cookery books led to Polish cooking becoming richer (see my Polish Food review) than Russian in, for example, sauces and composite tastes. At the same time, however, the Russian upper classes also felt under constant pressure to "Frenchify" their own cooking, the court and aristocracy mainly employing French chefs to produce elaborate dishes, replete with butter and cream. Antonin Careme, as cook to Alexander 1 (Tsar 1801-25), began a task that was continued by four generations of foreign chefs up to the Russian Revolution.
Generally, however, there was always opposition to this outside influence, and patriotic palates, preferred the traditional breads, grains and soups. One such example is borshch, the famous beetroot soup, whose origin cannot be fixed within any present-day national confines. It can be served as a consomme or as a thick soup.
By contrast the Russian cold table, originally borrowed from Scandanavia during the reign of the great Westernising Tsar, Peter 1 (1682-1725), has been wholly incorporated into the national cuisine as the classic first course. Comprising little open sandwich hors d'oeuvres these zakuski dishes which are washed down with ice-cold vodka, deserve their fame, especially as the jewel of the zakuski table is often caviare.
My experience of Russian Food and Hospitality
Onthe whole, Russians go for quantity. They are heavy eaters, and the word 'diet' is Greek to most of them. If an Englishman invites you for afternoon tea, you will get a cup of very good tea, possibly accompanied by a small cake or biscuit. If a Russian invites you for tea, don't ever eat before visiting. On your arrival you will see a table bending under the weight of food. There is no worse disaster for a Russian host than if all the food is eaten up by the guests. Better by far is to have half the food left over, a clear sign that your friends could not devour more. Of course, this means that you will have to live on leftovers for a week, but that is the only drawback to an otherwise successful occasion.
The Russian national dish is Kasha, thick cooked grain or groats - very tasty and nutritious. Buckwheat kasha is the king, delicious with milk. Milk products are popular, especially smetana (soured cream).
There is hardly a dish which Russians would eat without a large slice of bread - you just cannot feel fed if there is no bread on the table.
Russians eat three meals a day - breakfast, a midday meal and an evening meal - but few people are satisfied wit this austere arrangement so take regular snacks. Breakfast can be anything from bread to kasha or pasta, always with a lot of tea. The overwhelming majority prefer bread, as usually there isn't time in the morning to prepare anything else. Some people drink coffee, but its popularity is severely curtailed by its price. Tea is not cheap either, but Russians cannot imagine life without it, and every Russian wife is proud of her own way of making good tea which she learnt from her geat-grandmother.
The heaviest meal is taken in the middle of the day. Soup is an absolute must. If there is no soup, then it's not a meal, it's a snack. Russian soups have absolutely nothing in common with those funny looking substances offered in the west in tiny bowls. Russians demand large platefuls of hot soup, cooked with cabbage, beetroot, potatoes, carrots and onions, with a huge chunk of meat arrogantly displayed in the middle of the dish and a generous portion of smetana. This is Russian Soup. Once you have tasted it, you will never again eat anything else called soup other than Russian.
Before the soup there is an appetiser auch as mixed vegetables served in a huge bowl with sunflower seed oil or smetana. The soup is followed by a dish which must include a good portion of meat or fish accompanied by kasha, pasta, potatoes or other boiled vegetables. After this tea or coffee is served with a sweet biscuit. Having swallowed all this, a Russian either crawls back to work and sleeps the rest of the day in his office chair, or, if he is at home, spreads his tired limbs on a sofa and covers his face with a newspaper.
The evening meal looks very much like the midday meal but without the soup. So naturally you get hungry by bedtime, and to go to sleep on an empty stomach is unthinkable. So there is one more meal, secret and therefore wisely unnamed but nevertheless quite substantial, after which the Russian slaps himself on his visibly expanded belly and goes to bed, sufficiently content. Before falling asleep, he may watch television where he will learn that winter food shortages may be imminent because food consumption has assumed threatening proportions.
The table on feast days and holidays difers from the everyday one, not only because of the quantity of food displayed but also its diversity. A large number of things are consumed only on special occassions. There might be black and red caviar, or pickled or smoked fish or mushrooms of all kinds. In Russian forests delectable mushrooms are found in abundance.
Russians eat tons of jam. In autumn there can be a serious shortage of sugar in the shops as every member of the household hurries to make use of cheap fruit and fill all the jars they can find with apple jam, cherry jam, plum jam and strawberry jam. It is good manners for guests to taste their hostess's jam, express admiration and ask for the recipe, of which there are millions.
As for snacks, at every corner you can buy little pies fried in boiling oil. Small shoemaker's nails are said to be more harmful to the stomach but easier to extract. The taste of both is similar.
I feel I have to include a paragraph or two about drinking as it is far more important for a Russian than eating. Russia is a drinking country. One thousand years ago,when the heathen Eastern Slavs were considering which new religion to choose, Prince Vladimir rejected Islam for the sole reason that Muslims shun alcohol. "The joy of Russia is drinking!" declared the worthy Prince and was consequently proclaimed Equal-to-the-Apostles by grateful compatriots.
The chief national drink is vodka. Russians have three kinds of money - roubles, dollars and vodka, the latter serving as currency when you pay a plumber, or hire a tractor driver to plough your vegetable plot. People certainly prefer to be paid in vodka rather than roubles because vodka may be drunk the moment you get your hands on it without the tedious procedure of going to the wine shop, to say nothing of having to explain to wives where the money went. Every sensible old country woman keeps a few bottles of vodka under her bed to be made use of when the time comes for planting the potatoes or to paying for the cleaning of the well.
Vodka is also the chief tool in starting a converstaion. So do not forget to take along a bottle of vodka when going to visit a Russian. If you sit at the table across from him, look him in the eye and say nothing, he will suspect you of making a pass at him. But once a bottle appears between you, mutual understanding is immediately established. If there is one thing Russians hate more than anything else, it is drinking alone. (This is only seen at the last stage on the road to delirium tremens). A sober Russian will always look for company when he feels a dire need to wet his whistle. Scores of bars in every town or city provide the perfect place to sit, to drink, to smoke, to dance and, with luck, to punch a nose or two. (If you are that way inclined).
The normal number of people taking part in a drinking session is three. There are serious reasons for this. Firstly, it'scheaper, since you will not always have enough money for a whole bottle. Secondly, there are approximately three big glassfuls of vodka in a half-litre bottle, and one glass as a rule is sufficient to help you feel carefree and merry. Thirdly, it is so much more interesting to have an animated discussion when there are three of you. Lastly, who will make peace if two of you get engaged in a discussion too heated for words alone?
Special feasts simply cannot be enjoyed wthout a drink - vodka for men, vodka and wine for women - in unbelievable quantities. Russians will express concern and sympathy if you refuse a glass or two, because the only thing it can mean is that you are seriously ill. If you do not care for vodka, the only acceptable exuse will be that you have an ulcer or some other serious complaint.
Beer is best when you have it with vobla (Caspian roach), a small, heavily salted, dried fish which is so hard that before you can bite into it you have to take it by the tail and beat it savagely against the edge of the table. The more you eat of it, the thirstier you become and the more beer you need to consume.
In rural areas people do not normally have to buy drink as moonshining provides the necessary. The liquid usually tastes abominable, but this never stops an experienced drinker. Government efforts to curb heavy drinking and make Russian society a bit more sober are doomed to failure. Drinking prowess is a matter of pride. To drink a lot without getting really drunk is the secret wish of every Russian. This is why Boris Yeltsen was referred to as 'our man', a true Russian, his drunken escapades evoking friendly laughter rather than indignation.
To finish off my review here are a few examples of my favourite foods;
Beef Stroganov - this is one of my favourite meat dishes - in fact I had it for tea last night with wild rice.
At the end of the 19th century, Alexander Stroganov gave his name to this now well-known Russian dish of beef and onions cooked with cream, and it became the signature dish when entertaining at his home in Odessa. Finely cut potato chips are the classic accompaniment. 10/10
Field Roasted Lamb - This is dish from the Russian Steppes and it is mutton coated with yogurt, dill, black peppercorns and oil and then slowly roasted over charcoal. 9/10
Lamb Plov - This is the Russian name for the rice dish popular throughout Eastern Europe, known by different names - pilau in Turkey and pilaf in the Middle east. 9/10 - I would omit the dill as not a fan.
Salmon Kulebyaka - A Russian festive dish in which a layer of moist salmon and eggs sit on a bed of buttery dill- flavoured rice, all encased in crisp puff pastry. 8/10
Pampushki - When these crunchy Russian potato dumplings are split open, a tasty curd cheese and chive filling is revealed. 10/10
Beetroot Casserole - The Russian vegetarian casserole can be served as a light meal in itself. Its sweet and sour flavour also makes it an ideal dish to serve with roasted chicken. 9/10
Paskha - This is a Russian word for Easter and the name given to this rich curd cheese and candied fruit dessert, which celebrates the end of Lent. Traditionally it is made in a pyramid-shaped wooden mould with the imprint of the Orthodox cross, but a clean, plastic flowerpot works equally well. 9/10
Pyrizhky - these delicious Russian turnovers comprise a double helping of nuts; a buttery almond pastry with a walnut and rum filling. 10/10
Well I hope I have given you some information about Russian food and culture for when you next visit Moscow or Siberia. The dishes have changed a little over the years but in my experience most Russians prefer the traditional foods of their ancestors. Some of the dishes have now become classics and are served in restaurants worldwide. So look out for these dishes when you next go out for dinner. Give the fish and chips a miss!