The Russian food scene has made a giant leap towards cutting-edge modernity in the last decade, particularly in large cities, where international culinary mainstream mixes with unique and exotic cuisines of the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as a powerful movement to reinvent traditional Russian gastronomy. Bans on EU-produced foodstuffs have resulted in the proliferation of locavore places – creative chefs play with products from all over the country, which boasts a vast diversity of climates and landscapes.

The Basics

Russia's main cities and towns have a good range of eating options; in smaller towns and villages the choice is narrower. Booking on the day of your meal is usually fine.

  • Restoran Russian restaurants can be quite formal. Modern ones sometimes have play areas for kids.
  • Kafe & kofeynya Cafes are cheaper and often a bit more atmospheric and quirky than restaurants.
  • Stolovaya These Soviet-era-style canteens can be great value for non-gourmet, self-serve meals.
  • Rynok Most of these are Soviet-built farmers markets, where you shop for locally produced groceries, but in Moscow they are being turned into hipster-ridden food courts.

Staples & Specialities

Breakfast

Typical zavtrak (breakfast) dishes include bliny (pancakes) with sweet or savoury fillings, various types of kasha (porridge) made from buckwheat or other grains, and syrniki (cottage-cheese fritters), delicious with jam, sugar and the universal Russian condiment, smetana (sour cream). Khleb (bread) is freshly baked and comes in a multitude of delicious varieties.

Appetisers & Salads

Whether as the preamble to a meal or something to nibble on between shots of vodka, zakuski (appetisers) are a big feature of Russian cuisine. They range from olives to bliny with mushrooms and from tvorog (cheese curd) to caviar, and include a multitude of inventive salads. Among the most popular recipes that you’ll find on restaurant menus are salat olivye (chopped chicken or ham, potatoes, eggs, canned peas and other vegetables mixed with mayonnaise) and selyodka pod shuboi (literally ‘herrings in fur coats’), a classic from the Soviet era that has slices of herring, beetroot and pickles covered in a creamy sauce.

Soups

No Russian meal is complete without soup, even in the summer when there are several refreshing cold varieties. The main ones to sample:

  • borsch – this beetroot soup hails from Ukraine but is now synonymous with Russia. It can be served hot or cold and usually with smetana poured on top of it. Some borsch is vegetarian (ask for postny borsch), but most is made with beef stock.
  • okroshka – a cold soup made with chopped cucumber, potatoes, eggs, meat and herbs in a base of either kvas (fermented rye-bread water) or kefir (drinking yoghurt)
  • shchi – there are vegetarian versions and ones with chicken, beef or lamb, but the base of this soup is always plenty of cabbage
  • solyanka – a sometimes flavoursome concoction of pickled vegetables, meat and potato that used to be the staple winter food for the peasantry
  • ukha – this classic recipe has four types of fish, herbs and a few vegetables in a transparent bouillon

Main Courses

Traditional Russian cuisine tends to be meaty and quite heavy. Popular dishes:

  • bef stroganov – a beef, mushrooms and sour-cream dish said to have been invented in the mid 19th century by a French cook employed by the St Petersburg noble Alexander Stroganov
  • zharkoye – hot pot; a meat stew served piping hot in a little jug
  • kotleta po kievsky – chicken Kiev
  • shashlyk – meat or fish kebabs
  • myaso po monastirsky – beef topped with cheese is often relabelled myaso po Sibirski (Siberian meat)
  • pelmeni – ravioli-like dumplings generally stuffed with pork or beef and served either heaped on a plate with sour cream, vinegar and butter, or in a stock soup; variations such as salmon or mushroom pelmeni are found on the menus of more chic restaurants

Central Asian–style dishes are also common, notably plov (fried rice with lamb and carrot) and lagman (noodles and meat in a soupy broth that gets spicier the further south you go). The range of fish and seafood is enormous, but common staples include osyetrina (sturgeon), shchuka (pike), losos or syomga (salmon), treska (chub) and kalmar (squid).

Desserts

The Russian sweet tooth is seriously sweet. Russians love morozhenoye (ice cream) with a passion: it’s not unusual to see people gobbling dishfuls, even in the freezing cold. Gooey torty (cream cakes), often decorated in lurid colours, are also popular. Pecheniye (pastries) are eaten at tea time, in the traditional English style.

Regional Specialities

From the koryushki (freshwater smelt) that feature on menus in St Petersburg in late April to the mammoth king crabs of Kamchatka, Russia abounds with regional food specialities. As these two examples illustrate, different varieties of fish and seafood are always worth sampling. Try dried, salty oblyoma fish, found in the Volga, or Lake Baikal’s delicious omul, a cousin of salmon and trout. The Russian Far East doesn’t yield many specialist dishes but in the port of Vladivostok you can be sure of the freshness of seafood such as kalmary (calamari) and grebeshki (scallops).

Honey is used as an ingredient in several dishes and drinks in Western European Russia such as vzbiten, the decorated gingerbread made in Tula; a tea with herbs; and the alcoholic drink medovukha (honey ale). Cowberries, reindeer and elk meat are ingredients that figure in the cuisine of Northern European Russia. From this region, lokhikeytto is a deliciously creamy Karelian salmon and potato soup, ideally served with crispy croutons.

The tapestry of peoples and cultures along the Volga River yields several other specialities, such as the Finno-Ugric clear dumpling soup called sup s klyutskami. The kasylyk (dried-horsemeat sausage) and zur balish (meat pie) are both from Tatarstan, where chek chek (honey-drenched macaroni-shaped pieces of fried dough) are an essential part of any celebration.

In the Altai region of southern Siberia you can masticate on sera, a chewing gum made from cedar oil. While around the ski resort of Sheregesh, sample the wild leek with a distinctive garlicky taste known as kabla in the local language and cheremsha in Russian.

The Buddhist-influenced culinary traditions of the Republic of Kalmykia have brought the Tibetan-style buttery tea known as dzhomba to Europe. Further east in Buryatiya, and throughout the Russian Far East, you’ll often encounter the steamed, palm-sized dumplings known as manti, buuzy and pyan-se (a peppery version). Two or three make a good, greasy meal. Siberia is most famous for its pelmeni (small ravioli dumplings) and you’ll find local variations in all the major cities across the region.

Among the many Caucasus dishes you may come across are sokhta (a mammoth sausage stuffed with minced liver and rice), eaten around Dombay, and Kabardian food such as zharuma (fiery sausage stuffed with minced lamb, onion and spices), gedlibzhe (a spicy chicken dish) and geshlubzhe, a saucy bean dish that can be sampled around Nalchik. Delicious Ossetian pirozhki are pizza-like pies that come in olibakh (cheese), sakharadzhin (cheese and beet leaves) and fidzhin (meat) varieties.

Georgian Cuisine

Russian cuisine also borrows enormously from neighbouring countries, most obviously from those around the Caucasus, where shashlyk originated. In particular, the rich, spicy cuisine of the former Soviet republic of Georgia must be sampled while in Russia. Georgian meat and vegetable dishes use ground walnuts or walnut oil as an integral ingredient, yielding a distinctive rich, nutty flavour. Also characteristic of Georgian cuisine is the spice mixture khmeli-suneli, which combines coriander, garlic, chillies, pepper and savoury with a saffron substitute made from dried marigold petals.

Grilled meats are among the most beloved items on any Georgian menu. Herbs such as coriander, dill and parsley, and other ingredients such as scallions are often served fresh, with no preparation or sauce, as a palate-cleansing counterpoint to rich dishes. Grapes and pomegranates show up not only as desserts, but also as tart complements to roasted meats.

For vegetarians, Georgian eggplant dishes (notably garlic-laced badrizhani nivrit), lobiyo (spicy beans) and khachapuri (cheese bread) are a great blessing. Khachapuri comes in three main forms:

  • flaky pastry squares (snack versions sold at markets)
  • khachapuri po-imeretinsk – circles of fresh dough cooked with sour, salty suluguni cheese (sold in restaurants)
  • khachapuri po-adzharski – topped with a raw egg in the crater (mix it quickly into the melted cheese; sold in restaurants)

Here are a few more Georgian favourites to get you started when faced with an incomprehensible menu:

  • basturma – marinated, grilled meat; usually beef or lamb
  • bkhali or phkali – a vegetable purée with herbs and walnuts, most often made with beetroot or spinach
  • buglama – beef or veal stew with tomatoes, dill and garlic
  • chakhokhbili – chicken slow-cooked with herbs and vegetables
  • chikhirtmi – lemony chicken soup
  • dolmas – vegetables (often tomatoes, eggplant or grape leaves) stuffed with beef
  • kharcho – thick, spicy rice and beef or lamb soup
  • khinkali – dumplings stuffed with lamb or a mixture of beef and pork
  • lavash – flat bread used to wrap cheese, tomatoes, herbs or meat
  • pakhlava – a walnut pastry similar to baklava, but made with sour-cream dough
  • satsivi – walnut, garlic and pomegranate paste, usually used as a chicken stuffing in cold starters
  • shilaplavi – rice pilaf, often with potatoes

Drinks

Alcoholic Drinks

Spirits

Vodka, distilled from wheat, rye or, occasionally, potatoes, is the quintessential Russian alcohol. The word comes from voda (pronounced va-da, meaning ‘water’). The classic recipe for vodka (a 40% alcohol-to-water mixture) was patented in 1894 by Dmitry Mendeleyev, the inventor of the periodic table. The drink’s flavour derives from what’s added after distillation, so as well as ‘plain’ vodka you’ll find klyukovka (cranberry vodka; one of the most popular kinds), pertsovka (pepper vodka), starka (vodka flavoured with apple and pear leaves), limonnaya (lemon vodka) and okhotnichya (meaning ‘hunter’s vodka’, with about a dozen ingredients, including peppers, juniper berries, ginger and cloves).

Among the hundreds of different brands for sale are famous ones such as Stolichnaya and Smirnoff, as well as those named after presidents (Putinka) and banks (Russian Standard). Better labels are Moskovskaya, Flagman, Gzhelka, and Zelonaya Marka (meaning ‘Green Mark’), which was named after the Stalin-era government agency that regulated vodka quality. For more brands see www.russianvodka.com.

Russian brandy is called konyak and the finest come from the Caucasus. Winston Churchill reputedly preferred Armenian konyak over French Cognac, and although standards vary enormously, local five-star brandies are generally good.

Homemade moonshine is known as samogon; if you’re at all in doubt about the alcohol’s provenance, don’t drink it – some of this stuff is highly poisonous.

Beer

Russians categorise beer by colour rather than fermentation process: light, red or semidark and dark. Light is more or less equivalent to lager and the last two are close to ales. The alcohol content of some stronger beers can be as high as 10%.

The local market leader is Baltika, based in St Petersburg and with 11 other breweries across the country, but there are scores of other palatable local brands and a fast growing sector of microbreweries producing craft beers.

Wine

Imported wine is widely available. Though the quality of some local bottles is improving, the Russian wine industry is notable mainly for its saccharine polusladkoe (semisweet) or sladkoe (sweet) dessert wines. Good bryut (very dry sparkling wine), sukhoe (dry) and polusukhoe (semidry) reds are readily found, but finding a palatable Russian dry white can be pretty tough. Locally produced sparkling wine Shampanskoye is cheap (around R300 a bottle) and popular even though it tastes nothing like champagne.

For more information about Russian wines, which are mainly produced in the North Caucasus, see Russian Wine Country (http://russianwinecountry.com).

Drinking Etiquette

  • Breaking open a can or bottle of beer and drinking it while walking down the street or sitting in a park is pretty common.
  • If you find yourself sharing a table at a bar or restaurant with locals, it’s odds-on they’ll press you to drink with them. Even people from distant tables, spotting foreigners, may be seized with hospitable urges.
  • Vodka is drunk one shot at a time, neat of course, not sipped. This can be fun as you toast international friendship and so on, but vodka has a knack of creeping up on you from behind and the consequences can be appalling.
  • It’s traditional (and good sense) to eat a little something after each shot.
  • Don't place an empty bottle on the table – it's considered polite to leave it on the floor.
  • Refusing a drink can be very difficult, and Russians may continue to insist until they win you over. If you can’t quite stand firm, take it in small gulps with copious thanks, while saying how you’d love to indulge but you have to be up early in the morning (or something similar).
  • If you’re really not in the mood, one sure-fire method of warding off all offers (as well as making people feel quite awful) is to say ‘Ya alkogolik’ (‘Ya alkogolichka’ for women): ‘I’m an alcoholic.’

Nonalcoholic Drinks

Russians make tea by brewing an extremely strong pot, pouring small shots of it into glasses, and topping the glasses up with hot water. This was traditionally done from the samovar, a metal urn with an inner tube filled with hot charcoal. Modern samovars have electric elements, like a kettle, which is actually what most Russians use to boil water for tea these days. Putting jam in tea instead of sugar is quite common for those who like to sweeten their drinks.

Chain-style cafes serving barista-style coffee are found all across Russia – cappuccino, espresso, latte and mocha are now as much a part of the average Russian lexicon as elsewhere.

The popular nonalcoholic beer kvas (fermented rye bread water) is made from bread and flavoured with ingredients that can include honey and horseradish. In summer, it’s often dispensed on the street from big, wheeled tanks and is highly refreshing.

Sok can mean anything from fruit juice (usually in cartons rather than fresh) to heavily diluted fruit squash. Mors, made from all types of red berries, is a popular sok. Napitok means ‘drink’ – it’s often a cheaper and weaker version of sok, maybe with some real fruit thrown in.

If you’re buying milk away from big supermarkets, always check whether it’s pasteurised. Kefir (yoghurt-like sour milk) is served as a breakfast drink – and is also recommended as a hangover cure. The Bashkirs, the Kazakhs of southernmost Altai, and the Sakha people drink kumiss (fermented mare’s milk).

Bottled Water

There's a huge market for bottled water, and since 2004 more than 2000 licences have been issued to providers; however, not all of it is as pure as it may seem. The Bottled Water Producers Union claim you’re likely to be safer drinking water labelled stolovaya (purified tap water), which accounts for the vast majority of what’s available, rather than mineralnaya voda (mineral water), which doesn’t have to meet so many legal requirements for purity. One reliable brand of mineral water is Narzan.

For those concerned about both the environment and their health, boiling water and using a decent filter are sufficient if you want to drink what comes out of the tap.

Where to Eat & Drink

In general, a kafe is likely to be cheaper yet often more atmospherically cosy than a restoran, many of which are aimed at hosting weddings and banquets more than individual diners. A kofeynya is generally an upmarket cafe, though they often serve great meals too, as will a pab (upmarket pub with pricey imported beers) or traktir (tavern; often with ‘traditional’ Russian decor). A zakusochnaya can be anything from a pleasant cafe to a disreputable bar, but they usually sell cheap beer and have a limited food menu. Occasionally you’ll come across ryumochnaya, dive bars specialising in vodka or konyak shots.

Increasingly common as you head east, a buzznaya is an unpretentious eatery serving Central Asian food and, most notably, buuzy. These are meat dumplings that you need to eat very carefully in order to avoid spraying yourself with boiling juices, as an embarrassed Mikhail Gorbachev famously did when visiting Ulan-Ude.

In old Soviet-era hotels and stations the bufet serves a range of simple snacks including buterbrod (open sandwiches). The stolovaya (canteen) is the common person’s eatery, often located near stations or in public institutions such as universities. They are invariably cheap. Slide your tray along the counter and point to the food, and the staff will ladle it out. While unappealing, Soviet-style stolovaya can still be found, newer ‘chic’ versions serving very palatable food are also common in cities and towns.

In smaller towns the choice will be far narrower, perhaps limited to standard Russian meals such as pelmeni and kotlety (cutlets); in villages there may be no hot food available at all (though there’s almost always DIY pot noodles available from kiosks and shops).

Ordering Food

It’s always worth asking if a restaurant has an English-language menu. If not, even armed with a dictionary or a translation app on your phone, it may be difficult to decipher Russian menus (the different styles of printed Cyrillic are a challenge). Russian menus typically follow a standard form: first come zakuski (appetisers; often grouped into cold and hot dishes) followed by soups, sometimes listed under pervye blyuda (first courses). Vtorye blyuda (second courses; mains) are also known as goryachiye blyuda (hot courses). They can be divided into firmenniye blyuda (house specials; often listed at the front of the menu), myasniye blyuda (meat dishes), ribniye blyuda (fish dishes), ptitsa blyuda (poultry dishes) and ovoshchniye blyuda (vegetable dishes).

If the menu leaves you flummoxed, look at what the other diners are eating and point out what takes your fancy to the staff. Service charges are uncommon, except in the ritziest restaurants, but cover charges are frequent after 7pm, especially when there’s live music (one would often gladly pay to stop the music). Check if there’s a charge by asking, ‘Vkhod platny?’ Leave around a 10% tip if the service has been good.

There is no charge for using the garderob (cloakroom) so do check in your coat before entering. Not doing so is considered extremely bad form.

Celebrating with Food

Food and drink have long played a central role in many Russian celebrations from birthdays to religious holidays. It’s traditional, for example, for wedding feasts to stretch on for hours (if not days in some villages) with all the participants generally getting legless.

The most important holiday for the Russian Orthodox Church is Paskha (Easter). Coming after the six-week fast of Lent, when meat and dairy products are forsworn, Easter dishes are rich, exemplified by the traditional cheesecake (also known as paskha) and the saffron-flavoured kulich (traditional, dome-shaped Easter bread). Together with brightly decorated boiled eggs, these are taken in baskets to church to be blessed during the Easter service.

Bliny are the food of choice during the week-long Maslenitsa (Butter Festival), which precedes Lent – it is the equivalent of Mardi Gras elsewhere.

Christmas (which is celebrated on 7 January in the Russian Orthodox calendar) is not as big a festival as New Year’s Eve, which is celebrated with a huge feast of zakuski (appetisers) and other traditional foods such as tangerines, Russian salads and kholodets (meat jelly). However, it is traditional to eat a sweet rice pudding called kutya at Christmas. The same dish is also left as an offering on graves during funerals.

Quick Eats

There’s plenty of fast food available from both local and international operations, supplemented by street kiosks, vans and cafes with tables. Pitstsa (pizza) and shashlyk (meat kebab) are common fare, as are bliny and pelmeni (Russian-style dumplings stuffed with meat).

All large cities have Western-style supermarkets with a large range of Russian and imported goods. You’ll generally have to leave all bags in a locker before entering. There are smaller food stores, called kulinariya, which sell ready-made food. Ubiquitous food-and-drink kiosks – generally located around parks and markets, on main streets and near train and bus stations – sell their poor-quality products but are handy and reasonably cheap.

Every sizeable town has a rynok (market), where locals sell spare produce from their dacha plots (check the market fringes), while bigger traders offload trucks full of fruit, vegetables, meat, dried goods and dairy products. Take your own shopping bag and go early in the morning for the liveliest scene and best selection; a certain amount of bargaining is acceptable, and it’s a good idea to check prices with a trustworthy local first.

Homes, roadside vendors and well-stocked markets are your best bet for tasting the great range of wild mushrooms, paporotniki (fern tips), shishki (cedar nuts) and various soft fruits (red currants, raspberries) laboriously gathered by locals from the forest.

Habits & Customs

It’s traditional for Russians to eat a fairly heavy obed (early-afternoon meal; lunch) and a lighter uzhin (evening meal; supper). Entering some restaurants, you might feel like you’re crashing a big party. Here, the purpose of eating out is less to taste exquisite food than to enjoy a whole evening of socialising and entertainment, with multiple courses, drinking and dancing. Dress is informal in all but top-end places.

While restaurants and cafes are common, dining out for the average Russian is not as commonplace as it is in many other countries – the choice of places to dine will be limited outside the main cities and towns. If you really want to experience Russia’s famous hospitality – not to mention the best cuisine – never pass up the opportunity to eat at a Russian home. Be prepared to find tables groaning with food and hosts who will never be satisfied that you’re full, no matter how much you eat or drink.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Unless you’re in one of the big cities or visiting during Lent, when many restaurants have special meat-free menus, Russia can be tough on vegetarians (and very tough on vegans). Main dishes are heavy on meat and poultry, vegetables are often boiled to death, and even the good vegetable and fish soups are usually made from meat stock.

If you’re vegetarian, say so, early and often. You’ll see a lot of cucumber and tomato salads, and – if so inclined – will develop an eagle eye for spotting baklazhan (eggplant) and dairy dishes. Zakuski (appetisers) include quite a lot of meatless ingredients such as eggs and mushrooms. Potatoes (kartoshka, kartofel, pure) are usually filed under ‘garnish’ not ‘vegetable’.

Happy Cow (www.happycow.net) lists vegetarian restaurants across Russia's major cities.