In short, Russian cuisine can be divided into four main eras:

Old Russian kitchen (9th-16th centuries);

In the medieval period, most of the Russian drinks became national: mead, khmel, kvass, cider. Beer appeared in 1284. In 1440-1470, Russia discovered vodka made from rye grain. Until the 17th century, milk and meat were not popular. Boiled meat in shchi (cabbage soup) or for kasha was not even roasted until the 16th century.

Old Moscow kitchen (17th century):

Beginning with Peter the Great, the Russian nobility borrowed some of Western Europe’s culinary customs and traditions. Wealthy nobles visiting Western European countries brought foreign chefs with them to expand their repertoire. It was at this time that minced meat was introduced into Russian cuisine: cutlets, stews, pates and rolls became very popular, along with non-Russian (Swedish, German, French) soups, which appeared in the 17th century: solyanka, (beef soup) and rassolnik (potato and gherkin soup) containing brine, lemons and olives appeared at the same time and were happily integrated into the kitchen. It was during this period that such well-known delicacies as black caviar and jellied salted fish appeared.

In the 16th century, the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates along with Bashkiria and Siberia were annexed to Russia. New food products such as raisins (grapes), dried apricots, figs, melons, watermelons, lemons, and tea made their first appearance, much to the delight of the population. During the short growing season, even poor farmers could enjoy a variety of fresh fruits, as well as drying them for the long winter months. Foreign chefs cooked their national dishes, which harmoniously fit into Russian cuisine. The time of German sandwiches, butter, French and Dutch cheeses also arrived.

Kitchen of Saint Petersburg (late 18th century–1860s)

The French expanded the assortment of starters by adding a number of old Russian dishes of meat, fish, mushrooms, and sour vegetables whose variety may surprise foreigners. Because cold weather could last up to nine months in some regions, preserved foods were a large part of Russian cuisine, with households storing as much food as possible for the long winters. This included smoking, salting, soaking, and fermentation. Cabbage can be used all winter to make shchi, or used as a filling for dumplings. Soaked apples were often served to guests or in some garnishes. Pickled cucumbers were a main ingredient in many dishes, including several traditional soups. Salted and dried meat and fish were eaten after religious fasts and before festivals. Overall it was a pretty Spartan diet, with most economic groups using what was available.

Traditional Russian meals are heavily influenced by stuffed meatballs, hearty stews, soups, potatoes, and cabbage:

+Borscht one of Russia’s best-known foods, a cold, thick stew made with beets and topped with sour cream

+Beef Stroganoff – strips of beef sauteed in a sauce of butter, white wine, sour cream (called ‘smetana’ in Russia), mustard, and onions; eaten plain or poured over rice or noodles

+Sweet and sour cabbage: cooked in red wine vinegar, applesauce, butter and onion. Diced apples, sugar, bay leaves.

+Solyanka Soup: A hearty soup made with thick chunks of beef and/or pork, simmered for hours with garlic, tomatoes, peppers, and carrots

+Golubtsy.- Shredded or minced beef wrapped in cabbage and steamed/boiled until done; found throughout Eastern Europe

+Olivia. – a kind of potato salad made with gherkins, eggs, bologna and carrots mixed with mayonnaise

+Blini: thin crepe-like pancakes topped with savory or sweet ingredients such as minced meat, caviar or apples

+Potato Okroshka.- Cold soup based on whey, potatoes and onions, garnished with dill; Vichyssoise (often attributed to the French, actually created at the Ritz Carlton in New York in 1917 but disputed of course by French chefs, who insist they created it)

+Knish – Mashed potatoes, ground beef, onions, and cheese stuffed into a thick batter and fried/baked

+Khinkali – ground meat and coriander dumplings

+Khachapuri: thick crispy bread shaped like a boat and filled with a variety of melted cheese

+Zharkoye – a beef stew made with potatoes, carrots, parsley and celery, seasoned with garlic, cloves and dill; served hot with sour cream

+Pelmeni – dumplings made of thin unleavened dough, stuffed with minced meat, mushrooms and onions

+Shashlik – classic shesh kebab

+Tula Gingerbread – similar to our gingerbread, but may contain jam or nuts

+Pirozhki: pastries filled with meat, potatoes, cabbage or cheese, similar to Polish pierogi

+ Morozhenoe (rich ice cream); well hey… now you’re talking

+Chak-Chak (Russia’s attempt at making funnel cakes…did we make that up?)

You will notice a clear absence of fresh vegetable salads, seafood, pasta and rice dishes, they are simply not part of their staple diet. And, of course, Russia is not known for its desserts. Even Chicken kyiv is usually credited to various New York restaurants who claim they created it, not any native Russian chef or restaurant. (wow…you can’t believe anything these days).

So the next time you’re in the mood for some borscht or kinkali, you might just have to make your own. There is not a preponderance of Russian restaurants anywhere in the United States nor the desire for them. Few people think of blinis or knish when planning Sunday dinner. But who knows? You might discover a whole new world of cooking when you get into the Russian diet (OMG, that didn’t go well!). Go for it.

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