If it’s your first time in Russia, you might feel a bit overwhelmed by the seemingly strange dishes on display at canteens and cafes. We hope that after reading this post these feelings of yours will disappear and you will be inspired to try some Russian delicacies!
Here is our selection of classically Russian dishes. Can you think of any others?
Vinegret (Russian: винегрет)
Made of boiled potatoes, beets, and other vegetables such as carrots, peas, dill, salted cucumbers and pickles, vinegret is a relatively new dish to appear on Russian tables. The popular purple salad appeared around the start of the Soviet Union, when it was hard to find fresh vegetables - hence why the salad is, traditionally, made using canned vegetables (such as canned peas).
The name most probably derives from the French word vinaigrette, although the salad itself does not necessarily have to contain vinegar - it can be seasoned with sunflower oil or olive oil.
The dish can be eaten at any time of year, although it is a particular popular dish to be served at New Year.
Borsch (Russian: Борщ)
Here is another popular beetroot dish. You might have heard of Borsch when your teacher taught you the letter Щ - the word borsch is often used for familiarising students with this tricky letter.
The name comes from Proto-Slavic *bŭrščǐ (meaning 'hogweed'). Common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) was the soup's principal ingredient before it was replaced with other vegetables, notably beetroot.
For a long time, the main ingredients of borsch were beetroots, cabbage, meat (beef or chicken), onions, carrots and herbs. It was only in the 19th century that potatoes and tomatoes began to appear in the soup. An important addition to borsch is smetana (sour cream) - make sure you try your borsch nice and hot and with a plentiful dollop of sour cream!
There is no single, established borsch recipe - every household makes their own variety. Our recommendation is to try to find a Russian who will make their own homemade borsch for you - this will also allow you to request a meatless variety, if you are vegetarian.
Bliny (Russian: Блины)
Blini are thin, flat pancakes prepared from batter and cooked on a hot frying pan - first on one side and then flipped to cook on the other side. Blini can be eaten with pretty much anything, but you’ll often find them with smoked salmon and sour cream, meat, mushrooms, potato, cottage cheese, caviar, jam, or condensed milk.
In pagan times blini were made for Maslenitsa, (literally translates from Russian as ‘Butter Week’ - because who wants a Pancake Day, when you can have a Pancake Week?!). Maslenitsa was – and still is - celebrated during the last week before Lent. Maslenitsa is a pagan festival that celebrates the imminent end of winter and the coming of spring. The blin itself, round and golden, symbolized the sun. It lasts for a week, during which people tend to eat nothing but pancakes.
Olivier Salad (Russian: салат Оливье)
The original version of the Olivier salad was invented in the 1860s by a cook of Belgian origin, Lucien Olivier, who worked in a famous restaurant in Moscow. Olivier's salad quickly became immensely popular with his restaurant’s regulars, and became the restaurant's signature dish.
The exact recipe — particularly that of the dressing — was top secret, but it is known that the salad contained grouse, veal tongue, caviar, lettuce, crayfish tails, capers, and smoked duck. The original Olivier dressing was a type of mayonnaise, made with French wine vinegar, mustard, and olive oil.
At the turn of the 20th century, one of Olivier's sous-chefs, Ivan Ivanov, attempted to steal the recipe. When Olivier was out of the kitchen, Ivanov glanced at Olivier’s workbench and guessed the majority of the ingredients. He then left Olivier's employ and went to work as a chef for the restaurant Moskva, where he began to serve a suspiciously similar salad under the name "capital salad". However, many noted that the salad tasted different to the original - Ivanov had failed to guess all of the necessary ingredients. Later, Ivanov sold the recipe for the salad to various publishing houses, which further contributed to its popularization. Due to the closure of the Hermitage restaurant in 1905, and the Olivier family's subsequent departure from Russia, the salad could now be referred to as "Olivier."
Today's version of Olivier salad — containing boiled potatoes, dill pickles, peas, eggs, carrots, and boiled beef/chicken, dressed with mayonnaise — is a version of Ivanov's Stolichny salad, and only faintly resembles Olivier's original creation.
Herring under the Fur Coat (Russian: Селедка под шубой)
This strangely-named salad is a New Year favourite. The name comes from the fact that the salad’s herring is laid under layers upon layers of heavy salad, representing its ‘furs’.
The salad consists of diced pickled herring covered with layers of grated boiled vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beet roots), chopped onions, and mayonnaise. Grated boiled beetroot covered with mayonnaise covers the top of the salad, which gives it a rich purple color. Dressed herring salad is often decorated with grated boiled eggs (whites, yolks, or both).
Although it may seem strange that such a heavy dish can be called a salad, be sure to try this dish at least once - it’s a staple part of Russian cuisine!
Mors (Russian: морс)
Mors is a non-carbonated Russian fruit drink prepared from berries, mainly from lingonberry and cranberry (although there are other fruits that are also used). It's made by boiling berries with sugar or just mixing pure juice with sweetened water.
The origins of mors are unknown. Some say that it first appeared in the 16th century, since it is mentioned in a book of Russian household rules (called ‘Domostroy’). But many say that it has probably been around for a lot longer.
Kvas (Russian: Квас)
A fizzy bread drink sometimes referred to as Russian cola, kvas literally means “leaven.” Its origins go back 50 centuries, to the beginnings of beer production. Kvas was first mentioned in Old Russian Chronicles in the year 989.
Some say the drink was invented by mistake. According to one legend, a bag of grain got wet and the grain started to grow. A farmer decided to save the product and make flour out of it. He couldn’t use it to make bread and instead, invented malt. He added some water, let the liquid ferment and created the first ever kvas.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi decreased the demand for commercial kvas in Russia. But today the drink is back on the market and is on the rise once again. The Russian company Nikola (in Russian the name sounds like “not cola”) has promoted its brand of kvas with an advertising campaign emphasizing "anti cola-nisation".
Schi (Russian: Щи)
Also used as a word to familiarise students with the letter Щ, Schi is a popular Russian soup. In fact, it can be considered one of the main dishes of Russian cuisine, considering the proverb: Schi and Kasha are our food (it sounds much better in the Russian: щи да каша — пища наша).
Going back as far as the 9th century, soon after cabbage was introduced from Byzantium, Schi has remained a popular choice for the table, with its simple - yet filling - ingredients. Its main ingredient is cabbage, but you can also find it with potato, meat (mainly pork), tomato, carrot and onion.
Pelmeni (Russian: Пельмени)
Pelmeni are a kind of dumpling, consisting of a particular filling that is wrapped in a thin dough. They are served hot, often with lashings of sour cream. The fillings are often either meat, fish, or mushroom, as well as plentiful seasoning.
The word itself comes from pel'nyan' literally "ear bread" in the native Finno-Ugric Komi and Mansi languages. No one knows for sure when pelmeni first entered Russian cuisine but one theory suggests that stuffed boiled dumplings in general, originated in northwestern China. The general thought is that pelmeni were carried by the Mongols to Siberia and the Urals and then gradually spread as far as Eastern Europe. The dish was particularly favored by hunters, who were looking for light, easy-to-prepare, nourishing food to take with them on long trips in the winter.
Pelmeni are very practical: you can prepare them in advance, freeze them, and then have them at the ready for when you’re cold and hungry and need something to fill you up!
Don’t confuse pelmeni with vareniki - vareniki are slightly bigger and often have sweet fillings; pelmeni never come with sweet fillings.
Vareniki (Russian: Вареники)
Although vareniki originate from Ukraine, many Russians enjoy eating this filling dish. The fillings of vareniki, unlike those of pelmeni, are not limited to meat, fish and mushrooms - you can find vareniki filled with almost anything! The most popular vareniki are those with potatoes, cabbage, beef, cherries or cottage cheese.
Did you know? Ukrainians have a somewhat obsession with vareniki and every year reports of yet another ‘world’s biggest varenik’ come from this country. The latest gigantic dumpling to compete for the world record was made in a village close to the capital Kiev. The huge varenik weighed almost one hundred kilograms!
Syrniki (Russian: Сырники)
Syrniki are fried pancakes made from soft cheese (творог) - and sometimes also raisins - and are often garnished with sour cream or jam. The name comes from the Russian word for cheese (сыр) which, although it now means hard yellow cheese, was previously used as the label for soft cheese.
Kasha (Russian: Каша)
We couldn’t possibly finish this article without mentioning kasha, arguably the most important dish in the Russian cuisine. Kasha - what many translate as ‘porridge’ (although it’s much more than just porridge) - can refer to many different types of grain, including buckwheat, rice, barley, wheat, millet, oat, and rye. It can be eaten at any time of day - from breakfast to dinner - and can be prepared with milk or water, and served with anything, from simple butter to thick sour cream!
So, there you have it - a collection of classically Russian dishes. Of course, we could name more (we failed to talk about caviar, for instance). Nevertheless, we hope that we managed to give you an adequate introduction into the world of Russian cuisine!