A Guide to Traditional Russian Foods with Recipes and a Dash of History
If you’re looking to incorporate some Russian food into your diet or your bucket list, we’ve got you covered! This guide contains popular, traditional Russian foods, recipes and a bit of history. Many of the dishes here can easily be found at restaurants and cafes, in supermarkets and, most importantly, on the table at holidays.
What foods are actually Russian is a hot topic. Half of the foods that we consider ‘Russian’, they consider ‘Ukrainian’. However, If you look at the history of Russia and Ukraine, separating the two is hard to do. Russia was born in Kiev, Ukraine (Kievan Rus) and while a border may separate them geographically, historically it’s nearly impossible to do so. For this reason, my opinion is that the food is largely both Ukrainian and Russian.
Starters & Snacks
Russian pancakes (or crepes as we might call them in the USA) – are often dipped in sweetened condensed milk, jam or sour cream. It might also be served with caviar or various other sweet and savory garnishes. Additionally, blini are the main component of Russia’s Maslenitsa festival (before Lent) in February.
Russian pirogi – dough with sweet or savory fillings such as potatoes, beef, tvorog*, fruits, berries, etc.
Tvorog is like cottage cheese but a bit more sweet and dry.
Buterbrod (Mini sandwiches)
Buterbrodi – are mini sandwiches most commonly served with either ham and cheese, sausage and cheese or with caviar. Russian’s usually have a sandwich with only one piece of bread which is most similar to a tea sandwich instead of the American way with two, big pieces of bread.
Draniki – potato pancakes served with a side of sour cream.
Olivier salad – probably the most popular salad in Russia which was first created by Lucien Olivier (the chef of a popular Moscow restaurant, The Hermitage) in 1860. It’s made with potatoes, eggs, carrots, peas, dill, mayo & ham.
Vinegret salad – made with whatever the people had on hand from their gardens. Sometimes times were hard but beets, carrots & potatoes are vegetables which easily grow in Russia.
Mimosa salad – hands down my favorite salad. Named mimosa after the mimosa tree with bright, yellow flowers. This salad is made up of eggs, carrots, tuna, potatoes, mayo, some onion & a bit of olive oil.
Herring Under a Fur Coat Salad
Herring under a fur coat salad – was first thought up in 1918 by a bar chef. Legend has it that at this particular bar there was a lot of drinking followed by fist fights so the chef came up with a filling dish, a salad called SHUBA (in Russian the acronym means ‘Death and damnation to chauvinism and degradation’). Shuba in Russian means fur coat, so over time the dish became known as herring under a fur coat. According to the legend, the dish did help to bring about fewer bar fights by filling the guests bellies so they didn’t get as drunk as before.
Borscht – this is where the big debate that I mentioned really gets heated. Both Russia and Ukraine want to have the honor to call this dish their own, but in my opinion (as stated previously) that’s neither here nor there. The Ukrainians and the Russians have slight variations in their borscht. This borscht recipe is the Russian version made up of beef, carrots, onions, beets, cabbage, potatoes and served with sour cream and dill.
Solyanka – a Russian word that comes from a phrase (sborynaya solyanka) which means having many different things gathered all in one place. Likewise, this soup is made up of a conglomerate of different ingredients and variations (fish solyanka, meat solyanka and mushroom solyanka).
Okroshka – considered somewhat a summer soup and often served cold. It’s made of mostly raw vegetables: cucumber, green onion, radishes, ham, cooked eggs/potatoes, and served with kvas (see the drink section below) or kefir.
Schi – a soup that most likely originated from the Byzantine Empire but which swiftly gained popularity and was already a staple in Russia by the 10th C. It’s made from potatoes, chicken, mushrooms, sauerkraut, cabbage, onion and dill.
Pelmeni – a Siberian dish that most likely originated in the Komi republic from the Mongol invasion and is a spinoff of Chinese dumplings. The word Pelnyan translates as ‘ear bread’.
Cutlets – any pan-fried, minced-meat patty mixed with egg and flour. There are many varieties of this dish and it dates back as far as Peter the Great who originally brought the dish over from Europe.
Golubtsi – cabbage rolls stuffed with sautéed pork or beef and rice or buckwheat. This dish first became popular in Russia in the 18th/19th C. The Russian court was largely influenced by the French; they spoke French and French workers streamed into the country. French chefs worked for the nobility and the royal family and many French recipes were introduced to Russian society.
Beef Stroganov – yet another dish created by a French chef for the Stroganov family.
Sirniki – little tvorog cakes that are eaten with jam, sour cream or sweetened condensed milk. See pirogi above for a definition of tvorog.
Pryaniki – Russian gingerbread cookies which are often filled with jam or caramel and typically served with tea or coffee.
Napoleon cake – a dessert that most likely originated in France and is originally named the 1000 layer cake. It gained popularity in Russian after the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812. A cut piece of this French cake looks similar to Napoleon’s hat.
Medovik – a popular honey cake. Honey is abundant in Russia and has been used for years for both cooking and healing. Legend has it that the Medovik was created in the 18th C by a young chef who sought to impress the Empress Elizabeth, Tsar Alexander I’s wife, who didn’t like honey. Not knowing honey was in the cake, she tried it and fell in love with it.
Kompot – a non-alcoholic fruit drink that can be served hot or cold. This drink is a staple in many cafeterias and is served in some restaurants in Russia.
Kvas – a non-alcoholic beer with origins as far back as the start of the Russian State. The first newspaper of the Russian State, The Primary Chronicle of Kievan Rus, mentions that bread kvas was served at the baptism of Prince Vladimir in 989 AD when Russia chose Orthodox as the official religion of the country.