Exploring Russian Cuisine

Before leaving for Russia I was the most curious about the country’s food. I wanted to know more about it so that I could embrace it while I was there. This wasn’t just the foodie side of me coming out, but also the anthropologist. People claim that they can tell who a person is by what they eat. This is true in many ways. Food can have roots in a country’s political, geographical and demographic histories. Knowing about Russian food can help one understand Russia–both past and present.

St. Petersburg is not representative of Russia as a whole, due to the strong European influence. St. Petersburg is a city that sits near Europe below the Arctic circle and on the Baltic Sea. Not unlike Russia itself, it is hard to identify just exactly what constitutes Russian food.

There was a time less than 20 years ago when the residents of St. Petersburg were under siege. Food was rationed so heavily that, at times, it was impossible to get any at all. This is strikingly different from the beautiful food markets, abundant restaurants and well-stocked store shelves seen here now. With the help of globalization, Russians are seeing rapid growth in the amount of food choices they have.

Soups are very popular in Russian culture. The most iconic being borscht. So borscht was one of the first things I wanted to try. Borscht is made from beetroot. The one I had also had cucumber. It was garnished with sour cream and fresh herbs. Traditionally, beets were one of the most consumed foods during the Russian winter.

Another very popular food item in Russia is a Blini or a Russian pancake. It is very similar to a French crepe except that the batter is unyeasted. A local restaurant chain, Tepemok (pronounced Teremok in English), is a great place to try these pancakes. They can be savory with filling such as ham and cheese, or chicken with sauce or they can be sweet with fillings such as banana and chocolate.

To accompany your blini, why not try a glass of Kvass, which is sometimes called a bread drink. It is a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread. The color of the bread gives the drink its color. While largely non-alcoholic, it does have a little alcohol (about 1.5%).

On day three, we needed a taste of home, so we made a stop at McDonald’s. The McDonald’s in Russia has a sandwich called “Beef a la Rus.” It is made on wheat bread, but is not all that different from a McDonald’s sandwich in the US. One thing we weren’t used to, however, was paying for condiments.

One of the other iconic meals of Russia is Beef Stroganoff. We traveled to Vyborg a small town to the northwest of St. Petersburg. This city has Russian, Swedish, Finnish influences. It was here, at a restaurant called White Horse, that I tried Beef Stroganoff. There are many different ways to prepare this dish. This one was prepared with beef strips in a rich white sauce with potatoes, scallions and mushrooms. It was probably the best meal I have had so far.