Food and Drink in Russia

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Food and Drink in Russia

Russian Cuisine

Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural expanse of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate, with a combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, buckwheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Flavourful soups and stews centred on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. This wholly native food remained the staples for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century. Lying on the northern reaches of the ancient Silk Road, as well as Russia's proximity to the Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire has provided an inescapable Eastern character to its cooking methods (not so much in European Russia but distinguishable in the North Caucasus). Russia's renowned caviar is easily obtained, however prices can exceed the expenses of your entire trip. Dishes such as beef Stroganov and chicken kiev, from the pre-revolutionary era are available but mainly aimed at tourists as they lost their status and visibility during Soviet times. Russian specialities include:

  • Pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings, especially popular in Ural and Siberian regions)
  • Blini (thin, savoury buckwheat pancakes)
  • Black bread (rye bread, somewhat similar to one used by North American delis and not as dense as German variety)
  • Piroshki (small pies or buns with sweet or savoury filling)
  • Golubtsy (Cabbage rolls)
  • Ikra Baklazhanaya (aubergine spread)
  • Okroshka (Cold soups based on kvass or sour milk)
  • Schi (cabbage soup) and Green schi (sorrel soup, may be served cold)
  • Borsch (beet and garlic soup)
  • Vinegret (salad of boiled beets, potato, carrots and other vegetables with vinegar)
  • Olivier (russian version of potato salad)
  • Shashlyk (various kebabs from the Caucasus republics of the former Soviet Union)

Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow offer sophisticated, world class dining and a wide variety of cuisines including Japanese, Tibetan and Italian. They are also excellent cities to sample some of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Georgian and Uzbek). It is also possible to eat well and cheaply there without resorting to the many western fast food chains that have opened up. Russians have their own versions of fast food restaurants which range from cafeteria style serving comfort foods to streetside kiosks cooking up blinis or stuffed potatos. Although their menus may not be in English, it is fairly easy to point to what is wanted — or at a picture of it, not unlike at western fast food restaurants. A small Russian dictionary will be useful at non- touristy restaurants offering table service where staff members will not speak English and the menus will be entirely in Cyrillic, but prices are very reasonable. Russian meat soups and meat pies are excellent.

It is better not to drink the tap water in Russia and to avoid using ice in drinks, however bottled water and Coca Cola are available everywhere food is served. Tap water may contain e-coli, metals and parasites. St Petersburg has the most dangerous tap water because the system is ancient.

Stylish cafes serving cappuccino, espresso, toasted sandwiches, rich cakes and pastries are popping up all over Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Some do double duty as wine bars, others are also internet cafes.

Unlike Europe, cafes in Russia (кафе) do not serve only drinks, but also a full range of meals (typically cooked in advance—unlike restaurants where part or whole cooking cycle is performed after you make an order).

Drinks and Drinking in Russia

Vodka, imported liquors (rum, gin, etc), international soft-drinks (Pepsi, Coca- Cola, Fanta, etc), local soft drinks (Tarhun, Buratino, Baikal, etc.), distilled water, kvas (sour-sweet non-alcoholic naturally carbonized drink made from fermented dark bread) and mors (traditional wild berry drink).

Vodka When entering a local store, you might goggle at the amount of vodka on display. Drinking vodka in Russia is a different custom than in North America or Europe. To drink vodka in the right way, you need to have zakusky (Russian for the meal you eat with alcohol (mainly vodka)). This can consist of anything from simple loaves of bread to full spreads of delicious appetizers. The most common are sour or fresh cucumbers, herring, soup, and meat. If you are dining with locals who are serving soup or herring or potatoes be prepared that a generous amount of vodka will be provided. The convention is to say a toast, "na zdoroviye"-"for good health" is the most common, drink the shot (or half) and follow with a bite of the food. Zakusk(a/y)(singular/plural), will be something salty, dried, or fatty. This is so that the vodka is either absorbed by the food or repelled by the fat. Be careful in when opening a good vodka bottles, once you open it you must drink it all (a good vodka bottle doesn't have a cap that can be replaced). If you are drinking with locals its not problem to skip round. They would just pour you a symbolic drop.

Beer in Russia is cheap and the varieties are endless of both Russian and international brands. It is found for sale at any street vendor (warm) or stall (varies) in the center of any city and costs (costs double and triple the closer you are to the center) from about 17 rubles (about 50 US cents) to 130 rubles for a 0.5l bottle or can. "Small" bottles and cans (0.33l and around) are also widely sold, and there are also plastic bottles of 1, 1.5, 2 liters or even more, similar to those in which soft carbonated drinks are usually sold — many cheaper beers are sold that way and, being even cheaper due to large volume, are quite popular, despite some people say it can have a "plastic" taste. The highest prices (especially in the bars and restaurants) are traditionally in Moscow; Saint-Petersburg, on the other hand, is known for the cheaper and often better beers. Smaller cities and towns generally have similar prices if bought in the shop, but significantly lower ones in the bars and street cafes. Popular local brands of beer are Baltika, Stary Mel'nik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tin'koff and many others. Locally made (mainly except some Czech and possibly some other European beers — you won't miss these, the price of a "local" Czech beer from the same shelf will be quite different) international trademarks like Holsten, Carlsberg, etc. are also widely available, but their quality doesn't differ so much from local beers. Soft drinks usually start from 20-30 rubles (yes, same or even more expensive than an average local beer in a same shop) and can cost up to 60 rubles or more in the Moscow center for a 0.5l plastic bottle or 0.33l can.

Street vendors usually operate mainly in tourist- and local-frequented areas, and many of them (especially those who walk around without a stall) are working without a license, usually paying some kind of a bribe to local police. Their beer, however, is usually OK, as it was just bought in a nearby shop. In the less weekend-oriented locations, large booths ("lar'ki" or "palatki", singular: "laryok" ("stall") or "palatka" (literally, "tent")) can be found everywhere, especially near metro stations and bus stops. They sell soft drinks, beer, and "cocktails" (basically a cheap soft drink mixed with alcohol, bad hangover is guaranteed from the cheaper ones) and their prices, while still not high, are often 20-40% more than those in supermarkets. The chain supermarkets (excluding some "elite" ones) and malls (mostly on bigger cities' outskirts) are usually the cheapest option for buying drinks (for food, the local markets in the smaller cities, but not in Moscow, are often cheaper). Staff of all of these (maybe except in some supermarkets, if you're lucky) does not speak or, at the best, speaks very basic English even in Moscow.

Mixed alcoholic beverages as well as beers at nightclubs and bars are extremely expensive and are served without ice, with the mix (for example, coke) and alcohol charged for separately. Bringing your own is neither encouraged nor allowed, and some (usually dance-all-night venues oriented to the young crowd) places in Moscow even can take some measures to prevent customers from drinking outside (like a face-control who may refuse an entry on return, or the need to pay entry fee again after going out), or even from drinking the tap water instead of overpriced soft drinks by leaving only hot water available in the lavatories. Any illegal drugs are best avoided by the people not accustomed to the country — the enforcement is, in practice, focused on collecting more bribes from those buying and taking, rather than on busting drug-dealers, the people selling recreational illegal drugs in the clubs are too often linked with (or watched by) police; plain-clothes policemen know and frequently visit the venues where drugs are popular, and you will likely end up in a lot of problems with notoriously corrupt Russian police and probably paying multi-thousand-dollar (if not worse) bribe to get out, if you'll get caught. It really doesn't worth the risk here.

Wines from Georgia and Moldova are quite popular (although all products from Georgia are illegal 2005). In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, most restaurants have a selection of European wines—generally at a high price. Please note that Russians prefer sweet wine as opposed to dry. French Chablis is widely available at restaurants and is of good quality. The Chablis runs about 240 rubles per glass. All white wines are served room temperature unless you are at an international hotel that caters to Westerners.

Soviet champagne (Советское Шампанское, Sovetskoye Shampanskoye) or, more politically correctly just sparkling wine (Игристые вина, Igristie vina) is also served everywhere in the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price. The quality is generally on the level of cheap European sparkling wines and by far the most common variety is polusladkoye (semi-sweet), a misnomer for what most Westerners find syrupy-sweet, but the better brands also come in polusukhoe (semi-dry) and sukhoe (dry) varieties. The original producer and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye trademark holder is Latvijas Balzams in Latvia, but Ukrainian brands like Odessa or Krymskoe are also very popular. Among Russian brands, the best brands seem to originate from the southern regions where grapes are widely grown. One of a quality Russian brands is Abrau-Dyurso (200-700 rubles for a bottle in the supermarket depending on variety); Tsimlyanskoe (150-250 rubles) is also popular. The quality of the cheapest ones (from 85-120 rubles, depending on where you buy) varies, you can buy if you do want to have a try while not paying much, but, for returning home, it's wiser to stick to something better.

Genuine kvass is very hard to find in the cities, there are only some chances in rural areas—but even there, only by a recommendation. Whatever is sold in supermarkets as kvass is merely an imitation, and is pretty far from a real product. What makes genuine kvass different includes: limited lifetime (normally 1 week), contains some alcohol (0.7% to 2.6% vol) and should be stored in a fridge. Genuine kvass can be bought in 0.2l cups, which may be a good idea to sample it before buying in quantity.

In warm periods, genuine kvass can be bought from huge metal barrels on trailers (bochkas). Originally a symbol of soviet summertime, bochkas became rare after 1991. Soviet nostalgia and these trailers' no-nonsense good functionality have given them a revival in recent years. There are also modern, plastic, stationary, upright barrel-like dispensers but these may not sell the genuine article. Towards the end of an especially hot day, avoid genuine kvass from bochkas as it may have soured.

Medovukha (медовуха) aka mead, the ancient drink brewed from many a century ago by Europeans were also wide-spread among Russians. It has semi-sweet taste based on fermented honey and contains 10-16% of alcohol, you may see it sold in bottles or poured in cups in fast-food outlets and shops.

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