If you find yourself in Russia for a business or vacation trip or stop by a Russian restaurant in your city, don’t miss a chance to try the meals traditional for Russians and quite unusual for foreigners.
Russian cuisine has been forming for ages, from the very ancient times’ щи да каша (soup and porridge) to the Soviet Union’s mayonnaise salads and nowadays’ шашлык (barbecue or kebab). Different geographical, social, and historical traditions have had their influence on the food on our tables today.
The Russian dishes are mostly salty, spicy, hearty, high-calorie, and have a very intense and delicious flavor. Let us introduce you to the traditional meals that are familiar to every Russian from childhood but can still remain weird for some of us.
Kholodets (Jelly Meat)
Холодец is a traditional Russian dish often cooked for holidays, especially New Year and Christmas. Its name is derived from the word холод (cold) because this meal is served cold and prepared in the fridge. Basically, it’s a jelly made of meat. It may sound weird, but the taste is really nice: salty and spicy yet tender and delicate.
According to the original recipe, we boil different parts of pork, beef, turkey, or chicken (the more types of meat you take, the better kholodets is) for 10-12 hours. Although it is made of jelly, we don’t add any gelatin or agar to cook this meaty delight – the gelatinizing substances are collected and absorbed straight from the meat and bones.
Ears, legs, and tails are the best for hardening kholodets, but they are better be taken away after boiling the broth. The remaining meat is chopped and put in the portion bowls together with the broth and pieces of carrots. Bowls with kholodets are left in the fridge for 5-6 hours until the broth turns into jelly. It is served with mustard or хрен (horseradish sauce) and a piece of rye bread.
You can hardly find any fresh vegetables in Russian salads. Of course, we make some healthy salads with fresh cabbage, greenery, cucumbers, or tomatoes in the summer. However, during cold times, Russians tend to consume heartier and fatter food. You can’t imagine a New Year’s Eve without olivier (оливье), surimi sticks (крабовые палочки), or herring under a fur coat (селёдка под шубой) in Russia.
Although olivier may sound French, it has nothing in common with the French cuisine. The very original recipe was created at the beginning of the XX century and contained grouses, olives, crayfish tails, and truffles.
It is easy to guess that such delicacy could only be afforded by the richest nobles and tsars. During the Soviet Union, the recipe has been modified, and we replaced grouses with chicken or sausages, olives with pickled cucumbers, and truffles are gone as well as crayfishes. You can taste boiled potatoes and eggs, sausages, pickled and sometimes fresh cucumbers, and pickled peas in the olivier now. The salad is dressed with mayonnaise and chopped green onions.
Surimi sticks salad is also very popular in Russia. It was called Lui’s salad in the early XX century and was full of actual crab meat. Through the times, the crab has been replaced with surimi sticks for their cheaper price in Russia. Besides surimi sticks, the traditional recipe includes boiled eggs, canned corn kernels, and fresh cucumbers.
Sometimes we also put the cabbage in this salad or replace cucumbers with a green sour apple. Whatever your choice is, you never want to leave this salad without mayo. I tried to replace it with healthy yogurt once, and trust me – it didn’t work.
Herring under a fur coat, or just шуба, is claimed to be one of the weirdest Russian dishes for foreigners. The recipe is derived from the Scandinavian and German cuisines. The herring should be precisely chopped, and its bones must be carefully retrieved. You don’t want to get choked, right? Other ingredients (carrots, potatoes, and the most important topping – beets) are boiled and grated. The initial recipe also includes chopped and scalded onions.
The salad is served on a large flat plate and built by the following layers: herring, onions, potatoes, carrots, and finally beets. Each layer should be spread with mayonnaise. You can leave the top with just beets or decorate it with boiled and grated egg yolks.
Besides mayo, Russians are also famous for loving onions and garlic, so we put a lot of them in our food. Two simplest salads usually made by Russians contain boiled beets or fresh carrots, grated garlic, and of course, mayo.
Another garlic salad, which is called “Jewish salad” in some regions, is made of boiled eggs, grated garlic, melted cheese (a special kind of melted cheese inherited from the Soviet times and called “Дружба”), and mayonnaise. This one is more like spread, which is best with a toast of rye bread or a slice of fresh tomato.
Plenty of buckwheat dishes
Buckwheat (гречка) is a truly Russian super-food. These brown grains with an intense flavor can compete with quinoa in the amount of protein, vitamins, iron, fiber, and more healthy components.
It is highly recommended for weight loss, healing stomach and liver problems, muscle gaining, immunity improvement, and many other health issues. In Russia, we cook buckwheat as a garnish for meat or chicken meals, a separate dish with mushrooms and vegetables, or cereal, served with hot milk, a piece of butter, and sugar for breakfast.
It can be boiled, stewed, baked, or simply covered with water and left for several hours. The last method is especially popular with travelers and busy people because you don’t need to spend time cooking.
Due to the high amount of protein (about 13g), buckwheat can replace meat for vegetarians. Green (raw) buckwheat is even healthier but new, thus more expensive and not so popular in Russia, so we can’t refer it to the traditional Russian products.
Fish and caviar
The sea- or riverside Russian cities are famous for their diversity of fish. We adore fried, baked, salted, or even semi-raw dried fish, and of course, caviar.
The most unusual Russian dishes made of fish are salted or pickled сельдь herring, smoked скумбрия (Scomber), and dried вобла (roach) or лещ (bream). The dried fish is kept in salt for three days, and then we hang it to dry for a week. Some people complain that this method leaves the fish uncooked, but in the South of Russia, it’s the most popular and delicious beer snack.
Caviar (икра) is a ‘calling card’ of traditional Russian cuisine. It is quite cheap in Russia, but very delicious. The most extravagant caviar is produced from sturgeon or salmon. The less expensive options are pike or capelin.
Caviar is consumed with bread and butter or blini (блины). Блины are the Russian variant of pancakes but thinner and bigger and are like French crepes. We eat блины salty or sweet, with sour cream, meat mince, cottage cheese, mushrooms, ham, jam, condensed milk, chocolate paste, and whatever else we like it with!
Salo (Pork’s Fat)
Derived from Ukranian cuisine, this weird meat product is very popular in cold regions of Russia due to its high-calorie content and nutritional value. Although salo is basically pure fat, it’s very healthy and full of vitamins. It’s especially good for brains, muscle gaining, digestive system, and women’s health.
Compared with American cuisine, salo can be similar to bacon but is fatter. It is usually cooked by covering it raw with a lot of salt and leaving it at room temperature. Some people think that it remains raw, so salo can also be smoked.
It is best served with a slice of rye bread, mustard, and a shot of cool vodka. Sometimes we use salo to melt it on a pan and fry potatoes or chopped onions with carrots for Borscht. But we don’t recommend eating more than 20g of salo a day due to a large amount of salt and huge caloric value.
Russian Soups: Borsch, Solyanka, Okroshka
Borsh (борщ) is a world-wide known Russian starter. However, it was originally created in Ukraine and made of pork broth.
Nowadays, we often use beef or even chicken to make it less fat and a bit healthier. Despite quite a large amount of grease, it contains lots of vegetables: beets, cabbage, onions, carrots, and even bell peppers sometimes.
Steamy hot, served with garlic bread or garlic bagels (Ukrainian пампушки), green onion, and a spoon of sour cream (сметана), borsch won’t let you stay cold.
There is also so-called зелёный борщ (green borsch) or щавелевый суп (sorrel soup), which is boiled without cabbage and tomato, but with a couple of handfuls of chopped sour greenery called щавель (sorrel) and a raw egg added right before turning the oven off.
The vegetarian option of borsch is very popular during the summer in Russia. Instead of meat, we cook a vegetable broth and add the boiled beans to make the soup more nourishing yet low-fat.
Solyanka or сборная солянка was made up to make a soup from the products left in the fridge: sausages, roasted chicken from yesterday’s dinner, potatoes, onion, carrots, tomato paste. It was traditionally created as a rich chaser for vodka.
Solyanka has a spicy and slightly sour taste due to pickled cucumbers, black olives, pieces of lemon, or capers. You can cook it by adding the products in the boiling water for a lighter version or the meat broth to make it heartier.
Okroshka (окрошка) is sometimes called “soup from the olivier” by Russians. Its name is derived from the verb крошить (to chop) since the ingredients are chopped for this cold soup.
Okroshka is made of fresh cucumber, boiled eggs and potatoes, sometimes sausages or chicken, radish and filled with kvas (a drink made of fermented bread) or kefir (fermented milk). There is still a controversy on which filling is better for okroshka. Why not taste them both and make your own choice?
The dumplings themselves are not that unusual. They can be stuffed with meat mince (called пельмени), mashed potatoes, pumpkin, mushrooms. An interesting filling for dumplings is fruit or berries (the cherry-filled dumplings are the most popular), or cottage cheese, which can be salty for a regular meal or sweet and served as a dessert.
We traditionally make dumplings for the so-called Old New Year’s Eve (a holiday celebrated two weeks after the New Year). Sometimes we put little things or unusual food in several of them for this holiday dinner. In that case, they are called вареники с сюрпризом (dumplings with a surprise). It’s a kind of a fortune-telling game, which is funny and tasty… Until you suddenly bite a peppercorn or a coin while eating your dumpling.
Similarly to dumplings, we make dough food called пирожки (pirozhki) or пироги (pies). They are also stuffed with different fillings – mashed potatoes, meat mince, stewed cabbage, and different berries, fruit, or jam. Unlike the dumplings, which are usually boiled, pirozhki are baked or fried in a large pan with a lot of oil.
Solenya (pickled everything)
Since we have a lot of cold regions in Russia and can’t grow vegetables during autumn or winter, pickling them in the mix of vinegar, salt, sugar, and pepper has become a tradition.
Although the method of soaking veggies in vinegar might seem not very healthy, the fermenting process allows us to save the nutrients and obtain the probiotics that are good for improving our digestive system and immunity.
The most popular and well-known pickled vegetables are: cucumbers – as the best snack to vodka, cabbage – has more vitamin C than any other product, tomatoes – are often pickled and consumed together with cucumbers, mushrooms – help burning cholesterol. The mixes of pickled chopped vegetables (zucchini, eggplants, onions, carrots, bell peppers, etc.) are called pickled salads and are also popular for Russian banquets.
Besides vegetables, we pickle fruit and berries like apples, plums, pears, cherry, and even watermelons. Despite this weird combination of sweetness and marinade, pickled fruit and berries create an interesting garnish for roasted chicken and wild game meals.
Traditionally, we make three necessary dishes for Easter: крашеные яйца (colored boiled eggs), кулич (kulich – the Easter bread), and пасха (paskha – a kind of dessert made of cottage cheese, nuts, dry fruit or berries, and sugar or honey).
Kulich is often mistakenly called пасха or паска. This kind of bread is very rich and has high-calorie content. Its dough is prepared from a lot of eggs, yeast, butter, sugar, and flour. Sometimes we also put raisins or dry fruit in it, although not everyone likes it. Russians never make just one kulich – we usually bake around ten of them and go exchanging with our relatives and friends. The top of kulich is covered with sweet cream, made of whipped white of a raw egg with sugar powder, and colorful cupcake sprinkles.
Paskha is very similar to the American cheesecake. It is rich and sweet, cooked from cottage cheese, butter, sugar, sour cream and filled with nuts, raisins, dry fruit, and berries. It is formed in a special way of a truncated pyramid and decorated with Christian symbols.
We described the most interesting and unusual meals of Russian cuisine. You may question the taste of them, but you will never know for sure without trying. Just remember to have a nice company and probably some shots of ice-cold vodka!