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 with 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 smoked salmon, cucumber, radish, dill, caviar, pickled cabbage and chives. Shuba is a cold Russian salad that is also sometimes called “herring under a fur coat” salad, which 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, crumbled 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 side 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.
Beetroot-based soups are served in numerous iterations throughout Eastern Europe, with or without meat, hot or cold, chunky or smooth, and with different seasonings depending on the region. The most common Russian variety is called borscht, and is usually served hot, chunky and with beef. I grated boiled beetroots and stewed them in beef stock along with shredded beef shanks, shredded white cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, onion, carrot, garlic, bay leaf, parsley and dill. Apparently borscht originally derived from an ancient soup made from the stems, leaves and umbels of common hogweed. This origin then expanded until the name was used to describe many tart soups, with the beet-based varieties eventually becoming most popular and renowned. Borscht is traditionally served with a big dollop of sour cream, which is an ingenious way to give your soup an extra depth of flavour, while also sneakily bringing the temperature down so that you can scoff it all immediately without scalding your mouth. I also served my borscht with the traditional piece of dark rye bread, which seems to perfectly complement the flavours in ways that other breads could never achieve. The precise reason for this eludes me, but tradition is tradition for a reason I suppose!
Pirozhki, klotski and cucumber and radish salad
Pirozhki literally means “small pie”, and come in a variety of baked or fried buns, with any sort of meat and/or vegetable or sweet filling imaginable. Pirozhki were invented in Russia, but have since spread across much of Europe and Asia. My pirozhki were baked and had a beef and vegetable filling, seasoned with plenty of dill. Klotski is a clear chicken broth containing large fluffy dumplings. I made the broth with chicken pieces, celery, onion carrot, pepper and mixed herbs, and then strained it to create a clear broth. I made the dumplings with potatoes, eggs, flour, basil and butter, then rolled them into shape and cooked them in the broth. I wasn’t 100% happy with the dumplings, they disintegrated slightly and didn’t get as fluffy as I was expecting, so I look forward to trying them again at some point with a different recipe. They still tasted good though, as did the broth, which I think is always miles better home-made than bought. I served the piroshki and klotski with a cucumber and radish salad, which is dressed with sour cream and dill.
Okroshka, pelmeni, and sour red cabbage and apples
Okroshka is a cold summer soup consisting of raw and cooked vegetables, eggs and meat, often in a liquid of specialised alcohol called kvass or kefir. The name Okroshka probably originated from a word that means “to crumble into small pieces”, referring to the finely chopped ingredients. As I intended to take this soup for a weekday work lunch, I elected to use kefir instead of alcohol, which is a fermented milk drink that tastes a bit like buttermilk. I also included green onions, ham, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, cucumbers, radishes, lemon juice and dill. The soup was indeed very refreshing, especially in a Brisbane summer – I’m not sure why cold soups aren’t more popular here? 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. 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. I prepared them a common way – boiling them in chicken broth until they are almost cooked, then frying them in butter and serving with a dollop of sour cream. 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! I made the sour red cabbage and apples by braising them with onions, sugar, red wine vinegar and chicken stock. The balance of sweet and sour was delicious and a perfect accompaniment to the rich, meaty pelmeni.