Russia is the world’s largest country by land area, so it’s no wonder that Russian food is so diverse. Russian cuisine has also had a multitude of influences: For example, the Tsarist nobility’s fondness for French delicacies, as well as new trade routes to the West and East, altered the Russian palate forever.
There are also significant regional differences — hardly surprising when you consider that almost 100 different ethnic and religious groups live within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. (The total area occupied under the Tsars and the Soviet Union was famously even bigger.) Today, former Soviet states like Georgia, Armenia and Uzbekistan continue to shape Russia’s culinary landscape.
A good place to find typical traditional food in most Russian cities is in the public canteens known as stolovaya (столовая), which are common in any Russian city. So join us on our little tour of the must-have dishes that you’ll have to try out!
1) Grechnevaya kasha (Гречневая каша)
In many Slavic languages, the word kasha refers to any cereal-based porridge — Grechnevaya kasha is specifically made from buckwheat. The dish’s history can be traced back to the time of the medieval state of the Kievan Rus’, considered to be a forerunner of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. To make this Russian staple, the buckwheat grains should be cooked in a closed pot until soft, and eaten with meat, fish or vegetables. Alternatively, you can also eat it sweet for breakfast with a little milk and sugar.
2) Borscht (Борщ)
This renowned beetroot soup is one of the most famous dishes in Eastern European cuisine, especially popular as a starter. In no way is it limited to Russia: you can find it on any traditional menu (in one form or another) across Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Romania. The name borscht derives from the Slavic word for cow parsnip (Russian: борщевик), a commonly used soup ingredient during the Middle Ages.
Aside from beetroot, a Russian borscht consists of onions, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and beef, all mixed together and left to simmer slowly for a long time. It is said that a good borscht should be so thick and full of vegetables that a wooden spoon can stand up straight in it. This is a highly nutritious and hearty stew — the perfect dish for a Russian winter.
3) Shchi (Щи)
“One of the Russian people’s most defining characteristics was instrumental in the creation of shchi: their open-mindedness, and their tolerance.”
Sticking with the theme a while longer, let’s meet another national soup: shchi. Like borscht, you won’t find this dish exclusively on Russian menus, as it’s equally popular in Ukraine. The soup’s primary ingredient is white cabbage or sauerkraut simmered in meat stock and served with delicious sour cream. But there’s more to our slightly sour-tasting shchi than just being wholesome and delicious! As Russian historian and cuisine expert William Pokhlyobkin once wrote:
“One of the Russian people’s most defining characteristics was instrumental in the creation of shchi: their open-mindedness, and their tolerance. It was this tolerance, so crucial for such a large country, that saw Russians embrace the Byzantine cabbage as a vegetable.”
4) Pirog (Пирог) and Piroshok (Пирожок)
A classic of Eastern European cuisine, pirogi are an extremely popular type of filled pastry or dumpling found across Russia. The name has its roots in Old Slavic, where pir means “feast,” while in Russia, the word пирог is a general word for “cake.” The word pirogi (singular: pirog) exists in various forms in all West and East Slavic languages, though not always in reference to the same kind of food. So be sure not to mix up Russian pirogi with Polish pierogi, which are actually a type of filled pasta.
Russian pirogi are baked yeast dough pastries that can be filled with anything imaginable: meat, fish, potatoes, spinach, cabbage, rice, quark or even fruit. They even come in different shapes and sizes: small, fully sealed triangular pastries, or larger variants more akin to a pie. There’s a long history of pirogi in Russia, too. You can find them described with praise in 17th-century travel diaries and immortalized in proverbs. As one saying goes on the subject of the izba (a Russian farmhouse):
“A good izba should not be lauded for its angles, but for its pirogi.”
One Russia tradition (for better or worse) judges a housewife’s qualities by her ability to make pirogi, something she has to demonstrate the very next day after her wedding.
5) Blini (Блины)
These thin, round pancakes are one of the oldest staples of Eastern European cuisine, having been enjoyed by Slavic peoples since at least the 9th century.
Blini are either filled and rolled up or eaten with a spread. Butter, marmalade, condensed milk or quark are all popular options, but meat, caviar or salted fish can also be used. People eat blini throughout the year — and lots of them too. The feasting reaches its high point during Maslenitsa (Масленица), a week-long festival before the Orthodox Lent period, where blini are a staple of the culinary program.
6) Pelmeni (Пельмени)
Pelmeni are like little pasta pockets filled with meat, cooked in salt water or stock. They are either served as soup garnish or as a main course with sour cream. These popular and variable dumplings are a popular Russian meal and are also known as a national dish beyond the country’s borders. And in Russia itself, you can also try their Georgian equivalent khinkali or Uzbek manti.
“A good izba should not be lauded for its angles, but for its pirogi.”
7) Olivier salad (Салат Оливье)
During the 1860s, under the Russian Empire, French chef Lucien Olivier ran a restaurant in Moscow, where the house specialty was a salad made with wild hazel grouse, black caviar, boiled crayfish, hard-boiled eggs and capers, all mixed together with a special sauce known only to the chef himself. The inventor took the original recipe to his grave, but this did little to stop the spread of various imitations.
During the Soviet era, this one-time specialty became a staple of feast days — and a typical Russian dish as a result. The ingredients changed but the name remained. Today, the salad is widely eaten, even outside of special occasions, and recipes vary accordingly. In its classic form, it contains boiled potatoes and carrots, pickled cucumbers, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, green peas and mayonnaise.
8)“Herring under a fur coat” (Селедка под шубой)
Behind this mysterious name lies a layered salad, traditionally eaten around New Year’s Eve. It is made with boiled potatoes and carrots, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and of course, herring. All the ingredients are finely chopped and arranged one on top of the other with a thin layer of mayonnaise between each one. Crucially, the top layer should always be beetroot, from which the dish gets its characteristic red “fur coat.”
9) Pickled vegetables (Квашеные овощи)
Tomatoes, peppers, garlic, mushrooms: Russian kitchens are always bursting with pickled vegetables! And “salted” pickled cucumbers (солёные огурцы) are a particular favorite. Preserved using lactic acid fermentation, these pickles live up to their name thanks to their bitingly salty-sour taste! This comes from the brine in which the vegetables are kept, sealed in airtight jars, and stored in homes and restaurants. But be sure not to confuse the Russian version with its German equivalent, which is pickled in spiced vinegar instead.
If you don’t want to pickle vegetables yourself, you’re sure to find them in any marketplace, usually sold by women in colored headscarves, sitting behind huge mason jars stacked one on top of the other. Last but not least: Not only are these pickles a feature of many Russian dishes, they’re also always served with vodka! So let us drink to Russian food: Za zdorovye!