Russian cuisine: a Melting Pot of Native Sensibilities and Foreign Influences
Russian cuisine, as can be expected, is a multifaceted phenomenon, varying with time, space, and social class. Like much of Russia’s material and intellectual culture, Russian cuisine finds itself at the crossroads of West and East, having soaked up influences of neighboring peoples—Ukrainians, Tatars, peoples of the Caucasus and of Siberia—as well as of Western cuisines, chiefly that of France. Traditional Russian cookery, which is the focus of this post, goes back to the customs of the medieval period. Already in the early 19th century, the author of one of the first Russian cookbooks, landowner V. A. Levshin, stated that “information about Russian dishes has almost entirely disappeared … it is impossible to compile a detailed description of Russian cooking and one must be satisfied only by that which can still be collected from memories, as the history of Russian cooking was never written down” (translation mine). A much-needed documentation of Russian culinary sensibilities and how they changed over time was done only in the 1970s by William Vasilyevich Pokhlyobkin, a geographer, journalist, and expert in the history of diplomacy and international relations. Because an earlier book of his on the history of tea became popular in dissident circles, he was himself labeled a dissident, barred from completing his Ph.D., and forced to concentrate on his culinary hobby. Pokhlyobkin’s exclusion from official circles resulted in over 50 cookbooks, which for decades remained unpublished though widely circulated privately. His 1978 book National cuisines of our peoples includes an extensive chapter on Russian cuisine, on which this post draws heavily.
Russian culinary sensibilities have roots in the period from the 9th to 16th century. The centerpiece of the Russian table—as well as the symbol of hospitality—is dark, heavy sour rye bread. Important guests are welcomed with a traditional karavaj (‘a loaf of black bread’) and salt. A xlebosol’nyj (‘bread-and-salt-y’) person is one who is hospitable and generous, the best compliment for a Russian hostess. Many other types of breads and pies are traditionally made from yeast dough as well, including various kinds of white breads, bagel-like bublik, pyshka doughnuts, pancakes, buttercakes, and pirogi (covered savory or sweet pies).
Thin crepe-like pancakes known as bliny, traditionally served with butter, sour cream, and caviar, are the centerpiece of Maslenitsa, a Russian Orthodox holiday celebrated in the last week before Great Lent—a Russian counterpart of the Western carnival (more on the influences of the Russian Orthodox Church on the Russian food below). Grains, especially wheat, rye, and oats, but also buckwheat (technically a pseudograin), rice, millet, and barley, were also used as a base for various porridges, which originally were considered festive, ceremonial foods but eventually became one of the main staples of Russian cuisine. Babies are fed semolina porridge cooked with milk; sweetened or savory buckwheat porridge is popular with adults, while kutya (a wheat porridge cooked with butter and hemp juice*) is a traditional Christmas and funeral dish. Also made from grains was the drink known in Russian as kisel’, which gradually changed into a sort of gelatinized berry drink. Another traditional Russian grain-based drink, still popular today, is kvas. It is made from fermented old rye bread, and its taste is similar to a sweetened root beer. Mead (mëd) is mentioned in many Russian folk tales and proverbs, but it is unknown today; now the word mëd means only ‘honey’.
The traditional grain-based menu was variegated by addition of dishes made from fish, mushrooms, forest berries, vegetables, milk, and much more rarely meat. The rarity of meat on the traditional Russian table is explained not only by the poverty of most Russian peasants, who could not afford meat, but more importantly as the consequence of complex system of fasts imposed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Between 196 to 212 days a year were fast days, depending on the year. Some fasts were strict, when all non-plant food, oils, and sugar were forbidden. Other fasts were light, when fish and vegetable oils were permitted. This division into “fasting” (postnyj) and non-fasting (skoromnyj) foods gave a major boost to ingredients that are often overlooked in other cuisines: fish, mushrooms, forest berries, and field greens, such as nettle and saltbush. Because Russia has many rivers and lakes, but access to sea was historically limited, Russian cuisine includes dishes chiefly from fresh-water fish such as sturgeon, pike, eel, carp, ruffe, zander, Coregonus, and European perch. Saltwater fish became common only during the Soviet times, except in the northwestern areas where the Pomor both fished at sea and bought fish from Norwegians. “Lack of fish is worse than lack of bread”, says a Pomor proverb. Traditional Russian fish dishes include fish in aspic, as well as fish that is boiled, steamed, stewed in sour cream, baked whole, fried in batter, or made into fish-jerky. Fish stroganina is commonly eaten in Siberia. Though it has become widespread in the last several decades, smoked fish is another innovation from the Soviet era. Because anyone was allowed to pick berries and mushrooms in Russia’s many forests—unlike game which was the property of the landowner—those forest-derived sources of nutrition were widely used in peasant cooking. Mushrooms are an especially good source of protein for those frequent fasting days. They are consumed cooked (fresh or dried), fried, pickled, salted, baked, or stewed, but each type of mushroom—milk-caps, ceps, morels, button mushrooms—is traditionally prepared separately. Reconstituted dried mushrooms are commonly added to other dishes, such as soups and sauces.
Vegetables, such as cabbage, turnips, wild radishes, peas, and cucumbers, have been commonly eaten since the 10th century. They could be consumed raw, salted, steamed, boiled, or baked, but like mushrooms, vegetables were typically cooked separately by type. Salads too were typically made from one vegetable: cucumber, beets, potatoes, carrots, or the like. Mixed salads were not known in traditional Russian cuisine; they are a 19th century Western innovation. Among the most popular Russian dishes today are the so-called salat Olivie; known in the West as “the Russian salad”, it is made of cooked potatoes, carrots, and peas, with the addition of pickles and mayonnaise, and possibly of boiled meat as well. Another traditional Russian dish is vinegret: a mixed salad rather than a dressing, it is made from cooked red beets, potatoes, carrots, and peas, and dressed with oil rather than mayonnaise.
Because of the limited range of ingredients and the tendency to cook each ingredient separately, the traditional Russian menu could be rather monotonous. It was, however, livened up by using different cooking oils, such as hemp oil, hazelnut oil, poppy seed oil, olive oil, and much later sunflower oil, as well as of aromatic ingredients, with herbs being used more frequently than spices. Particularly popular were onions, garlic, horseradish, dill, as well as parsley, star anis, cilantro (used both as leaves and as seeds), bay leaf, and clove, which were known already in the 10th-11th centuries, when Russia found itself at the crossroads of trade routes between East and West (including the river route “from the Varyags [“Vikings”] to the Greeks” and the Great Silk Road). In a later period, in the 15th and early 16th century, new spices chiefly of Asian provenance, such as ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, calamus root, and saffron, were added to the Russian culinary repertoire. One of the traditional Russian pastries is known as pryaniki (‘spice-cookies’); they are mentioned in numerous Russian proverbs. Pryaniki can be made with the addition of honey, nuts, raisins, and berry or fruit jam, and have fanciful shapes or text “stamped” on the surface (see image on the left). The most famous pryaniki are baked in the ancient cities of Tula, Vyazma, and Gorodets. However, the Russian Orthodox Church considered “hot spices”, like black pepper, sinful, and their use, though known since the medieval period, was limited. Because spices, as well as salt and vinegar, were expensive, a custom developed of setting salt, black pepper, vinegar, and mustard on the table for eaters to use according to their taste.
Meat and dairy were relatively rare on the Russian table, and their preparation was simple. Only the upper classes—and only on non-fasting days—could consume significant amounts of meat. Distinct preparations were developed for different types of meat: beef was typically preserved in brine (not unlike Irish corn beef) or boiled; lamb and poultry was roasted or stewed; while pork was turned into hams and other cured products. Unlike their southern neighbors, the Ukrainians, Russians traditionally consumed only the meaty parts of the pig but the use of pork fat (known in Ukraine as salo) was very limited. However, a suckling pig, roasted whole, is a Russian festive delicacy “fit for a tsar”. Regardless of type, meat was typically served in big hunks rather than chopped up. Meat stuffings, patés, and chopped meat patties of all sorts were incorporated into Russian cuisine from that of France in the late 18th and early 19th century, via the table of Russian nobles who sought to imitate French culture in numerous ways. Dairy products were used in several ways. Milk, it was typically drank raw, parcooked, or fermented. Sour milk also was made into curdled cheese, known as tvorog: it is similar to cottage cheese but drier and more dense. Cream and butter were rarely consumed as such, but sour cream (more similar to crème fresh than to the sour cream of the United States) has always been very popular, both as a cooking fat and as a tasty addition to soups, stews, and raw vegetable salads.
Russian cuisine is perhaps most famous for its soups, both hot and cold. The centrality of soups in Russian cuisine is highlighted by the fact that forks appeared on the Russian table almost 400 years after spoons; a Russian proverb says: “a fork is like a fishing rod, and a spoon is like a fishing trawl”. Hot soups include boršč (a beet and meat soup of Ukrainian origin, served with sour cream), šči (a sour cabbage soup also served with sour cream), rassol’nik (a pickled cucumber soup, often made with kidneys), solyanka (a mixed meat, fish, or mushroom soup with pickles, olives, and tomatoes, served with the ubiquitous sour cream and lemon slices). Non-meat (postnyj) versions of some soups, particularly of boršč and šči, were developed for fasting days. Boršč also exists in a cold summer-time version, which consists of cooked beats in their juice, served with raw cucumber, hardboiled egg, and of course sour cream. Another popular cold soup is okroshka, whose name comes from the verb krošit’ ‘to chop finely’: it a mixed soup based on kvas, a non-alcoholic fermented bread drink, with the addition of finely chopped cooked vegetables such as potatoes, turnips, carrots, or rutabaga, aromatic herbs like green onions, parsley, dill, celery, chervil, and tarragon, as well as hardboiled eggs, prepared mustard or horseradish, and the omnipresent sour cream. The first recorded recipe of okroshka appeared in a famous cookbook by Elena Molokhovets A Gift for Young Housewives, published in 1861; variations include meat or fish okroshka. Fish also serves as the base for another popular soup, called ukha; it consists of a clear fish broth usually made from several types of small, bony fresh-water fish to which cooked pieces of more prized fish such as salmon or sturgeon are added (see image on the left). Clear broths and pureed soups are 18th-20th century imports from Western Europe.
Traditionally Russian foods were never prepared by a combination of different cooking techniques. Nor were foods exposed to direct fire; roasting pieces of meat on a spit known as šašlyk is an innovation adopted recently from the cuisine of Georgia. Soups as well as other dishes were traditionally cooked in spherical clay or iron vessels placed in the dying-down heat of the Russian stove, a huge structure that could take up to two thirds of a peasant’s house. The same oven was used to bake bread, boil water, ferment kvas and beer, dry fruit and mushrooms, and heat the house. Children and the elderly often slept on top of stove, and in some areas it also served as a steam-bath. Today, most Russians cook in pots and pans on gas or electrical stoves, but clay pots are still very popular.
As the territory of the Russian state grew and new territories inhabited mostly by non-Slavic speaking peoples were added, new culinary sensibilities and cooking techniques were incorporated into Russian cuisine. Belarusian and Ukrainian cuisines inspired an addition of dumplings and beet-based soups. Finnic-speaking peoples of northern Russia, who were incorporated into the Russian ethnos as early as the 11th century, introduced Russians to deer meat, saltwater fish, and a variety of local mushrooms, while the Turkic-speaking inhabitants of the Pontic steppes familiarized Russians with game birds, many southern fruits and vegetables, and grape-based wines. Peoples of Siberia contributed ways to preserve meat and especially fish and caviar, such as salting and pickling. Turkic-speaking groups, especially the Tatars, whose territories were incorporated by Russia in the second half of the 16th century, brought in dishes from non-yeast-based dough, such as flat noodles known as lapsha and stuffed pasta called pelmeni; dried fruit such as raisins, dried apricots, and dried figs; as well as lemons and tea, which later became the most commonly consumed drink in Russia. Tea is traditionally made in a samovar and drank from small shallow dishes (see image on the left). Nowadays, water for tea is typically boiled in a kettle, and the tea is brewed in a teapot. Sugar and a slice of lemon are common addition. Cane sugar was first imported to Russia in the second half of the 17th century; production of beet sugar began only in the late 18th century. Coffee came to Russia much later than tea and is still much less popular. Vodka (meaning literally ‘little water’) was first introduced in Russia in the 15th century, but its import was immediately forbidden. The restrictions were gradually eased during the next 400 years, but only the Soviets can be credited for making vodka an every-Russian’s drink.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, potatoes came to Russia only in 1770s rather than in the days of Peter the Great (who reigned in 1682-1725). But it was Peter the Great, who “opened a window to Europe”, in Russian cuisine as in other spheres of Russian culture. Many rich nobles began to import foreign cooks, first from the Netherlands and Germany, then from Sweden and especially from France. By the middle of the 18th century, virtually no Russian cooks worked in aristocratic kitchens. These foreign cooks brought with them dishes of their homelands, such as sausages, meat patties, omelets, mousses, compotes—as well as the words to designate those dishes. At first, only French and German bakers produced white bread in St. Petersburg; it became commonplace only in the 20th century. Among the foreign chefs who made appearance at the Russian royal court were such major culinary figures as Marie Antoine Carême, one of the early practitioners of grande cuisine, the “high art” of French cooking, and probably the world’s first internationally renowned celebrity chef. His career began in Paris, where he became known for his elaborate patisserie centerpieces (see image on the left); later he worked for Talleyrand and the British Prince Regent (who became George IV). Carême accepted an invitation of Tsar Alexander I to come to St. Petersburg before returning to Paris, where he was chef to banker James Mayer Rothschild. Carême was not merely a chef, but a pioneer of culinary science (the term caremelization is named after him); he is also credited with creating the standard chef’s hat, the toque, and classifying all sauces into groups, based on four “mother sauces”.
The Russian followers of Carême are also to be credited with the invention of structuring a meal into a series of “courses”, which was established in the Russian aristocratic circles in the second half of the 18th century and became known as service à la russe (serving each dish in the order printed on the menu), in contrast to the then-traditional French way of serving food all at the same time. Throughout the 19th century, six to eight courses would constitute a festive upper-class meal. The first course was a hot soup such as šči, pokhlëbka, or ukha. Second came a cold course, which could be another soup (a cold one such as okroshka), a meat or fish aspic, or the like. The third course was some sort of roast (typically, beef or poultry), which was now served portioned rather than whole, as in earlier ages. Then poached or fried fish was served as the fourth course. The fifth course consisted of savory pies; the six course was porridge (which sometimes was served with šči as a first course). One or two sweet courses completed the meal. Since the late 19th century, this sequences of courses has been simplified, with pervoe ‘the first’ still being a soup, vtoroe ‘the second’ referring to the main course of some sort, and tretje ‘the third’ being something sweet. However, special importance has always been given to the starter course, known today as zakuski (often translated as ‘hors-d’oevres’, and indeed conceptualized as outside the main sequence of courses by Russians). Originally, this word referred to salty or pickled snacks that were eaten with alcoholic drinks at the beginning of the meal to heighten one’s appetite, though today it can refer to any selection of salty, pickled, spicy, or otherwise savory dishes, including various salads, sandwiches, cheeses, aspics, cold meats, caviar, preserved fish, as well as “chasers”, to be eaten at the beginning of a meal.
The great variety of zakuski, and more generally copious amounts of food at any meal—as much as the hosts can afford, and sometimes even more—are among the characteristic Russian culinary sensibilities, together with the prominence of grain-based foods (breads, pancakes, pies, porridges, and more recently pasta), the diversity of soups, the multiplicity and popularity of fish and mushroom dishes, and the frequent use of various preserving techniques: salting, pickling, fermenting, marinating, and the like.
* “Hemp juice” in this sense refers to a non-psychoactive concoction made from the oil of the hemp seed: see http://rawrawlife.com/2012/01/25/juicetiphemp/
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