The History of Russian Food

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Mention Russian fare, and "beef stroganoff" and "vodka" come immediately to mind. They are among the "stars" of the Russian dining table. Beef stroganoff is thought to have been named for Count Pavel Stroganoff, a celebrity gourmet who frequented the imperial court of his time. As for Russian vodka, consider that it was already being exported to Sweden in the 1500s, and that thereafter, distilleries became the exclusive privilege of the nobility. In some aspects, the actual origins of Russian food and drink are as uncertain as they are interesting. However, the fact that Russian recipes have been handed down for centuries is an indication of their standing, not only among Russians but also in the court of public opinion worldwide.

Rural Food

  • The vastness of the Russian landscape and the long and harsh winter months governed the development of Russian cuisine for the working classes. It is understandable that steaming, hot soups, usually a "one pot" broth of water and vegetables, or a stew of fish or meat, was the basic meal of the day in most rural homes. Bread was also a staple, as were grains like rye, and also porridge and potatoes. The evening meal was a filling and nourishing combination to satisfy hunger and to provide the calories necessary to sustain the average worker returning home after a hard day's labors.

Outside Influences

  • For the elite, there was a somewhat different menu, derived from other cultures and other countries that share borders with Russia (today's Russian republics). Dishes were created with cooking methods and sauces from countries in Europe and Asia. Starting from around the 1300s, Mongol legacies, for example, included cabbage, curd cheese, dried fruit and lamb. Noodles and wonton were adapted from Chinese cuisine. Caviar, perhaps the best known Russian delicacy, became the product that exemplified Southern Russia.

Exports To Shanghai

  • Just as Russian cuisine imported some of the best of other cultures and cuisines, it would export its most famous dishes to the four corners of the world. For example, Russian food was very popular in the Shanghai (China) of the 1930s and the 1940s, thanks in part to a large Russian population there. The Shanghai of that era was sophisticated and multi-cultural, so it was not surprising to find that Russian restaurants and bakeries were well patronized. For instance, reportedly "The Renaissance Café" was the place to go to for "take-out" borscht/borsch, a soup dating back to the 1800s, made with red beets and a thick vegetable or meat broth that included mushrooms, cabbage, onions, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes. Bakeries like "Tchakalian" and "Tkachenko" were said to sell a wide range of cakes, pastries, cookies and chocolates. During Easter, these bakeries would display life-sized, ornately decorated chocolate Easter eggs in their windows.

In New York City

  • In New York City, the elegant Russian Tea Room was founded over 80 years ago by member of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Its special menus feature a range of Russian treats, not least the popular blini (small, yeast-levened buckwheat pancakes) that are traditionally served with sour cream and caviar, and sometimes with smoked salmon. The high tea menu offers a selection of different types of caviar with blini. Blini are associated with festivals and celebrations. They originated as a treat to be enjoyed at the start of spring (Shrovetide). In the United States, they have come to be associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as with springtime events like Mardi Gras.

Entrees

  • Among the traditional delights on a Russian table are pelmeni, or Russian meatballs, which are made from ground beef, pork and onions. They are said to have originated in Siberia, but as they are also likened to Chinese pot stickers and Italian ravioli, their exact origins are a matter of pleasant speculation. What is clear is that they are delicious, especially served with sour cream or in a meat-based soup. Another quintessentially-Russian favorite is shashlyk or grilled lamb which is usually cubed and skewered.

Perennial Pastry Favorites

  • Given the availability of fresh berries, it is easy to see how vatrushka (curd pies) became gems of the Russian table. They are usually filled with strawberries, blueberries or raspberries, and cottage cheese. Pirozhki are among the pastries that are also available in Russian bakeries. They are made from dough, and traditionally have a cabbage or minced meat filling that is sealed in before the pastries are baked golden brown.

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