At the heart of Russian hospitality is a table laden with generous portions of homemade dishes like piroshki, borscht, picked herring, pelmeni, and syrniki along with full-to-the-brim shot glasses of tummy-warming vodka. Perhaps my favourite meal of all is a blinchik (crepe batter swirled in a skillet until it’s a paper-thin round) that is lined with spoonfuls of red caviar, dollops of sour cream, and a sprinkle of chopped dill. Rolled-up, this indulgence is perfectly accompanied by a glass a Russian bubbly or champagne.
Celebrating the New Year in Russia often means feasting on a family-style buffet of gastronomic delights; the chilly outside temperatures making carb-and-cream-rich foods, smoked fish, and pickled side dishes all the more palatable (and desirable). Historically, Moscovites subsisted on a diet of locally sourced foods though overseas influences led Moscow to earn the reputation as a “city of gourmands”:
“Sumptuous banquets had a legendary status in the annals of Moscow. It was not unusual for 200 separate dishes to be presented at a meal. (Yet) sumptuous eating of this sort was a relatively new phenomenon. The food of 17th century Muscovy had been plain and simple – the entire repertory consisting of fish, boiled meats, pancakes, bread and pies, garlic, onion, cucumbers and radishes, cabbages and beetroot… It was not until the 18th century that more interesting foods and culinary techniques were imported from abroad: butter, cheese and sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, tea and coffee, chocolates, ice cream, wines, and liqueurs. Although seen as the most Russian part of any meal (caviar, sturgeon, vodka), the classic zakuski (hors-d’oeuvres), such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early 19th century.”*
Note: such a standard for eating was not only reserved for courtiers; provincial families also enjoyed a healthy intake, and the gentry households could spend a whole day in a ‘chain of meals’, as described by the Russian poet, Pushkin.
TIPS FOR TRAVELERS
For the Moscow-bound traveler, consuming Russia’s passion for food brings a different dimension to experiencing the cosmopolitan city: it delves deeper into the cultural; it makes one ponder food’s historical significance; it offers a greater understanding of the locals’ way of life. Stopping at a food kiosk and sitting down to a traditional Russian restaurant meal are, in my opinion, absolute musts when visiting this fascinating city and country.
For the non-Russian speaking tourist, seeking out traditional foods is a little daunting given Cyrillic is one of the hardest languages to read, let alone comprehend and speak. I can understand why a traveler would stop to eat at one of the many sushi spots (there’s even a Nobu Moscow), or at (the growing number of) American food outlets like Shake Shack, Papa Beard’s, Subway, Le Pain Quotidien, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Johnny Rockets… even Cinnabon— their food options are familiar, served in the safety net of a recognisable interior.
The truth is that many Russian restaurants do cater to the English speaker, and asking for a translated menu is the first step to overcoming the fear of not being able to converse in the local language. The result of making this effort is dining on a closer-to-authentic meal that satisfies that sense of curiousity for the new and different — one of the very reasons we travel in the first place.
I was fascinated with Russian food during my time in Moscow, especially while browsing the well-stocked shelves of local foodstuffs. Some of my favourite times were spent in supermarkets, or gastronoms, lusting over freshly baked breads and pastry treats, rows of fresh and tinned fish, reams of boxed chocolates, and mouth-watering arrays of cold cuts and cheeses.
Below is a rough guide to foodie recommendations and a bite of what you could expect on a trip to Moscow. A helpful hint: do a little research prior to your trip and learn the names of key Russian dishes. Choose to dine in a Russian restaurant and, in the absence of a translated menu, gather up all your courage and request a few of those dishes that intrigued you in that pre-trip research. Place any worries aside: You aren’t the first traveler daunted by the Russian language … nor the last!
Na Zdorovie! — “to your health”, and S Novim Godom! – “Happy New Year!”
May you indulge in gastronomic delights and delicacies as you see in a prosperous 2014!
Zakuski, or starters
Smoked fish like trout, and herring pickled in a mix of vinegar, peppercorns, and sliced raw onions are essential zakuski.
Cheese, cold cuts, and black bread are served at breakfast; also as appetizers.
Beef Stroganoff: dating back to the Imperial years, this dish was prepared for tsars and gained its name from either Baron Alexander Stroganov in the early 1800s or Count Pavel Stroganov.
Pelmeni — these are boiled minced meat dumplings and very tasty when dipped in a mixture of smetana (sour cream) and khren (horseradish).
Piroshki — pie-like buns that, when bitten, reveal savoury fillings such as meat, or cabbage, or fish, or mashed potato with mushroom. A snack that I fully indulged in during Moscow’s wintry days.
Blinchiki are pancakes/crepes and tastiest when filled with the luxury that is black sturgeon caviar — Ossetra, Beluga or Sevruga — or red salmon caviar, along with sour cream. Roll the crepe up and enjoy to the pops of salt mixed with creamy-sour goodness.
Soups, Salads, and Sides
Pickled sides can include mushrooms, cabbage, cucumbers, and/or tomatoes.
Borscht — a soup painted red for its chopped beetroot; made with shredded cabbage, carrots, chopped potatoes, and even meat. The soup below contained lingon and/or cranberries giving it a slightly sour-tart taste.
Hailing from France is the popular Salat Olivier, a mayonnaise-based concoction of diced ham or chicken, eggs, carrots, potatoes, and pickles. It’s best enjoyed with a few slices of black bread. (I didn’t try it on this trip).
Desserts and baked goods
Croissants and cappuccinos — the French and Italian influence is alive and well. Mum and I couldn’t resist dining at this outpost of Le Pain, located on the old Arbat.
Syrniki — these fluffy fried cheese pancakes are made of cottage cheese and egg; topped with sour cream, jam, and/or honey.
Vatrushka — pastry marked with a middle of hearty baked cottage cheese (sometimes includes raisins).
Sochnik — pastry folded around cottage cheese.
Moscow dining and foodie recommendations:
Bochka restaurant — for traditional Russian food. Also owners of the oft-reviewed Café Pushkin. http://www.vbochke.ru
Acapella Restaurant, Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel — an excellent Russian set menu. http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/moscow/dining
Shokoladnitsa — seems to be modeled after Max Brenner, it’s easy for travelers to select from a menu of salads, pancakes, desserts and coffee. http://www.shoko.ru
Azbuka Vkusa — translated as “Alphabet of Taste”, this is chain of gourmet, pricey supermarkets located across Moscow. Open 24 hours.
Smolensky Gastronom – a well-stocked gourmet supermarket located on the Old Arbat, close to the entrance of the Smolensky metro.
Produkti Cafe and Bar — translated as “Products”, a name usually reserved for grocery stores, this is a hip dining spot on the island that housed the former site of Krasny Oktyabr’ (Red October Chocolate Factory).
*Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figues
–Many restaurants in Russia cater to smokers so ask for the non-smoking section if this is your preference.
–Tipping is at the diner’s discretion though it’s advisable to leave around a 10% tip as gratuities make up the bulk of the waitstaff’s wages.
–Lent takes place during March and April and this may mean some places serve fish instead of meat, and no dairy, eggs, milk and cheese. But in Western hotels and restaurants, this shouldn’t be an issue.