Go to an authentic riumochnaya, ask for a pint of beer, a shot of vodka with the tear and a portion of shuba," says Evgenya Prazdnik, a mixologist from Moscow who now works as a beverage consultant and bar manager at Gunpowder, Goa.

If that doesn’t make sense, hang on. If you ever felt the romance in bread and wine because of Ernest Hemingway’s Paris, the time has come to enter the world of Anton Chekhov’s vodka and cucumbers.

We believe vodka is Russian, beer is associated with the Germans, and tea soothes vexed British nerves. However, after I spoke to all the Russians I possibly could, it seems all three are Russian.

And soup. Thick soup.

“When we speak of Russian cuisine, many dishes originally came from different places like Ukraine and Belarus, but after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we simply call it Russian," says Evgenia Polesnaya, a Belarusian home chef.

According to the mother of two, currently residing in Spain, the highlight of this cuisine lies in the variety of preparations, not just dishes or produce. “A regular person cooking must know how to make over a hundred different potato dishes," she says.

Due to the historical mix of cultures such as East European and Central Asian, the cuisine has some similarities, drawing from the cuisines of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They have their version of chaas (buttermilk), they call tea chai, tandoor is known as tandir, and they do pickles. Then why do we know so little about it?

A traditional Russian meal. Photo: iStock
A traditional Russian meal. Photo: iStock

One reason is because the names are hard to pronounce. When you say snacks, small plates or even tapas, the Russians say zakuskis. These vary from home-made pickles—and yes, the most famous is cucumber—to bread, salted herring and onions.

A potato rosti is draniki and pancakes are known as blini. Rice and meat or vegetables wrapped in cabbage leaves are golubtsy.

Would you dare to try some of the bolder dishes?

If you are heading to Russia for the World Cup and think you can dig your teeth into that culture, go right ahead and try everything. But if you want to play it safer, consider tiptoeing around three dishes that Russians who have interacted with a fair number of Indians feel might be only for serious foodies.

Holodets/Zalivnoe

Polesnaya says holodets would be a bit much for Indians: “It’s a meat jelly. Yes, we have jelly as a starter and not a dessert."

It’s also known as zalivnoe and is literally anything savoury set in jelly. The ingredients can vary from salmon to crab-sticks to meat to vegetables or simply all of it. The jelly is made out of clear stock (bouillon in French).

Elena Smorgon, a 31-year-old working in the field of customer relations in Singapore, is from Krasnoyarsk, the third largest city in Siberia. Her advice: “Indians should be a bit careful with holodets because they are usually cooked with pork or beef. My family cooks holodets often at home, but my Indian friends don’t like it."

Shuba/Selyodka pod shuboy

Meanwhile, Smirnova Evgeniya from Tomsk, Siberia, currently working in Singapore, claims that the boldest dish to try is selyodka pod shuboy or shuba. This literally translates to “herring under the fur coat".

“It’s salted herring with a coat of boiled potatoes, carrots and beetroot. That’s topped with onions, eggs and a layer of mayonnaise," Evgeniya says.

This is also Russia’s traditional dish for big events.

Prazdnik, who currently lives in Goa, labels this dish a must-try, even though it may be a touch too bold for the Indianpalate. “Shuba is really delicious. The salad was created in the beginning of the 20th century in a small riumochnaya, a café that serves vodka and beer. Funnily, it was a dish intended to sober up customers."

Okroshka na kvase

Smorgon feels the dish with the highest shock value is okroshka na kvase.

“Okroshka is a cold soup, the base is made of a fermented bread drink called kvas," she says. “We drink kvas during summer, it is refreshing. Okroshka is a soup that contains that drink. It’s a weird combination, but it is yummy."

It isn’t sweet and its origin dates back to the birth of beer, 50 centuries ago.

Irina Kozlova, food and beverage manager and brand chef at The Project Café, Goa, agrees that this is not for Indians. “I am not sure that a cold soup based on an aerated, kombucha-style drink will be comfortable for Indians. I would suggest okroshka na kefire instead. It’s the same soup, but kefir-based. Kefir is a chaas-style drink, just a little more sour. It has finely cut potatoes, eggs, radish, dill, chives, cucumbers and sausages. Let’s just say it’s raita in soup form."

Okroshka is a method of preparation.

COMFORT FOOD

If you’re looking for something closer to home, order the plov, a kind of pulao, and the gorohoviy soup, which is lentil-based. You will also be able to find Indian and Asian fusion restaurants in Moscow. Supermarkets also carry ingredients for all cuisines, including Indian, but don’t expect anything in Russia to be spicy.

It’s useful to remember that bez means without. So you could order dishes bez myaso (without meat) or bez ryba (without fish).

So getting back to our question, what do the Russians eat? The answer is, everything. Simply put, they believe in a big spread. As you would have noticed, most dishes have more than one name.

‘Kompot’. Photo: iStock
‘Kompot’. Photo: iStock

Liquid diet

But is there anything that the Russians consume more than vodka?

Many Russians believe the answer to this question is beer. It is natural, considering the Russians only classified beer as alcohol in 2011. Russia also has the fourth largest beer market in the world.

“Beer is popular now and is the ‘new wine’. You will find dozens of local and imported draughts in the simplest of places. In Moscow, there is a place named Beercraft that is good," says Kozlova.

Statistically, however, it is still a close second to vodka. But there are a couple of things the Russians drink more than vodka—black tea and soup, mainly to keep warm. “Some soups are so thick, with lots of vegetables, that you can make your spoon stand in it," says Evgeniya.

Soups can be consumed with any and every meal (including breakfast) and are generally made from scratch. There is no concept of “ready-made" here. The must-try is borsch, which is a beef and beetroot preparation.

Vegetarians or non-beef eaters can order the holodnik, a rare cold and vegetarian preparation of the beetroot soup.

Then there is kompot, made by cooking fruits such as strawberries, apricots, peaches and gooseberries with water sugar and raisins at times.

Berezoviy sok is made using birch sap and a splash of lemon juice. This is a clear, refreshing drink. When fermented, it becomes a glorious rum used in many cocktails.

Speaking of cocktails, Prazdnik highly recommends trying nastoikas or nalivkas, both home-made liqueurs. These are, again, made from a variety of ingredients—from fruits to herbs, berries and roots. However, she says, the horseradish-based one called hrenovuha is a must-try.

Water with a ‘K’

In Russia, water is voda, and we all know vodka. But before you deep-dive into the vodka dare, here is some Russian advice.

“It isn’t Wi-Fi or the internet or anything else connecting people here, it’s vodka," says Polesnaya. “So don’t just say ‘cheers’ before you drink. Vodka is special. You have to say a few words to life, the football team you may be supporting, a great day, or Russia and its architecture. Say anything except keeping it to a single word."

Prazdnik says a Russian can easily outdrink an Indian, but that’s to be expected. “It’s the climate in Russia that allows us to consume high-alcohol-percentage spirits. We like to drink a lot, it warms us up.

“The old tradition is to consume vodka straight. In fact, a lot of Russians believe that vodka should be served ice-cold, preferably from the deep freezer. When the vodka becomes a little thicker, that’s the right time to serve it. We call it ‘vodka with the tear’."

“Russians do enjoy teasing foreigners and offering them shots of vodka. But I would suggest, avoid it if you think you can’t handle it or have some food along with it. While chilled vodka shots are still a tradition, many from big cities do prefer wine, whisky and cocktails."

For the adventurous palate, meat jelly, called ‘holodet’, is an interesting dish to sample. Photo: iStock
For the adventurous palate, meat jelly, called ‘holodet’, is an interesting dish to sample. Photo: iStock

Sweet tooth

Desserts in Russia are not as sweet as Indian ones. But the ice cream is so famous that Russian President Vladimir Putin took some boxes of it as a gift for his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during the G20 summit. They are now apparently all over China—bun shops in Beijing stocking IceBerry ice cream label it “Russia’s national gift", with an average of 300 being sold in a day.

There is also the Napoleon cake, which is made of layers of puff pastry filled with cream. There are numerous types of cakes, but for those playing it safe, the chocolate cakes in Russia are just like the ones in India.

Now that you are almost set, it would be a good idea to carry tea from India, says Polesnaya. Russians love Indian tea and it could be a handy gift for new friends, or it may help in making some.

Also, if you are visiting a Russian home, Evgeniya warns: “There will be plenty of food. It’s a must for the host to stuff their guest with food till they can’t walk. Do not complain about the food and ask for second helpings."

You are now ready to “go to an authentic riumochnaya, ask for a pint of beer, a shot of vodka with the tear and a portion of shuba".

Priyatnogo Apetita! Enjoy your meal.

Cafe Pushkin. Photo: iStock
Cafe Pushkin. Photo: iStock

PLACES TO EAT

Cafe Pushkin: This signature fine-dining restaurant is great for local cuisine. It features in multiple lists of top places to visit in Moscow.

Uryuk: A chain of Uzbek and Uyghur cuisine restaurants. You will get ‘pulaos’ and ‘tandoors’ here; they have vegetarian options and an English menu.

Novikov Restaurant & Bar: Known for the best sausages in Russia, this chain of restaurants is world-renowned. The owner Arkady Novikov’s first restaurant in Russia, Sirena, is also popular.

—Irina Kozlova’s list

PLACES TO DRINK

Delicatessen: Labelled one of the world’s best bars, it’s the perfect place for outstanding cocktails and great food.

Moskovsky Bar: A few minutes from Red Square, this place is known for its cocktails, service and some “badass bartending".

City Space Bar & Restaurant: On the 34th floor, it gives you a good view of the city and is known for its spectacular drinks.

Fahrenheit: For the unusual seasonal concoctions and gastronomy.

—Evgenya Prazdnik’s list

LAST-MINUTE ADVICE

The tipping culture is the same as the global norm, 10%.

If you love your spices, carry them with you.

For edible souvenirs, Irina Kozlova recommends trying the cured and pickled fish, selyodka.

Cut and keep

Basic Russian culinary words you should acquaint yourself with

soup—soup
potato—kartofel
meat—myaso
fish—ryba
bread—hleb
macaroni—makarony
vegetables—ragu
juice—sok
water—voda
tea—chai

Chef’s recommendations

Irina Kozlova, a chef from Moscow, has these suggestions for Indians visiting Russia:

Ikra: Black caviar (only available at high-end places).

Russian dumplings: Pelmeny (mostly non-vegetarian) and vareniky (a vegetarian option with potatoes, cottage cheese or cherry). Served with sour cream.

Olivye or Russian salad: Contains potatoes, carrots, eggs, gherkins, green peas, sausages or other meat. Sometimes, it has apples. But it always has mayonnaise.

Pirogi. Photo: iStock
Pirogi. Photo: iStock

Pirogi: Pies stuffed with anything (pictured below). The most popular ones are cabbage and boiled eggs.

Sirniki: Popular for breakfast. It’s a kind of pancake that contains farmer’s cheese and is served with sour cream.

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