Russian cuisine has been influenced by natural, social, economic and historical factors.
Its main feature is the abundance of ingredients used. Its other defining feature is the variety of methods of preparing the products (boiling, stewing, roasting, baking and frying).
The uniqueness of Russian cuisine is, to a great extent, due to the specifics of the Russian stove, which has existed for several thousands of years. The reason for the endurance of the Russian stove is its universality. It heated the house, it was used for cooking, baking bread, drying food and clothes and even for washing.
A special shape of dish was created for the Russian stove. Initially it was ceramic (pot) and then metallic (cast iron). There were also unique cooking methods; geese, ducks chicken and piglets were cooked whole, while meat was cut into large pieces, gammon was baked whole etc. Food cooked in a Russian stove had a distinct flavour and aroma.
Since ancient times, everything that the forests, rivers and lakes provided was used: mushrooms, berries, nuts, hazel grouse, wood grouse, grouse, hare, fish, crayfish, geese, ducks etc. Honey was for many years the main ingredient for making sweet dishes and drinks.
The natural environment of Rus encouraged the development of dairy as well as meat livestock farming. Therefore, milk, curd cheese, cream and sour cream were widely used and beef, pork, mutton, goat and fowl meat consumed. However, veal was not eaten in Rus until almost the end of the 18th century, when it became a decoration on the festive tables of noblemen.
Cereal crops had been long cultivated in Rus, which is why a great deal of flour based and grain dishes appeared on the Russian table.
It was not only cereals that were honoured but also garden crops. Cabbage was particularly widely used in Russian cuisine, it was used to make snacks, fillings for pies and cabbage soup (shchi). Just as popular in ancient Rus were cucumbers, turnips, swedes and radishes. What is more, dishes using these are still popular today (grated radish with kvass (a bread drink), butter, radish with honey etc.). Later, other kinds of vegetables became widely used; pumpkins, marrows, aubergines, tomatoes and of course potatoes, without which Russian food is impossible to imagine. However, before the end of the 18th century the potato was not as widespread in Russia as it is today. In the middle of the 18 century it was planted in the gardens of the Tsar. It is well known that Catherine II ate only potatoes during fasting. An order was issued on cultivating the “Earth Apple”, but the population did not support this crop, especially as some members of the clergy considered the potato to be the “devil’s apple” which had tempted Adam and Eve. Despite this, the potato gradually spread throughout Russia helped by bad harvest years when the peasants were forced to plant it, even though this caused the “potato riots”. However, popular resistance changed when a recipe for making samogon (home made alcohol) from potatoes reached the villages. Already by the end of the 19th century, the largest restaurants in Saint Petersburg introduced “Potatoes a la Pushkin” on their menus. According to legend, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin on returning late from guests and feeling hungry, decided to make supper himself and fried boiled potatoes in butter on coal. He liked the dish so much, that he then began serving it to his guests. Even so, right up to the 1917 October Revolution, potatoes were served with English dishes, as potato seeds were first brought to Russia from England and Ireland.
Together with vegetables, fruit were also grown, especially apples and pears which were used not only for making sweet dishes but also kvass. Soaked apples were also a typical starter. However, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna could not stand apples in any form, and could not even bear their smell, to which she was particularly sensitive, although, she was very fond of Tokay wine, which became fashionable in Russia in 1745.
Russian cuisine did not develop in isolation, but was influenced by Russia’s wide relations and cultural exchange with other states. The main changes in Russian cuisine are connected with Peter I, who introduced kitchen stoves and engrained new cooking habits in his subjects. From the second half of the 18th century, when Peter III came to power, punch became extremely popular: the Emperor began his meals with punch and it was drunk in country inns instead of tea. Slightly later, during the reign of Catherine II, a lot of influences came from France. For example, drinks such as cider and cold fruit punch. In the 19th century in Russian restaurant cuisine various sauces, consommes, sweet dishes (jellies, mousses, and creams) were adapted from the French and many restaurant menus include French names. Russian aristocratic cuisine, with a French accent, is represented to this day in Saint Petersburg by one of the oldest restaurants in the city, Palkin. The restaurant’s first owner was the business adviser Konstantin Palkin, and regular customers included the composer Tchaikovsky, the writers Chekhov, Kuprin, Bunin, Dostoyevsky, the poet Blok and the chemist Mendeleev, who was famously fond of Russian kvass.
At the same time, Russian cooking also influenced the development of European cuisine: the old Russian dish, which is known in many countries as Russian Salad, is called a Vegetable Vinaigrette in Russia (this must contain beetroot, while everything else is down to the chef’s fantasy). Sbiten, one of the most popular Russian drinks of the 18th-19th centuries, is a precursor of tea. Peter I ordered that the builders of Saint Petersburg be given it as a tonic, it was drunk by high society between acts at the theatre and when it became widely available it was highly praised by foreigners. Casanova noted that sbiten “...is much superior to the sherbet of Constantinople”. Dutch and English sailors added wine to the drink and from this sbiten received the name Russian Mulled Wine.
STARTERS: no other cuisine has such a wide range of vegetable, fish, meat starters and cold dishes. It is remarkable that the Russian word for starter “Zakuska” is found in some foreign cuisines.
Traditional Russian meat starters include dishes using the giblets of birds and other animal by-products (tongue, liver, kidney and feet).
Corned beef with horse radish, tripe and jellied meat were popular with ordinary people, while wealthy families made starters from poultry and game. For festive tables, whole turkeys, pheasants, boiled piglets with horse radish and gammons of pork baked in pastry were cooked. Kvass with horse radish and crushed garlic were served with the above.
In 1718 Admiral Apraksin, accompanying Polish guests on an excursion of the Admiralty, served them “naval dishes”, tongue, smoked beef and sea fish.
In the second half of the 19th century pate appeared in Saint Petersburg and did not seem at all exotic at the time.
SOUPS: from ancient times to today there has been an exceptionally rich range of soups. The first liquid dishes in Russian cuisine were called pokhlebka (potage). The word soup appeared during the reign of Peter I. Soups were cooked and served in pots, and later in cast iron. In olden times, soups were eaten with wooden spoons as they did not burn the lips. The traditional Russian soups are shchi, borscht, rassolnik, solyanka, pokhlebka, cold soups based on kvass and beetroot broth etc.
SHCHI: this is an ancient national dish from the central and northern regions of Russia. There are over 60 types of shchi! These include sour shchi with meat, fish and mushrooms, one day shchi, green shchi etc. Traditional Russian shchi is made without potatoes from fresh or sour white cabbage, sorrel, spinach, nettles and sauteed vegetables on bone, meat and bone, fish or mushroom broth or on water (vegetarian). Fresh cabbage shchi is usually served with curd tarts or pies, while sour cabbage shchi is served with buckwheat pudding, buckwheat porridge or koulibiac with buckwheat porridge.
BORSCHT: Borscht is just as widespread in the southern and central regions of Russia as shchi is in the north. Borscht is cooked using meat and mushroom broths, less often using duck or goose broth. The main ingredients of any borscht are beetroot, sauteed vegetables and white cabbage.
RASSOLNIK: the main ingredients of rassolnik are salted cucumbers, white root vegetables and onions. Other vegetables and ingredients may be different.
SOLYANKA: Solyanka is an old national Russian dish. It is made using strong beef, sturgeon or mushroom broth.
UKHA: this is one of the oldest Russian dishes, which has no rivals in European cuisine. Nowadays, only fish soup is called ukha, whereas soups based on different broths, chicken, meat etc. used to be called ukha as well.
COLD SOUPS: cold soups based on kvass are one of the unique features of Russian cuisine. Kvass, beetroot broth, and beetroot broth with kvass are the base for modern cold soups (okroshka, botvinya and svekolnik).
In the 18th century botvinya became the Tsar of Russian soups and by the middle of the 19th century crayfish tails were added and it was served with boiled fish.
The well loved okroshka is served in two ways: all ingredients are added to seasoned kvass and the okroshka is poured into a bowl, or the chopped ingredients are placed in a salad dish or bowl and the seasoned kvass is served in a jug. Smetana (sour cream) began to be added to okroshkas only in the middle of the 19th century.
MEAT AND FISH DISHES: Initially, the ways of cooking meat and fish dishes were mainly dependant on the specifics of the Russian stove, as it is difficult to cook small pieces in the stove.
This is why Russian cuisine used to be distinguished by the large number of dishes from boiled, parboiled and baked fish. Fried fish, which is now firmly part of the Russian table, was much less common.
Whole large pieces of meat were fried and then cut up. Fried dishes were, as a rule, cooked on festive occasions, while boiled meat was eaten on normal days. Dishes from offal were very popular. Other typical dishes included stews with carrots, turnips, onions and flour based gravy: the ingredients were browned, cut into pieces, covered in vzvar (sauce) and stewed.
Various poultry and game dishes were cooked, for example, fried goose, stuffed with onions, mushrooms and apples.
In 1724, Peter I ordered the opening of 15 taverns, or Herber (from the German die Herberge meaning inn), for foreign guests, where they could find a roof and table. This is where fillets, tongue and schnitzels, brought from Germany and Holland, were first cooked in Russia.
Steak appeared in Saint Petersburg at the beginning of the 19th century on the menu of the Englishman Thomas Rob's restaurant, which used to be on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Malaya Morskaya Street.
Beef Stroganoff or “Boeuf a la Stroganoff” appeared in cook books at the end of the 19th century. However, it is believed that Count Stroganoff, a member of the State council, President of the Academy of Art, diplomat and gourmet thought up this dish in 1800. Being a man of advanced years and lacking a number of teeth, Stroganoff asked his chef to make a dish from thin slices of meat with wine, champignons and capers.
Pozharsky cutlets, one of the culinary symbols of Russia, was served to the Tsar by chance and to this day has lost none of its not status. Only chicken breast meat and best quality white wheat bread are used for making these cutlets. According to legend, Alexander I was going to have breakfast at a tavern owned by a certain Pozharsky. The Tsar wanted veal cutlets, but unfortunately the tavern owner was unable to get his hands on any veal. Taking the advice of his resourceful wife, the tavern owner made cutlets from chicken. The Tsar liked them so much that he wanted to reward Pozharsky. The tavern owner admitted that his wife had advised him to cook chicken cutlets. The Tsar kindly rewarded them both and these cutlets became known as Pozharsky and were added to the Tsar’s menu. Today, Pozharsky cutlets have even been cooked for Crown Prince Albert of Monaco after his official visit to Saint Petersburg.
BAKED DISHES: all kinds of pies, pirogi, pirozhki, koulebiac, rasstegai, kalachi and blini are known around the world as traditional Russian bakery items.
Russia was always famous for its bread, which was not only one of the main food products but also a symbol of well-being and sufficiency for Russian people.
Festive meals in Rus never passed without pirogi (pies). The word “pirog” comes from the ancient Russian word “pir” (banquet, holiday).
Pirogi were big or small, open or closed. They were filled with meat, all kinds of fish, chicken, brain, eggs, curd, peas, porridge, turnip, onion, potato, cabbage, carrot, salted cucumbers, sorrel, mushrooms, poppy seed, apples, berries etc.
Many baked dishes are traditional Russian. The kournik has long been the pie for ceremonies and weddings. This is baked from fresh dough with various fillings, decorated with stylised figures or flowers. In 1858, the French novelist Alexander Dumas pere visited Saint Petersburg and tasted Russian kournik (with eggs and chicken), which left a great impression on the famous writer and was declared the very best dish.
Russian cuisine also gave the world rasstegai (a round pie, the size of a plate with a hole in the centre). Here is the history of this dish: in the beginning of the 19th century in Moscow, a sweet voiced gypsy, Stesha, sang a romance “Sarafan-Rasstegai” about a sarafan which unbuttoned at the right moment. While the audience enjoyed Stesha’s song, they were served a pie named in her honour. Rasstegais were very popular: one fashionable Saint Petersburg restaurant used to serve 30 kinds of this pie.
At Shrovetide blini and oladi (pancakes) were made and for the spring festivals zhavoronki. Prianiki (gingerbread) were often given to close family and friends on holidays.
In 1750, Saint Petersburg was the first city of northern and central Russia where white wheat bread became a product of mass consumption (all Russia eats rye bread, black). The first bakeries appeared which baked “for high society French white bread...”.
GRAIN DISHES: as well dishes from flour, Russian cuisine has numerous dishes made from various grains. It would be hard to find an example of Russian cuisine that is mentioned so often in folk stories as kasha (porridge). Just as in the past, today kasha is an everyday dish, without which it would be impossible to imagine Russian cuisine.
CURD DISHES: dishes from tvorog (curd cheese) have long been made in Russia and were served for everyday as well as festive occasions. In olden times tvorog was called a cheese. It is still called this in some Russian regions. This is where the name of the popular tvorog dish, syrniki (fried curd pancakes), comes.