Russia is the largest country in the world by area, and therefore has a lot of regional variations in cuisine. There are influences from Asia to the east, as well as the Middle East and northern and central Europe to the west. Traditional Russian food has also been heavily influenced by the climate, which is notoriously cold and harsh. As such, cold-climate meats and seafood feature prominently, as well as mushrooms, berries, root vegetables, and crops such as rye, wheat and barley. These crops are commonly turned into a variety of porridges, as well as, perhaps more famously, a wide variety of incredibly strong alcohols. I expected Russian food to be very heavy, but it was surprisingly light, aromatic and delicious, so I didn’t actually require shots of hard spirits at the end of every meal to digest it. Perhaps I would have, if I had to walk home in the snow however?…
Blinis and shuba
Blinis have become a popular hors d’oeuvre internationally, consisting of little pancakes made with buckwheat, milk, egg and yeast. They can then be topped with anything that your imagination can fathom. I stuck with traditional Russian toppings, such as various combinations of sour cream, smoked salmon, radish, dill, caviars, and chives. Shuba is a cold Russian salad that is also sometimes called “herring under a fur coat” salad, a name that I don’t find particularly appetising, but which I think refers to the pickled herring coated in an assortment of fuzzy-looking grated vegetables. It’s usually made by layering all of the ingredients vertically, but I elected to make horizontal layers so that the beautiful colours could be seen. I included pickled herring, grated onion, hardboiled egg, grated cooked carrot, grated beetroot and grated boiled potato. I garnished it with plenty of pepper and dill, and served it with a dressing of sour cream and mayonnaise. I loved this meal because of the mix of typical Russian flavours that all complement each other, especially dill, which I am particularly partial to.
Of all Russian dishes, beef Stroganoff is perhaps the one that has most garnered international attention and adoration. Everyone I spoke to about this dish, from East Asian to South American, knew about the dish, and often grew up with variations cooked by their parents. No surprises there, it’s an unarguably successful and easy way to prepare cheap cuts of beef into a taste-sensation. As for many internationally beloved dishes, stroganoff has met with extreme variations in the course of its world travels, but the original Russian recipe is surprisingly recent, with its first recipe recorded in the 19th century. This original recipe combined cubes of floured beef with mustard, broth and sour cream. This then evolved to include mushrooms, onions and often a nip of alcohol to accentuate the flavours. I followed a version of this later recipe, serving it with parsley, steamed broccoli and shoe-string fried potatoes, which are common possible accompaniments along with mashed potato, rice and hand-made pastas. The dish’s name is thought to be in honour of the Stroganov family, who were among the richest dynasties of merchants and businessmen since the 1500s, eventually marrying into Russian nobility to expand their power to the ruling class of the entire country. While researching this family, I became absorbed in their long histories of drama, including their various (and often warring) factions, as well as their rises and falls to and from power and riches over the centuries. One family member who caught my attention in particular was Anika Feodorovitch, who maintained her family’s power during the reign of Ivan the terrible by seizing and subsequently ceding much of Siberia to him, thereby keeping him happy with her family without losing too many of their existing assets. I love a smart and conniving historical matriarch! There are too many interweaved stories about this family to summarise easily here, but I encourage you to learn about them yourself – it’s more dramatic (and entertaining) than a soap opera!
Shchi and pelmeni
Shchi is a hot vegetable soup, with a basis of freshly chopped cabbage, although a variant (sour shchi) can also use sauerkraut. Cabbage nowadays is somewhat synonymous with Russia, although it is not native to the country, having been introduced from the Byzantine empire in the first few centuries AD. Cabbage soups such as this arose soon after, sometimes including meat depending on availability, and have since been favoured by penny-pinching and conscious cooks alike to cheaply nourish and warm their diners. Historically as well as in modern times, shchi is garnished with smetana, which is a dairy product similar to sour cream. Pelmeni (literally meaning “ear bread”) are dumplings with dough made from flour and water, and a filling made of minced meat of any kind. The origins of pelmeni remain unclear, but are generally thought to be influenced by Chinese wontons via Mongolia. Just as in Eastern Asia, the dumplings are often found served besides or within hot soups, and I only realised once I was eating it just how reminiscent it was to a wonton-filled Chinese short soup! I suppose it makes sense given how much border is shared between the countries. Pelmeni are distinct from their famous Polish cousins, pierogi, in the thickness of the dough, which is much thinner in pelmeni, resembling Italian ravioli. My pelmeni had the traditional mix of both pork and beef, spiced with pepper, onions and garlic. Pelmeni are so delicious, I don’t think it would be possible for me to be sick of them. If you’ve never tried them, please do, they have all the delightful surprise of ravioli with a hearty mix of spices that gives them a more comforting and substantial quality.
Okroshka is a cold summer soup consisting of raw and cooked vegetables, eggs and meat, often in a liquid of specialised low-percentage alcohol called kvass (made from fermented rye bread) or in more recent times kefir (a yoghurt-like fermented milk drink). The name okroshka probably originated from a word that means “to crumble into small pieces”, referring to the finely chopped ingredients, most of which are raw. It is thought to have originated in Medieval times from barge workers along the river Volga, whose often-dismal dental equipment made chewing their supplied lunch of dried fish a dreaded chore. They therefore took to soaking the fish in the drink-of-choice for the times, kvass, and this then evolved to also include vegetables, so perhaps address to various vitamin deficiencies at the root of so many missing teeth. As I intended to take this soup for a weekday work lunch, I elected to use kefir instead of the slightly alcoholic kvass, and included green onions, ham, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, cucumbers, radishes, lemon juice, dill and some edible flowers in the spirit of the home garden. As most of these ingredients are raw, the soup took mere minutes to assemble, and only the eggs required a few minutes with the stove on, all of which ticked my box for ideal summer recipes. The chopped ingredients are traditionally immersed in your liquid of choice in a ratio similar to cereal-to-milk, ensuring a chunky texture and retaining the crunch of the vegetables. Indeed, I was surprised to find that I had actually made a heavily-dressed “Russian Salad”, which is popular all over the world and contains many of the same ingredients, minus the kefir. I adored the convenience and fresh flavours of the okroshka, and am very surprised that cold soups haven’t become more popular during the sweltering Brisbane summer!