About the food of Russia

River Angara at Talzy close to Lake Baikal. Photo by octagon.

Ava’s been pointing to the giant orange mass on our world map lately and asking “are we eating that country tonight?” Each time I know without looking that she’s pointing to Russia. She always is. To her little three year-old mind, there’s nothing more enticing than the biggest country on the map (Russia is literally 1/8th of the world’s landmass!).

This week I can finally  tell her “yes.”

Vologda Kremlin. Photo by Alexey Yuzhakov.

Russian food is simplicity itself. We’re talking cozy staples designed to get people through long tough winters, like beef stroganoff and princess pink borscht, that traditional beet soup we tried with Belarus [Recipe] (Russia is home to a dizzying array of borscht.  Want it hot? No problem. Chilled? Sure thing. Inside a carnival colored cathedral? If you promise not to spill.)

Cathedral of Saint Basil in the Red Square, Moscow.

Then there’s the pickles. Pickles were a great way to preserve food in harsh weather, so it’s a standby from the old days. Pickles in Russia are not limited to cucumbers – you’ll find pickled garlic, tomatoes… even garlic shoots. I know, because I saw it on Andrew Zimmern’s show (he advises the young shoots are more tender… you know, if you ever happen to be strolling through a pickle stand in Russia). Supposedly Russian pickles are more salty than vinegary, which makes for a more mild, subtle flavor.

Karachay Cherkessia. Photo by Собственная работа.

Let’s not forget the fish. You’ll find it in every format, from caviar (a.k.a. fish eggs), to fermented or smoked, in soups or steamed. Caviar, nibbled between sips of ice cold vodka, is most definitely the fancy pants way to enjoy Russia. Perhaps you can savor yours while sitting at the Lenin State Library in Moscow, which houses one of the largest collections of books and manuscripts in the world.

Not too shabby.

For those who prefer a more humble meal? Try the street food in Russia. You’ll find everything from Blinis (think crepes) to oladyi (think pancakes). On the side you might get a traditional Russian potato salad, cucumbers in sour cream, fried mushrooms, or even a bit of sour cherry soup (like what we made for Hungary – recipe).

Vladivostok. Photo by Sistak.

Or,  you could wander out to Siberia where the weather can dip below -90F (what?!) and enjoy… well… I’m not sure what else would cut it, besides several swigs of vodka. Perhaps fruit flavored? Because Russians rock that, too.

Russian map and flag, courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

1 Comment

  1. Brian S. says

    Over the past year or two I’ve found a way to make Russia come alive for me. And you don’t even have to leave your house! Around the year 1870, Russia was home to an incredible flowering of literature. I’ve been reading these books and have gained an new understanding of the Russian world. Books I’ve read and would recommend…

    Tolstoy “War and Peace” “Anna Karenina” “Resurrection”
    Dostoyevski “The Brothers Karamazov”
    Turgenev “Fathers and Sons”

    Here is something I just wrote about Chekhov’s plays which demonstrates their universal humanity and appeal across both time and cultures.

    Here’s a Chekhov play. The scene: late afternoon on an isolated country estate somewhere in Russia. Time: the present (which usually means 1896). A bunch of boring depressed people, most of them long past their prime, sit around a fireplace or dinner table. They slowly swap banter about the sun, the crops, the weather. I hate living in the country, says one, and at around this point each character in turn bemoans his miserable life. One of them is rich and holds all the power, but he complains even louder than the rest. One of the men is in love with one of the woman but she despises him. Nothing happens. No action at all (except at some point someone gets shot but that’s a minor matter, good for a giggle). Oh maybe they’ll eat some soup but it’s rare to find that much of a plot. Slowly inch by inch and with little fanfare they are dying. Slowly inch by inch and with a lot of preening and trumpeting they bare their deepest secrets, their inner souls, and such despair and decay gushes forth that you’d think you’d be in tears by the end of it. But this doesn’t happen and that’s the worst of it. They talk so eloquently, of true and crushing misery, but the more they talk the more ridiculous they are… both to themselves and, more terrifying, to you the audience. That’s the ultimate horror. They should be — and definitely want to be — grand tragic figures, the doomed star of their own opera, with the spotlight shining on them as the audience sobs its eyes out. But instead they suffer and suffer and the audience laughs and titters and in the end they’re pathetic clowns. And then the final curtain falls and slowly, slowly the tragedy sinks in. You realize the hidden grace and humanity of the characters. You realize they’re a lot like us. You cry. What else can you do? Chekhov, prescient and prophetic, is the first and maybe greatest playwright of the modern age.

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