“Not only the climate but even the stomachs are strange. What a strange country, what a strange country!”, writes Chekhov in his short tale “Silly Frenchman” in which a Frenchman and a Russian get involved in an ardent discussion about the daily eating habits in Russia.
As the Russian is waiting for his order, he sighs irritatedly: "These long intermissions aggravate me horribly! (..) now it's three o'clock, and I have an anniversary dinner at five. The Frenchman – Monsieur Pourquoi – is taken aback and protests: "Pardon, monsieur, you are already eating dinner"!
Russian cuisine is undoubtedly the most important component of the Russian sense of collective identity that allows to distinguish themselves from the others. The imprint on both the kitchen and the eating habits left by the severe climate and the country’s dense history is tenaciously present and can be traced back to each and every meal up until modern times.
Allow us to remind you that the vast majority of the Russian population used to be peasants until the industrialization that occurred quite late in history. Therefore, besides the cold winters that made everyone consume nutritious food on a regular daily basis, the arduously long working days of peasant life helped shape the average Russian day.
Did you ever wonder what a Russian eats and how many times a day? I did, especially after reading Chekhov’s story and conducted a little research for you! However, before we dive in, bear in mind that each meal deserves its own article.
Dawn is announced by breakfast (zavtrak) – the first meal of the day. Since Russians have to rush to work, a typical breakfast is comprised of bread, which holds a special (and even sacred!) meaning in Russia. As a matter of fact, there is always bread on the table, during every meal. Bread is generally eaten with butter as a spread, various dairy products such as cottage cheese (tvorog), jams made of Russia’s large array of berries and honey or something heavier in the form of sausage (kolbasa). Kasha (porridge) is believed to be one of the oldest foods in Russia and ensures that breakfast never becomes a boring happening. While in the west porridge is usually made of oatmeal, in Russia it can also be cooked from rice, semolina, buckwheat and millet.
Russians are very flexible when it comes to meals. This is why there are soggy, milky kashas and more crumbly dry ones prepared using water. Besides breakfast, a bowl of porridge can be turned into a sweet dessert, served as a savory main course or just as a salty accompaniment to meat.
A couple of hours later, an (optional) meal introduces itself: vtoroy zavtrak, or the second breakfast, which can be classified as a snack or an easy meal and is considered to be the perfect excuse to drink tea accompanied by some pirozhki (mini-pies) with rich fillings such as meat, fish, cheese or vegetables like cabbage, mushroom or potato. Pirozhki can also come with sweet fillings.
The Russian lunch (obed) is the most important meal of the day and it takes place quite late between 12 and 3 pm. You might have come across the so-called “business lunch” offered by restaurants to office workers on their lunch break. The Russian lunch is a two-course meal (sometimes 3) and includes a soup as the first course. Soups demonstrate the country’s vastness par excellence! As Russia spans the largest territory on earth, each region has its own adaptations based on the regional products that are available. During winter, in order to withstand the cold, hot and thick soups are preferred. Everybody knows borsch, but there is more! Shchi is a cabbage soup, which can come in sour (kisly) versions, with meat and/or even without cabbage at all. Or even with sorrel instead. Solyanka is a very hearty and spicy soup that is prepared using several types of meat (the minimum is 3). Ukha, on the other hand, is a traditional fish-based soup. In summer, the Russian kitchen suggests refreshing cold soups such as okroshka, which is basically a fine-cut salad with cooked meat or fish prepared in kvas (a traditional fermented beverage made of rye bread).
As for the main course, which consists of a fish or meat dish, one can choose from kotlety (meatballs) accompanied by potatoes, grains or fried mushrooms. Go for the beef stroganoff, which is a meat stew cooked in smetana (sour cream) typically served with boiled or mashed potatoes. Another familiar Russian dish is pelmeni (Russian dumplings), filled with meat and onions that lends its flavor to the thinness of the dough. Salads are also very popular in Russia. The most widely known salad is undoubtedly "Olivier" – better known abroad as the Russian salad. The original "secret" and exclusive recipe, firstly created by the cook Lucien Olivier (whom it is named after) in the 1860's, gave way to cheaper and more available ingredients later on and gained immense popularity among the general population during the Soviet period. This salad, which is an absolute must on New Year’s Eve, is made with diced potato, peas, eggs, cucumbers, and mayo or sour cream. One other delicious Russian specialty is herring under a fur coat (seledka pod shuboy). The name says it all: salted herring with layers of grated vegetables, beets, onions and mayonnaise, each and every layer covering the other delicately.
Poldnik is another optional meal and can be loosely translated as the afternoon tea. Its name derives from rural life and announces the moment in which the sun tilted towards evening, thereby informing the peasant workers that it was already ‘past half of a day’. Today, the poldnik takes place between the Russian lunch and supper and gives the opportunity to consume a light meal or snack.
Last but not least, the Russian supper – the second largest meal after lunch – takes place around 8 pm. A typical Russian supper consists of appetizers (zakuski) and a hot meal. Small amounts of any of the above-mentioned dishes can be turned into zakuski! Salads, salted herring, pickled green tomatoes, smoked salmon alongside pickled mustard seeds, caviar or salmon topped bliny (pancakes) with smetana or pancakes with cottage cheese (tvorog). Pancakes are especially popular in Russia because they are eaten during the maslenitsa celebrations each year. Another starter of the traditional Russian kitchen is kholodets (jellied meat) usually served with hot mustard. This time-consuming dish’s origins date back to the times when cooked meat had to be preserved in a proper way. Jellied meat is cooked for 7 hours, cut into pieces and left to chill for another 7 in the broth it was cooked. As a hot meal, any of the above-mentioned dishes will do. Additionally, Russians love to drink tea with jam and honey in the evening.
Besides vodka and tea, Russia is home to several national beverages. Next to the above-mentioned kvas, medovukha is a honey-based alcoholic drink that consists of honey and yeast. It owes its delicious taste to berries, herbs, spices and roots used as additives. Another honey-based beverage is sbiten, drunk in wintertime and made of spices and jam in addition to honey. Honey is a very recurrent ingredient since it was used as a natural sweetener and as a preservation technique for many other creations and desserts such as medovik (honey cake).
Now let’s get back to our Frenchman in Chekhov’s story. Monsieur Pourquoi – meaning ‘why’ in French – suspects in disdain that the Russians must be eating with the sole purpose of committing suicide judging by the amount. Quite the contrary…!
Our favorite: Pelmeni for food snobs!
Ever tried the Russian dumplings (pelmeni) adapted to the tastes of the urban and cosmopolitan gourmets of the 21st century? What once was carried by hunters in Siberia during expeditions and boiled in melted snow, is today served to food snobs! The traditional meat is replaced by unusual, savory fillings such as vegetables, berries, all kinds of seafood and cheese – adapting old recipes to the current worldly demand of vegetarianism. The Russian kitchen is one that is subjected to several cultural influences, traditional peculiarities and, most importantly, one that always amazes you with its new variations.