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If You Want to Understand Russian Culture, Start by Trying Their Food

Tina is a bilingual writer of unconventional fiction, a media graduate with a special focus on human sexuality and a content writer.

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When we look at Russia, food is not the first thing that comes to mind, but during the nineteenth century, Russian food was one of the world’s great cuisines

This is a long time ago and far from the stereotyping of potato eating and vodka drinking Russians too many associate this huge country with today.

Numerous cultures have affected Russian food culture, and therefore Russian food is not strictly Russian. Everyday Russian food of today doesn’t differ much from other cultures, yet there is something distinctively different with food from this vast country. As Western culture dominates the world, we read the Russian menu as we do our own, and therefore we don’t give Russian cuisine justice.

Beef Stroganoff and borsch are probably the food some people can mention when it comes to Russian cuisine, but there are much more.

Russian food, which is both nourishing and tasty, hasn’t made a name for itself in the same ways as some other countries. Due to Western cultural dominance, our view of what constitutes high cuisine has become narrower. We look at other people’s food culture from the standpoint of our own instead of trying to immerse ourselves fully; we tend to judge and say yuk and ugh to the food, forgetting that we’re also saying yuk and ugh to the culture.

We become what we eat, but we eat what there is to eat, and for Russians, it’s different from the Western food culture. Even if one doesn’t speak Russian, there are no language barriers at the table and when eating.

Russian food during the 19th century was inspired by, amongst others, German, French and Scandinavian cooking. In 1891, a French chef won a cooking contest in St Petersburg with his dish beef Stroganov which became a sensation, both in Russia and later in China and eventually America. The Germans and Scandinavians inspired the Zakuski table, the buffet-style eating favoured by Scandinavians, and the Caucasians introduced shashlik (grilled and skewered pieces of meat, a Russian version of shish kebab, but today all of them count as traditional Russian dishes.

At this time, when Russian cuisine started to gain worldwide renown, 94% of the Russian population lived as serfs or unfree peasants and ate meagre meals compared to the high aristocracy

When we look at Russian food culture at this time, we have to look at haute cuisine and the food of the serf as two separate entities. One cannot identify with the other. The Russian serfs were freed in the mid-1800s, which changed the agricultural and political landscape of Russia.

Elena Molokhovets writes her classic guide for household management, Gift to Young Housewives, containing more than a thousand recipes for the Russian elite. It was the most popular book in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the Soviet era, quantity over quality squelched the gastronomic spirit, but people had food and could meet the basic nutritional standard.

Food is a central part of our lives and very powerful, not just because we can’t survive without food, but what we eat forms part of our identity. All people have at least one if not a few dishes that bring them back to either their childhood, their birth country or a nice memory. Food nourishes us, but food is also a pleasure. We use food to communicate and in Russia, eating traditional food is a sign of belonging to Russia.

Russian food has undergone several stages of evolution, from the old Russia in the 9th century to old Moscow cuisine in the 17th century to the cuisine of the Tsars to St Petersburg cuisine to the Soviet era to the present day.

Russian people have survived starvation by nature and by plan several times, which have created an obsessive relationship to food

Nikolai Gogol was a Russian dramatist who satirised the food obsession in his short stories.

”…caused him to catch also the attractive odour of something fried in fat.”

“Chichikov looked up and saw that the table was spread with mushrooms, pies and other viands.”

“And also a few pancakes?” suggested Madame. For an answer, Chichikov folded three together and, having dipped them in melted butter, consigned the lot to his mouth.”

The roots of Russian identity is more religious than political

Even during the Soviet era’s atheism, both Christian and non-Christian people celebrated Easter as it’s considered the most sacred of holidays. The religious meaning of Easter was downplayed during the Soviet era, but state bakeries made kulich which is a traditional coffee cake type bread. Easter food also consists of eggs that are intrinsically decorated and paskha, a sweet cheese spread. The world-famous Fabergé eggs come from the Russian tradition of giving eggs as gifts at Easter. The eggs were mostly made from chocolate but also wooden, carved and painted eggs. The Fabergé eggs were made as gifts to the Tsar family from 1895 to 1916. The Easter table is also laden with meat and vegetable dishes, and a standard meal begins with zakuski, which is a Slavic term for hot and cold buffet type food, and vodka and concludes with kulich and paskha.

Food introduces a culture

Food is often our first introduction to a new culture and one of the most enduring aspects of culture. Russia is such a vast country, and the influences have come from both far and near but to talk about Russian food is also to speak about Eurasia. Russia has always had a special skill in adopting food and cooking methods from other cultures and incorporating them as their own. Russians eat big meals, and when they have guests, they are known for their hospitality with an abundance of food on the table.

Russian food is colourful; fragrant borshch with smetana (sour cream), thin pancakes with red caviar, the ever-present pirogi, rasstegai with savoury fillings of meat, fish, mushroom, cabbage or potatoes or sweet fillings like plums, apple berries, honey and nuts. On the celebratory table, one can also find kulebyaka, which is Russian fish pie, usually salmon but other fish as well as rice, mushrooms, hardboiled eggs with onion and dill is used and baked in pastry like a loaf of bread. All this food creates a colourful table which is irresistible both to admire for the edible art that it is and for the pleasure to eat this feast in the company of family and friends.

Russia both grows and eats the most rye, oat and barley in the world

Half of Russia’s farmland is taken up by grain production. Potatoes are widely grown, and cucumber, tomatoes, cabbage and carrots are the most common vegetable. Sugar beets thrive in the fertile soil of Russia. Flax, sunflowers, and soybeans are used for oil. Russian people also harvest what’s given for free in the vast forests of this fertile land. Foraging for mushrooms and berries is a contemplative activity, almost like meditation. Picking mushrooms is an exciting discovery trip for children and adults alike. For Russians, mushroom and berry picking is deeply rooted in tradition, allowing families to supplement for the winter. Russians don’t eat so much processed food; instead, they eat what’s in season and also preserve natural food for all-year-round consumption. Of course, the food scene has changed from the Soviet era to the present time, and it’s especially notable in the wide variety of food available to Russians living in cities.

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Preservation of food by pickling is common, pickled cabbage, garlic, cucumbers, aubergines and tomatoes. Drying is used to preserve apples, pears, mushrooms, lemon and orange peel, cherries. Preservation of food is an all-year-round activity.

Russian people love to eat with neighbours and even invite strangers.

The word for being hospitable is “one who gives bread and salt”.

Bread and salt denotes a warm welcome and is also a sign of respect for the guest. It’s a sign that the host is happy to have guests. Salt has throughout world history been an extremely valuable commodity, and one of the earliest industries on Russian territory was salt production around the second millennium. Some cities in Russia have the Russian name for salt “sol” in their name, for example, Solvychegodsk.

The three meals of the day in Russia are zavtrak, obed, and uzhin. At zavtrak (breakfast), Russian people eat kasha which is a type of porridge made from different grains, butterbrots which is a sandwich but with only one slice of bread with one topping, either butter or ham, boiled egg or tvorog, which is similar to cottage cheese. Coffee and tea are, like for so many people around the world, essential drinks for Russian people. Of course, Russians also eat toast and cereal. Some Russians eat a large breakfast which can include meat, porridge, fish, chicken and some might just have fruit while others favour coffee and a cigarette, nothing else.

Meal patterns have also changed since the Soviet era; people working far from home don’t have the time to cook during the week. They bring food from home to eat at work, and while many bring homemade food like potatoes, vegetables and meat, some also bring sandwiches which is not traditionally eaten in Russia.

A traditional meal in Russia consists of three dishes

For starters, there is soup or pancakes with caviar and herring, pickled vegetables like marinated mushrooms and even marinated cauliflower and a salad of tomatoes and cucumber with sour cream. Russians are very fond of sour cream. Sour is not a good translation; Russians would say it has a slight tang, and it’s thicker than cream and is as good for sweet things and savoury food like soup. An alternative to Smetana is to sour fresh cream with lemon juice and leave it to thicken, but this is always second best.

Bread accompanies all three parts of a meal

Obed, which is the main meal, consists of baked, fried, boiled and roasted meat and fish, pies, minced meat and potatoes. The third part of a meal is the drink which is either compote, kvass or beer. The last meal, uzhin is either dinner or supper and consists of much the same as the lunch. With all three meals, Russians like to eat bread, especially rye bread. Russians have a fondness for rye bread, which is also known as black bread because it’s dark. Rye bread is a staple food and traditional food and is one of the absolute must-try of Russian cuisine.

There are two bread museums in Russia, one in St Petersburg and one in Moscow, praising this much-loved staple food

This loved rye bread is also used to make another traditional food, kvass, a fermented beverage drunk with most meals. Kvass has a very low alcohol content, only 1%, so people of all ages enjoy this drink. Kvass is a fizzy drink and is best cold. Kvass, in turn, is also used as an ingredient in a traditional yoghurt based cold soup called okroshka.

Most people associate vodka with Russia, but it’s not an everyday drink; instead, it’s usually drunk on holidays and celebratory occasions with family and friends. Peter the Great brought back coffee to Russia at the beginning of the 18th century after visiting Holland, but it has never gained the same popularity as tea, but it’s widely available.

One of the biggest events of the year for Russian people is the Novy God or New Year and apart from all the gifts, singing and dancing there is the food, and today a Novy God feast would definitely have at least one beet and potato salad with ham or fish and a vinegret salad (beetroot salad) as well as a variety of pickled vegetables like mushrooms, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. There is also pickled herring, some arranged on platters with slices of onion. Plates of cut salami and thick slices of cheese, eggplant with garlic mash, caviar piled on bread with butter, various pies puffed up for the occasion. Stuffed peppers with cream sauce, baked chicken with mash potatoes and stuffed cabbage rolls and also bowls with fresh Smetana and both dill and parsley. There is wine, vodka, berry juice and compote to drink while wishing each other to take the best from the old year into the new. For dessert, there can be a pancake cake, and also fresh fruit.

Food is also widely used in Russian art because of the powerful role it has played, especially during the Soviet era but has been used since the times of Old Russia. With long periods of shortage and even starvation, food represents more than nutrition and the ability to feed oneself.

Food brings memories of childhood to a Russian in the way music does to people of other nationalities

Cucumbers and scallions are spring signs, bananas exotic and strawberries a seasonal food. Pineapple, oranges and other exotic fruits were associated with white-sailed dreams crossing blue seas to places that were both different and wonderful. A full fridge is more important than crystals and fine art to many Russians, and to show extraordinary hospitality, a Russian would show off top-quality food in the form of expensive caviar, smoked fish, foreign cheeses and imported sausages.

Russian salad with fish and beetroot and other vegs, dressed in mayonnaise and topped with eggs. Usually eaten at celebratory events.

The act of eating, of stilling hunger, is an act of pleasure, sensitivity and sensuality, but Russians also ascribe health benefits to many different foods; butter is good for eyesight and dill for dyspepsia, honey for flatulence. Respiratory infections can be treated with gogomul, which is a mixture of egg yolk, sugar, milk and baking soda. Kvass is believed to be good for digestion and is also used to cure hangovers. Flavoured vodka is used to cure anything from the common cold to stomach bugs. Full hearty meals are considered important for maintaining good health.

Russia is not a homogenous country, as evident by its food culture, which is diverse, extensive, colourful and nourishing

Russian food is more than food; it’s a sign of hospitality, social status and even religious belonging.

Food forms part of our identity, and it’s certainly true when it comes to Russia. Despite borrowing heavily from other cultures, Russian food is distinctively Russian due to some very characteristic features: an abundance of food at celebratory mealtimes, the diversity of starters, bread with every meal, pancakes for dessert, a large variety of fish and mushrooms and lots of sweets for afters in the form of cookies and cakes.

Lack of food and starvation has given Russians an obsessive relationship with food. Russians do eat Western food too, but traditional food is more important; it’s part of their identity. To understand Russian culture, one has to like Russian culture and what better way to start than with food.

Sources:

https://tablo.com/classics/dead-souls


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Tina Brescanu

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