One of Russia’s more surprising travel trump cards is the lip-smacking diversity of what’s cooked in its kitchens and served in its restaurants and cafes. From kasha (buckwheat porridge) in Kaliningrad to freshly caught crab in Kamchatka, the world’s largest country offers an abundance of both homely tastes and gourmet treats that are sure to have you coming back for second helpings.
Foods of western European Russia
Start tickling your tastebuds in Russia’s west. Here lies the nutrient-rich black soil that produces such staples as grains, root vegetables and dairy products. The beetroot soup borsch, a dish that features on nearly every Russian restaurant’s menu (and is actually Ukrainian in origin) is best sampled with a generous dollop of smetana (sour cream). There are plenty of other wonderful soups, such as hearty shchi made with cabbage and meat, or the refreshing summer soup okroshka that includes cucumber, boiled egg and kvas, a low-alcohol and nutritious drink made from fermented rye bread.
Bliny (pancakes), made with yeasted wheat or buckwheat batter, also hail from the Slavic cooking traditions of western Russia. Eaten throughout the year, and sold as a snack from street kiosks, they were originally a treat at the end of Lent and a symbol of the coming spring. They are typically served with toppings such as honey or varieties of caviar, including the more sustainable red salmon caviar.
Honey is also a key ingredient of the ornately decorated gingerbreads that are a speciality of the city of Tula. Either in pots or honeycombs, the many types of the viscous golden liquid can be sampled at traditional markets such as the Danilovsky Market in Moscow or the Kuznechny Market in St Petersburg.
Both cities are packed with restaurants celebrating the cream of Russian produce. In Moscow, the farm-to-table restaurant Lavka-Lavka sources its ingredients from organic farms and is a great place to sample the varieties of kvas. In St Petersburg, EM Restaurant showcases a contemporary style of Russian cooking with inventive dishes such as red-cabbage sorbet.
Foods of northern Russia and Siberia
North of St Petersburg is the Republic of Karelia, a densely forested land punctuated by two of Europe’s largest lakes – Ladoga and Onega. In this borderland, various ethnic groups including Karelians, Vepsians and Finns have contributed their culinary traditions to the pot.
A typical Karelian dish is kalitka, small open pies made from rye dough with various fillings including millet porridge, rice, tvorog (unsalted cottage cheese), fish or meat. Exotic meats such as reindeer and elk can be found on the menus here, too. In Petrozavodsk on Lake Onega, Karelskaya Gornitsa is a dedicated Karelian restaurant where you can sample game as well as wild mushroom soup and cloudberry liqueur. While on the lake, take the opportunity to taste the endemic whitefish lavaret. Baked in a pocket of rye dough, this fish is said to have been a favourite meal of Catherine the Great.
Fish also features in Siberian cuisine and is particularly associated with Lake Baikal, where the omul is king. This whitefish, which is a species of salmon, is so popular that it has become endangered due to overfishing. Still, at locations on the edge of the great lake, such as Listvyanka and Slyudyanka, you are sure to find stalls selling salted and smoked preparations of omul, and in Irkutsk’s Central Market it comes vacuum-packed in plastic for easy transportation.
Very traditional to Siberia’s patchwork of ethnic peoples is the dish stroganina, made from long curly strips of frozen raw fish. It’s typically eaten with a host of other snacks such as pickles and salads, collectively known as zakuski (appetisers). However, the most famous of Siberian dishes is pelmeni, meat-filled dumplings similar in size and shape to tortellini. The filling of these dumplings can contain a combination of meats (typically pork, venison and lamb) but there are fish and vegetarian versions, too. Superior takes on both stroganina and pelmeni feature on the menu of the classy gourmet restaurant and wine bar 0.75 please in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.
The Mongol influence
One theory about the origins of pelmeni is that they were introduced to Russia back in the 13th century by the invading armies of Mongols; they are also similar to China’s wonton dumplings. The influence of Genghis Khan’s ancestors is certainly apparent in the cuisine of Buryatiya, where eastern Siberia borders Mongolia. The national dish here is pozy or buuzy. These supersized dumplings, packed with mince and juices, are found across the region but if you happen to be in Ulan-Ude, make a beeline for the Buryat-run Shenekhenskiye Buuzy, said to serve the best pozy in town.
Mongolia’s culinary tentacles stretch well into European Russia. The name of the capital of the Tatarstan Republic, Kazan, actually means ‘cooking pot’ in Tatar. Traditional foods here include horsemeat, which is used to make the air-dried sausage known as kazy (or kazylyk). Another cured meat you’re likely to come across is kaklagan kaz (slices of goose). The bird also features in the giant celebratory pie zur balish, where goose meat, giblets, onions and potatoes are stewed beneath a pastry topping. All such dishes are among those served at Tatarskaya Usadba, along with the local sweet treat chak-chak – fried pastry coated in sticky syrup and stuffed with almonds.
Cuisines of the Caucasus and Central Asia
The Caucasus mountains, forming the southern border of Russia, might be lofty and snowcapped but they haven’t proved a barrier to the import of foods and cooking styles from neighbouring countries such as Georgia. Shashlyk – kebabs of grilled meat, fish and/or vegetables – are common across the region, as are the spicy, nutty sauces that coat a variety of stews. Sunshine tempered by cooling breezes off the Black Sea happily conspire to create ideal conditions for growing grapes, making this the heart of Russia’s wine industry.
Kabardians are the largest of the 12 different Adyghe (Circassian) tribes found in the region. Lamb features prominently in Kabardian cuisine, such as the sausage sokhta, made with minced lamb liver, or the soup shurpa. Cured meats and locally made cheeses, such as stringy and sometimes smoked chechil or the soft white brenza, can be found at the Upper Market in the Mineral Waters region spa town of Pyatigorsk. For delicious Adygean and Georgian cuisine, including freshly baked cheese breads, go to 5642 Vsota in the neighbouring spa town of Kislovodsk.