Traditional Russian Cuisine

Traditional Russian Cuisine

Part 1. From Ancient Times to Peter the Great

Traditional Russian cuisine began its development around the 9th century and was finally formed in the 15th-16th. In the very first, ancient Russian period of development, bread from rye yeast dough appeared. In Russia, people traditionally ate a lot of bread. Bread is the king on the table of both the simple Russian peasant and the well-to-do philistine. The bread was usually baked from rye flour, to which barley was sometimes added. Pancakes and pies were also baked from rye flour. Porridge, noodles, eggs, mushrooms, and berries were added to the filling of pies. Wheat flour was used more for festive baking-loaves, loaves, rolls, pancakes.


/Artist S.Andriaka / Still life with bread/

Russian proverbs and sayings, which speaks of its great importance in the life of Russian people: bread is the head of everything; daily bread... The expression "bread-salt" is a symbol of food and rich treats. Salt for the simple Russian peasant has always been a scarce and expensive product, a luxury available only to rich people. As a rare condiment, salt was served to the table as a sign of respect and attention to the guest.

The abundance of cereals and vegetables in the territory of Ancient Russia largely determined the path of development of Russian cuisine. Already at the first stage of its formation more than a thousand years ago, the custom of using liquid hot dishes – chowders and soups began to take shape. Chowders – strong vegetable broths, has been known since the 9th-century ad. There were a great many of them and they were called by the name of the vegetable from which they were prepared: onion, potato, turnip, pea, rutabaga, mushroom. Of soups, soup is the most common dish among the Russian people. Also known are Kalya (later transformed into a rassolnik), solyanka. From the 15th-16th centuries, the first mention of Borscht appeared. To this day, the Uha is very popular. In the beginning, Uha was also called decoctions of meat or chicken. A decoction of chopped lamb intestines was called Ushnoye. But from a certain time (15th century) Uha is a  fish soup. The number of recipes for Uha is huge.

From cold soups, okroshka, botvinya (soup on kvass with root vegetables and leaves of the tops of young beets, grated horseradish, green onions, young nettles, sorrel), tyurya (bread crumbled in kvass), putinka (soup made of curdled milk and buckwheat flour) were distributed.


/Artist F.Solncev / Peasant family before dinner/

A large place in Russian cuisine was occupied by a variety of porridges and dishes made from boiled or steamed cereals: wheat, which appeared from Byzantium together with the Greek monks, buckwheat, millet. The daily food of the peasantry was oatmeal, ground, and boiled. Rice, called Saracen grain, was little known because of its high cost.

* Interesting fact: in Italy and in the south of France, the Saracen grain is called buckwheat because of its rarity and high cost. It ripened on the cool slopes of the Atlas Mountains, in Algeria and Morocco.

From vegetables are known from the most ancient times cabbage, turnip, radish, peas, which were always prepared separately-there were beet, cucumber, cabbage, onion salads. And complex salads, such as the ever-memorable olivier, as well as vinaigrette, became widespread in Russia only by the end of the 19th century. Potatoes also began to have weight in the Russian menu from the second half of the 19th century. Before that, the main vegetable was turnips. Now turnips are already quite rarely used in dishes, although rolled in flour, slightly toasted and tired (steamed) is a wonderful side dish.

Such a menu was varied with meat and, for the most part, fish. Fish was cooked, stewed, baked, steamed, eaten salted, dried, very rarely - fried.

Meat (prey and slaughter – the meat of livestock and poultry), milk, were used relatively rarely. From domestic animals, they ate lamb, pork, beef, chicken meat, geese, and ducks. The use of veal and horse meat was prohibited. Prey: venison, moose, hare, wildfowl, cooked, stewed and baked. Roast meat-slaughter and game-usually a large piece or a whole carcass – this was called spun meat. Typical dishes: stuffed geese, swans, lamb side with porridge. This method of cooking required a lot of time and firewood, so ordinary people could not afford meat often. In the pies, meat, and fish fillings were also put in a whole piece. In general, in Russian traditional cuisine, the grinding of products was not accepted. Mushrooms, for example, were also laid in whole pies. Cutlets, meatballs, sausages, and other minced meat products appeared on the Russian table relatively late, already in Peter's the Great time.

Milk was drunk raw, stewed, and fermented. And such products of milk processing-cream, butter, sour cream appeared quite late – in the 15th century. Sour cream is eaten separately, and used as a seasoning: it is seasoned with soups and salads. Another very common Russian dairy product – cottage cheese - make cheesecakes.


/Artist K.Makovskiy / Boyarsky wedding feast/

A very important feature of Russian cuisine is the division of the table into lean (vegetables, fish, mushrooms) and skoromny (fasted- milk, eggs, meat). This fact had a huge impact on its further development until the end of the XIX century. Most days of the year, about two hundred were considered fast days. Therefore, the traditional Russian menu includes a huge number of mushroom and fish dishes, as well as dishes made from grain, vegetables, wild berries, wild herbs - nettle, goutweed, quinoa, sorrel. In great lent, they ate cabbage soup seasoned with flour, dishes made of potatoes, peas, beans, lentils, mushrooms, seasoned with vegetable oil – linseed, hemp, sunflower, poppy seeds. They baked pies with different fillings. On the table were jelly – oatmeal, rye, hemp; steamed turnips, pumpkin, wild berries, honey. And also a lot of pickles, pickles, and pees – the same cabbage, garlic and cucumbers, mushrooms, soaked apples. From seasonings horseradish was used, less often-garlic and herbs. The menu was varied with fish dishes. On days when it was possible to eat fish, it was eaten baked and steamed, and if there was no fresh fish, they ate salted. Black caviar from sturgeon and nelma (inconnu) has always been a rare guest on the table of a simple Russian person, an exquisite delicacy. Caviar could be served fresh and salted. Caviar was also cooked in vinegar and in almond or poppy milk.

A significant factor that influenced the Russian menu was the vast expanses of Russia, which caused strong differences in the cuisines of its regions. Thus, the cuisine of the Pomors, which were experiencing a shortage of vegetables due to climatic features, was based on sea fish and flour dishes. The Cossack cuisine adjacent to the Russian one is rich in fresh fish dishes, goulash, special types of dairy products – for example, ayran. The Cossacks enriched the Russian cuisine with such special dishes as cabbage rolls, jelly and dumplings. In the 17th century, the cuisine of Russia experienced a strong Eastern influence: the annexation of the territories of the Kazan and Astrakhan khanates, Siberia to the Moscow Kingdom added noodles and other products made of unleavened dough, dumplings, lemons, tea, exotic dried fruits – apricots and raisins to the Russian menu. There is a simpler and less expensive way of cooking meat-shish kebab.

There were dishes in Russian cuisine that had ritual significance. So, for the wedding, they baked kurnik – a large pie stuffed with chicken, for Easter they made cakes, for Christmas they made kutya, and for Shrovetide – pancakes.

Desserts in Russia were baked apples, honey, jams, rolls, pastilles. The peoples of the south of Russia prepared a specific honey from watermelons-nardek. A special place among confectionery products was occupied by gingerbread, prepared from a special sweet gingerbread dough with a large amount of spices (hence the name). Spices such as black pepper, mint, coriander, vanilla, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, anise, star anise, cumin, nutmeg, cloves were used. Jam made from apples or citrus fruits could be used as fillings, and dried fruits were often added to the dough itself.

Among the traditional Russian drinks can be called compotes, fruit drinks, sbiten, and kvass, of which there were more than 500 varieties in Russia. Kissels were also common. Moreover, sweet jelly (kissels) appeared only in the 19th century, when they began to produce potato starch. Alcoholic beverages were of weak strength. Honey (mead), braga and some varieties of kvass contained no more than 6% alcohol. Beer was brewed in Russia, but it was not very popular until the beginning of the 20th century.

Since the 18th century, during the Peter the Great reforms, Russian traditional cuisine has been influenced by Western European culinary traditions. There were unprecedented sausages, wieners, rolls, potato dishes. In the early 19th century, thanks to the Russian limited military contingent that had been in France for a very long time, the menu of the rich estates of Russia was enriched with recipes of French cuisine. France since the time of Louis the 14th Sun, has been the absolute trendsetter in European cooking. Only the cuisines of the Ancient East and Far Asia could compete with it in sophistication.

* Interesting fact: In 1806, during the next campaign against Republican France, one of Napoleon's marshals, Bernadotte, successfully defeated the Swedish corps that fought on the side of the anti-Napoleonic coalition. His treatment of thousands of captured Swedes were exceedingly humane, that has earned the respect and admiration of the Swedish Reichstag. In one of the oldest democracies in Europe – Sweden inherited the throne is not hereditary: the king is elected by the Reichstag. In 1810, Bernadotte was elected Crown Prince (heir to the King) of Sweden and Norway. In 1813-1814, he very carefully, protecting his precious Swedes, fought against his patron – Napoleon. In 1818, Bernadotte became King of Sweden under the name of Karl Johan. Perhaps the only thing that marred his position on the throne was Swedish cuisine, which was considered absolutely worthless at that time, especially compared to French. Therefore, at each meal, a boiled egg was placed in front of Bernadotte in a stand, in case the food served turned out to be inedible for him. The descendants of Bernadotte are the kings of Sweden to this day, and the cuisine of Sweden has been enriched by several dishes that have made it not so much refined as French, but democratic and useful.

In the 19th century, it became fashionable in Russia to keep in the service of French cooks who prepared delicious pates, salads, dishes from exotic seafood. The chefs in the restaurants were also very often French. One of them, the founder and chef of the Hermitage restaurant Lucien Olivier, in the 60s of the 19th century invented the famous salad, which still bears his name.

The next turning point in the development of Russian cuisine occurred during the years of the revolution, the construction and development of the USSR. There is a so-called Soviet cuisine, but about this in another article.


/Artist I.Bilibin / feast at Prince Guidon. Illustration to poem/