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Russia’s Epicurean History Garnished with Warmth

This article was published in D&B’s special edition: 71st Anniversary of India-Russia Bilateral Ties

Contrary to Russia’s cold and wintry landscape, its food brings out a want for culinary pleasure.
Russia, similar to India, is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with a sense of traditionalism. Where Indian cuisines are bursting with flavours, Russian cuisine is an embodiment of simplicity and health. To beat the cold outside, soups are one’s best friend in Russia on a wintery night. True to Russian culture, one can taste the age-old recipes, like the food has come straight out of grandma’s kitchen. It’s like a platter full of warmth and love.

Travelling Back in Time

The history of traditional Russian cuisine dates back to 9th to 13th century.  Over the centuries, Russian food has evolved as an amalgamation of influences from both West and East. However, it wasn’t like that at the start. Russian cuisine has its own fascinating story of evolution.

Russia, with an abundance of rivers, lakes, and forests, provided natives back in time with fishes, mushrooms, berries, and grains (mainly rye). During the Old Russian period, traditional karawang (a loaf of black bread) and salt was a symbol of hospitality. The country has a history of diet-based crops that could withstand the cold climate such as grains (rye, barley, wheat, buckwheat), root vegetables (beetroot, turnips, potatoes), and of course, cabbage.

Russia, in a worldwide count, is also the biggest consumer of fish. According to the Russian Orthodox Church, they were allowed to consume fish during fasting. In the medieval times, spices were prohibited by church as they were considered sinful. But later when Russia started indulging in trade with European countries, they were introduced to spices such as clove, cinnamon, ginger etc. that soon became a part of their diet.

Russians Love their Porridge!

If Indians are head-over-heels in love their kheer (rice porridge), Russian children have their equivalent called Kasha, which is a porridge made of different types of grains such as oats, buckwheat, and barley. An old Russian proverb lauds their love for Kasha in the best way: Porridge is our mother & bread is our father. Up until the 19th century, Russia never knew of salads. The first salad Russians ever had was a cabbage salad, followed by cucumber and potato salad. Russians then kept experimenting with salads, and eventually started using more and more vegetables and making complex salads.

Vodka was Not the First Drink!

By the early 18th century, Russians were already drinking hot liquids such as the first fish soup— Shchi (Russian cabbage soup) and Borscht (sour soup) and Rassolnik (soup made of pickled cucumbers); but it was only in the 19th century, that these hot liquids came to officially be called soups. In the 9th century, the only drink popular in Russia was Kvass (wild berry drink). In fact, tea was first introduced in the country in the 18th century.
To debunk another myth, Russians in olden times, drank low alcoholic drinks made out of honey and berries. Vodka was first introduced in Russia in the 15th century and was instantly banned as well. It reappeared during the reign of Ivan the Terrible sometime in the middle of the16th century. This was also the period when Russia hosted its first Tsar bar.

Not Cooked Over a Burner!

Traditionally, Russian food was cooked in a Russian Stove or a pech’. They didn’t use a burner or any other heating method. The oven was used for slow cooking as well as quick baking. They also used the pech’ to keep their homes warm as it helped heat the area from all sides. Pech’ is still used in pockets in the Russian countryside.

Influence of Time and Space

With the arrival of the 17th century, Russian cooking became more sophisticated within the homes of the elite. Tsarist Russia welcomed the influence of different cuisines from European countries—first German, then Dutch, and then French. Ivan III had introduced Italian craftsmen to Russia; these craftsmen had carried their love for pasta, dessert (gelato/sherbet) and pastries overseas with them to Russia. As Peter the Great moved the capital of Russia to
St. Petersburg to bring it closer to Europe, he also changed the way their calendar functioned and many other Russian traditions in 18th century to accommodate the European influence.

Peter I also brought French chefs to his household. As nobility became more sophisticated, the traditions of dinning also changed. Aristocracy in Russia started hired foreign chefs and the native tratirs were replaced with waiters and hosts. The French influence also introduced the order of the three-course meal instead of the usual bringing of food all at once to the table. ‘Salad Russe’, a Russian salad was created in the era of Nicholas II, in 1917 by his French chef.

Russian cuisine has also been shaped by other influences like Italian, American, and Indian and many more. Russia has its own kind of pizza known as Siberian pizza; they make it by topping their pies with pickle and mayonnaise.  Russians have also taken a liking to onion potato chips with mushrooms and beetroot salad which is the staple American dish, including beer, bourbon, and California wine with obvious reference to Coca-Cola.

Russians are also fans of Indian curry and Masala Chai. They love the yogurt-based drink known as lassi.

Russian cuisine is about more than just vodka and decoration. Their food is hearty and meaty and here are five of Russia’s staple dishes:

  1. Blini: It is a type of traditional pancake, made of wheat and served with sour cream (not maple syrup, unlike Canadian pancakes). It is flattened and sometimes, smoked with spices.


  1. Pelmeni: It is similar to dumplings. Minced meat and fish are filled inside the unleavened dough. It is also served with sour cream as a dip.


  1. Borscht: A staple Russian/Ukrainian dish. Borscht in simple words is a beetroot soup that also includes meat, potato, carrots, and tomato. Served with sour cream, it can be eaten either hot or cold.


  1. Kholodets: One of the ancient Russian dishes made to creatively preserve meat, takes several hours to prepare. Fresh meat (pork or beef) is cut into pieces and its broth is poured over them. Then, they are left to cool down. This traditional starter is served with horseradish sauce or mustard sauce.


  1. Medovik: Empress Elizabeth’s (the wife of Emperor Alexander I) favourite dish. It is Russia’s most popular dessert. This extra sweet honey cake was invented in the Imperial Palace in 19th