- The situation with food, restaurants, and diet changed from extreme scarcity in the late Soviet period to extraordinary abundance after 2000. Simultaneously, the food on offer transitioned from the stereotypically bland menus and inefficient Soviet service to the post-Soviet celebration of ethnic cuisines and acquisitions from international food purveyors, with Moscow becoming recognized as the European culinary capital of innovation in 2004.As with other imperial states, Russian cuisine is a combination of foods and eating practices borrowed from Russia’s former colonies: borscht (cabbage soup) and golubtsy (cabbage rolls) from Ukraine, wine from Georgia, pilaf and fermented dairy products from the Tatars, chebureki (filled deep-fried potato pockets) from the Crimean Tatars, herring and rye bread from the Baltic Sea region, ferns and pine nuts from Siberia, shashlik (shish kebob) and plov from Central Asia, salmon from the Pacific Rim, and so forth. It is this phenomenal ability to adopt and assimilate products coming from other cultures that characterizes Russian cuisine. However, the historical tradition makes some elusive categorizations possible. For Russians, grains (barley, buckwheat, rye, oats, and wheat) and cereals are of central importance. They form the basis of breads, savory pies, cakes, bliny (pancakes), dumplings, and fermented beverages such as kvas. Rice is a relatively recent introduction, a result of Russia’s encounter with Central Asia in the 19th century; however, nowadays it is one of the staples of Russian cuisine, with rice porridge, plov, and all kinds of rice rolls being the most popular rice dishes.Bread (khleb) forms the basis of the Russian diet; it is typically served with every meal and is consumed as an accompaniment to virtually every dish. Traditionally, bread symbolizes sustenance and hospitality; therefore, the Russian folk ritual of welcoming important guests involves bread and salt (one of the Russian words denoting hospitality—khlebosol’ stvo—derives from the name of this practice). In Russian, there are numerous proverbs that emphasize the importance of bread in the culture, including “khleb vsemu golova,” meaning “bread is the master of everything.” It is not surprising that there are infinite variations of breads and similar baked goods, and the stereotypical division into black (chornyi) and white (belyi) breads is a gross simplification. In a similar fashion, kasha (porridge) comes in an immense variety: it may be produced from a number of grouts; it can be sweet or savory; it can be served for breakfast or as a side dish; it may be served with smetana (sour cream), eggs, mushrooms, sausage, fruits, cottage cheese, and so forth.All vegetables, with the exception of cucumbers and tomatoes, are normally eaten cooked and served as a side dish, in soups, as a pickled dish (solianka), or as a main component of a salad. The salad that incorporates almost all customary vegetables and symbolizes Russian cooking par excellence is called vinegret. The name derives from the French word “vinaigrette,” a seasoned oil-and-vinegar emulsion. The Russian variant contains potatoes, pickled cabbage or cucumbers, beetroot, carrots, and onions or spring onions, all finely sliced and dressed with oil and vinegar. This dish has secured a permanent place at the table both as an everyday dish as well as a dish for special occasions. On holidays, Russian women prepare vast amounts of vinegret and other salads and serve them in large bowls, not so much as a starter but rather as a form of main course. Leafy salads are gaining more popularity, and yet the term “salad” normally denotes a mixture of finely sliced cooked vegetables, meats and sausages, and a variety of other ingredients lubricated generously with smetana, or its spicier—and cheaper—alternative, mayonnaise. Caviar is also a Russian culinary obsession. A great variety of fish roe is used—beluga black caviar, grey sevruga eggs, salmon roe, and so forth. Various types of caviar are served with bread and butter, on eggs, wrapped in bliny, or incorporated into a sauce. Purists prefer the finest caviar served chilled on very thin slices of white bread, garnished with some fine butter to achieve a smoother flavor of caviar. Due to poaching and caviar smuggling through the former Soviet republics, Caspian Sea sturgeon has now become an endangered species. Despite the government’s attempts to control the population of fish in the sea, the future of the species is quite uncertain. Nonetheless, fish is still popular in Russia—salted Baltic herring is found in many cold salads, a mixture of cold smoked fish is served as an appetizer, and salmon is used to make fish soup (ukha) and can also be served grilled or baked. However, due to the rising prices of fish, meat and poultry are emerging as staples of the Russian diet. Russia is one of the world’s largest importers of meat: beef, pork, poultry, and mutton—listed in the order of preference and consumption— constitute the main source of protein in the Russian ethnic diet. Russians may use any meat to make shashlik, and the consumption of this food is associated with the start of spring when Russians move to their dachas to enjoy their meals in the open air. Another cultural import that has become a national staple is kolbasa (sausage). Varying in type, quality, and price, kolbasa prevails over Russian everyday consumption as a source of proteins and fats as well as a common form of fast food.Russian food can be quite greasy; however, fats are important in a severe climate as they are an essential source of energy. Meat or kolbasa is consumed at least once a day and provides the necessary amount of fats; other substitutes, for example, salo (pig lard), are popular with Christian Russians and Ukrainians. Other common fats in the Russian diet are butter and sunflower oil (Russians use the same word for oil and butter—maslo). Russians make butter from the milk solids in cream and sour cream; butter produced in the north of the country is especially valued. Butter is one of numerous dairy products consumed in Russia, including smetana, yogurt, slivki (cream), prostokvasha (buttermilk), kefir and riazhenka (yogurt-type drinks), tvorog (cottage cheese), syrki (processed cottage cheese), and so forth. Cheeses were a rarity in the Soviet Union with just a handful of processed or semisoft cheeses available to average citizens, including such brands as Rossiiskii and Gollandskii. Cheeses exploded on the market after 1991, with many imported and locally produced cheeses becoming increasingly popular.As for alcoholic beverages, recent trends indicate that beer is now more popular than vodka. Beer experienced a renaissance in the postSoviet period, with the popular brand Baltika leading the market. Russians rarely drink cocktails, and consuming alcoholic beverages without food is believed to be unhealthy. Typically, an appetizer (zakuska)— a pickled cucumber, caviar on bread, a slice of herring, or a spoonful of salad—precedes and immediately follows each drink. While statistically speaking, Russians consume large quantities of alcohol per capita, approaching the European average, their national drink is not vodka, as the stereotype suggests, but rather tea. Chai (tea) is consumed many times a day; it is served either black, or with a dash of milk, lemon and sugar, or honey and jam (varen’ e). Russian tea is always served piping hot in mugs; however, the tradition indicates that it should be consumed out of porcelain cups with saucers and in some occasions—for example on board a train—in glasses with metal holders. Virtually everyone drinks tea; tea drinking involves a serving of chocolate, biscuits, cake, sweets, caramelized nuts, jam, or honey. Black tea—exported from India or the Caucasus, though some sorts are available from Krasnodar Krai—is the predominant style of tea; however, green tea is gaining more popularity, especially with younger Russian. Herbal teas—mint, linden flower, and so forth—are also extremely popular; in fact, many Russian families grow herbs on their dachas or pick them in woods and fields. However, this pastime, as well as using the samovar to make tea, is becoming a rarity. Instant coffee took off in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the 1970s and is a common alternative to tea. Nowadays filtered coffee is very popular with young people in urban centers, where such chains of coffeehouses as Coffee House, Shokoladnitsa, and others opened in the past decade. The start of the new millennium also marked Russia’s growing interest in eating out. The appearance of Russian cities has changed enormously with numerous cafes appearing in city centers, and on the outskirts restaurants are a compulsory element of shopping centers. While some traditional restaurants remain, the majority of food outlets are new cafes, either specializing in ethnic cuisine (particularly Georgian, Chinese, and Italian), or serving Russian versions of many popular international dishes. There has emerged what can be called “universal Russian food,” or “Russian global food,” which contains cliché dishes, as well as assorted ethnic foods. This type of food is ubiquitously served in cafes all across the country, on board airplanes, and so forth.Though cafes and restaurants are very popular, Russians still prefer to eat at home, with cooking being the most consuming household chore, typically done by women. In multigenerational households, the babushka (grandmother) assumes the bulk of the cooking duties, while the wife and children help in preparation. Men rarely concern themselves with daily meals, as cooking is not viewed as a masculine pastime. Nor do men typically help their wives with shopping or cleaning up. However, the tendency seems to have changed in recent years, with more men cooking for their families. Families tend to cook soup and a main course that lasts for a few days; however, many Russian families are obsessed with fresh food, and so daily visits to markets and shops are quite normal. Unlike in other countries, both men and women work in the Russian commercial food sector, working as cooks and professional chefs. In the 1990s, Russians upgraded their kitchens so that now virtually every urban household boasts a wide range of electric appliances (though the dishwasher is still a rarity). More processed and semiprepared dishes are used in everyday life, raising health concerns. However, the situation in the Russian countryside has not changed as much, with many families living in villages with no running water or gas, making the process of food preparation even more arduous.Many Russians, especially in rural areas, believe that Westernstyle fast food instead of the soup-centered meal causes health problems. However, a traditional Russian lunch consisting of cooked vegetables, meat broth, processed meat, full-fat dairy products, bread, and dessert cannot be called a healthy option either. Increasingly, people in Russia are concerned with their weight, though largely in regard to their appearance rather than associated health risks. This does not, however, prevent Russians from consuming fast food. The first McDonald’s restaurant opened in Moscow in 1990 just a few hundred meters away from the Kremlin, thus symbolizing Russia’s move toward Western market economies. There are now more than 250 McDonald’s outlets operating in Russia.There are a few types of restaurants in Russia: exclusive haute cuisine restaurants and private clubs (the majority of them are located in Moscow), international cuisine, fast-food chains (both international and Russian), independent middle-range restaurants, coffee shops and cafes, or cafeterias, and beer houses. Middle-range restaurants cater for the ever-expanding middle class, while fast-food outlets offer more dishes in response to increasing market demand. In 2005, there were 4,000 restaurants in Moscow (with a population of 11 million people), compared with 14,000 restaurants in Paris (2.3 million people). Paradoxically, about a third of the Russian population cannot afford basic food items, while another third visit expensive restaurants on a regular basis.Food and food products have recently become cultural denominators: Orthodox Christians adhere to the rituals of fasting, while supermarkets now sell kosher and halal foods for the country’s Jews and Muslims. Recently, food has also played an important role in Russian foreign relations with a partial ban on meat from Ukraine and discontinuation of wine and mineral-water imports from Georgia following these countries’ respective color revolutions.
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov. 2010.
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