Russian food might not have the international renown of other, more widespread cuisines, but little-by-little, the foodie community is starting to uncover the true, delicious nature of traditional Russian food, and the unique, slightly eccentric and family-oriented philosophy that defines Russian food culture.
Forget those outdated, Soviet-era inspired ideas about Russian cuisine as stodgy and unimaginative. The truth is, Russia has a long and rich culinary history. Russian cooking is full of fascinating regional variations, and cities like Moscow and St Petersburg are undergoing a modern-day gourmet renaissance. With more and more fine-dining restaurants gaining global acclaim and a melange of international influences becoming infused in the Russian culinary landscape, Russia is attracting food-obsessed travellers who seek something out of the ordinary and come away surprised and totally satisfied.
It’s almost impossible to generalise what typifies traditional Russian cuisine. Being such a vast country full of different climates and dozens of diverse cultures, food in Russia can vary greatly from one region to the next. Yet there are certain dishes considered typical throughout much of the country (although the recipes may change from region to region), as you’ll discover below in our journey through the traditional flavours of Russia.
So, if you find yourself in Russia, keen to get a taste of authentic local fare, here’s some inspiration on what to eat and where to find it. Keep note of these famous Russian food names and be sure to put them on your Russia travel wish list!
The ‘Russian pancakes’ known as blini (блины) are made with yeasted dough, giving them a light, fluffy texture and a distinctive tang. Blini can be stuffed with an endless variety of fillings, including a mixture of ground meat and diced vegetables or berries and cream cheese, although they’re often served simply, topped with sour cream, condensed milk or jam. Blini is also a traditional Russian accompaniment for caviar.
Although borscht (борщ) and its many variants are often considered iconic Russian food recipes, the beet-based soup is actually Ukrainian in origin and loved throughout the Slavic world. Bobbing around in the distinctly deep purple-red broth is a tasty treasure trove of mystery ingredients. Usually, you’ll find several types of meat, as well as sautéed vegetables like cabbage, carrots, onion, tomatoes, beetroot and potatoes. Borscht is served hot, usually with a dollop of sour cream on top. For the full-Russian experience it’s accompanied with a black Russian sourdough bread Borodiksy, shaved frozen fat Salo, a clove of fresh garlic and a shot of ice-cold vodka.
Pelmeni is the Russian version of boiled dumplings (it’s said the dish can be traced back to the influence of Chinese merchants who visited Siberia in the 15th century). These piping hot parcels of bite-sized goodness are made from unleavened dough, folded around a stuffing of ground meat (usually pork lamb, chicken or beef) and flavoured with onion, garlic, pepper and spices. An ideal cold climate food, the Siberians could freeze pelmeni outdoors in large batches, ensuring they had a well-preserved supply of meat to sustain them over winter.
Literally “little pies”, pirozhki (or piroshki) are beautiful miniature stuffed buns of soft, buttery pastry encasing a savoury filling of meat and vegetables, often spiked with cheese and herbs for extra flavour. Pirozhki are a popular Russian Christmas food, often passed around the kitchen as a snack while aunties and grandmas are busy with the ritual of preparing an elaborate festive dinner. Baked, or sometimes fried, pirozhki also comes in sweet varieties with insides oozing with jam, stewed apples, cherries or cottage cheese.
This famous Russian food is one of the best-known contributions to family dinner tables across western world – a classic comfort dish of sliced beef fillet, onion and mushrooms, sautéed in white wine and sour cream sauce. There are countless variations on the recipe, some calling for the addition of tomato paste, mustard or paprika. Legend has it the dish was named after the Stroganovs, a family of merchants who enjoyed immense wealth and power during the reign of the Tsars. What better way to leave your mark on history than lending your namesake to one of the most beloved icons in the traditional Russian cookbook?
Borscht may be better known, but solyanka is the real king of Russian soups – a thick, flavour-packed, meat-based broth that’s salty, spicy, sour and ever-slightly sweet. A winter favourite, Solyanka is prepared from choice cuts of meat, slow-cooked for several hours. A common recipe involves both cured and fresh beef as well as ham and sausages. Onions, carrots, garlic, peppers and tomato are added, with an array of other vegetables and herbs for extra colour. A dish that arrived in Russia by way of Georgia, it’s often eaten with adzhika (a spicy red sauce from the Caucus) and lavash (Georgian flatbread).
If you’ve spent a few days in Russia and starting to feel guilty about your fresh vegetable intake (let’s face it, the standard Russian diet isn’t the healthiest in the world), you might breathe a sigh of relief to spot Olivie (also called Olivier salad or sometimes simply ‘Russian salad’) on a restaurant menu. But prepared for a bit of a shock when the dish arrives as a multi-coloured mountain of diced potatoes, carrots, pickles, peas, eggs and several kinds of meat, all of it overdosing in an avalanche of mayo. A salad in the loosest definition of the world, Olivie is neither a healthy or sophisticated dish (despite being invented in Russia by a French-Belgian chef, Lucien Olivier), but it is delicious, in a potato salad on steroids sort of way!
Russian food isn’t all just meat, meat, meat! Desserts have a special place in Russian food culture as well. One particularly decadent pastry found all over Russia is Medovik (honey cake). This soft, sticky, crumbly and creamy cake looks impressive and tastes divine, made up of multiple layers (supposedly 15 is the ideal number) of ginger and cinnamon-spiced honeyed pastry, with sweetened sour cream and condensed milk sandwiched in between. Sweet tooth? You want this.
The luxury food most closely associated with the Russian aristocracy’s love of decadence, high-grade caviar (eekra) is the world’s most expensive food item, with the most exclusive varieties costing several thousand dollars for a single teaspoon’s worth. Despite its reputation as a delicacy, caviar is an acquired taste. The jelly-like,burst-in-your-mouth beads have an intense briny and fishy flavour. Caviar is the salt-cured eggs and roe traditionally extracted from wild (and now highly endangered) sturgeon. Cheaper varieties are derived from salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish and whitefish. In Russia, caviar is usually served with blini, chopped onion or pickles, quail eggs and sour cream which serve to tone down the extreme salt levels somewhat.
The red king crab or Kamchatka crab is one of the most highly sought-after seafood in the world, driving fearless fishermen to battle the freezing Arctic waters of the Bering Sea in the hopes of netting a haul of these overgrown crustaceans. Capable of growing to enormous sizes, red king crabs are native to the waters of Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula and are prized for their abundance of moist, sweet white flesh. Crabs from Kamchatka are exported around the world as a delicacy and attract a hefty price tag.
Moscow mules are refreshing on hot summer days, sure, but they’re also holiday-appropriate thanks to the strong ginger flavor. They strike that elusive balance between spicy, sweet and strong, and I’d sip one any day. Bonus: Moscow mules are super easy to make! You’ll need just three basic ingredients (ginger beer, vodka and lime).