Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Russian Food



Smetana (sour cream) is an indispensable staple. Too many dishes would be unthinkable and uneatable without a topping of smetana. Whole cow’s milk, mare’s milk, and fresh cream are widely used in many dishes and as beverages hut usually well cooked. Sour milk in many forms, pot cheese and cottage cheese, baked milk or kaimek and many varieties of excellent local cheeses are used abundantly.


The most available fruits are those that can survive the generally extreme climate or are imported: apples, pears, cherries, plums, cranberries, and lingonberries. Other berries such as raspberries, strawberries, currants, gooseberries, blackberries, and huckleberries are savored when they can be obtained. Some fruits are enjoyed fresh, others are preserved or prepared as stews, compotes, or the pureed fruit dessert served everywhere called kissel. Fruits are also used well sweetened as fillings for dumplings, as fruit sauces or served as a “spoon sweet” to be taken with tea.

Most-used vegetables in Russia include cabbage, potatoes, beets, onions, black-skinned radish (rediska), carrots, turnips, and squash. Enjoyed but used less frequently are green beans, green peas, cauliflower, eggplant, spinach, sorrel, and pumpkin. The greens are used in soups and the less-used vegetables are considered a special garnish to other dishes. Cucumbers are avidly enjoyed fresh with salt to form a type of fresh salad-pickle, or brined to form pickles that will be used all winter. Homemade barrels of sauerkraut (sometimes with fermented apples) are used year-round in many ways too. Mostly the vegetables are used well cooked in soups, used as fillings or served pickled. When served cold as salads, they have been cooked first then chilled and chopped or sliced and served with sour cream or mayonnaise. Russian salads are never green leafy mixtures and seldom include raw vegetables.

Citrus fruits are not in abundant supply, but very thin slices of lemon are a special treat in hot tea.


Beef, veal, pork, and mutton are first on the list of meats. Most chickens are tough unless they are capons; geese, ducks and turkeys as well as game birds, deer, and hare are used when possible.

Fish is eaten fresh, salted, or smoked. Salmon, herring, crayfish, and caviar from sturgeon are considered special delicacies.

Soft-cooked or scrambled eggs are beaten occasionally for breakfast, but most eggs are consumed as garnishes, appetizers (pickled, stuffed, chopped), in meat mixtures, and as fillings for blini, doughs, dumplings, and other baked goods. Legumes are not widely used except in some regions and occasionally in soups. Except in the republics, especially Georgia, nuts are only used in baking or as an occasional confection.


Dark and heavy wholegrain rye breads, coarse firm wheat breads, and the ubiquitous casserole of kasha (usually buckwheat) are the most firmly entrenched Russian staples. But there are countless shapes and types of breads and rolls – kulitch, krendel, and bagel – to make even a diet solely of breads an interesting one.

To this list of breads may be added the hearty list of large and small pancakes, kulebiaka, noodle dough and yeast dough dumplings that may be baked, boiled, or fried and filled with anything from chopped cabbage to meats, mushrooms, or fruits, and one can see the importance and variety of grains. Further, every kitchen and countless bakeries produce sweet cakes, tortes, rolls, pastries, and fruited yeast doughs (kulitch) that daily find a place on the Russian menu, if only as an accompaniment to tea.

Bread and salt are the traditional symbols of welcome.


To a Russian, no dish ever contains quite enough butter. Butter is used during cooking, after cooking and more is added during eating. Sunflower oil or peanut oil are used for some dishes.


Ice cream, available from street vendors or in ice cream parlors, is a frequent snack. Snacks of toasted sunflower, pumpkin and squash seeds as well as many candied fruits are munched frequently. Chocolates or candies are special occasion treats and not used as often as sweets in other forms. Rich baked desserts are enjoyed whenever possible and for any excuse (one never drinks without eating). But it is more common to sip one’s tea with a sugar cube held between the teeth for maximum sweetness or to enjoy a small saucer of sweet rich fruit preserves, a spoonful at a time, with hot tea.


The main seasonings include dill, onion, sour cream, sour crystals (citric or acetic acid crystals), the fermented juices from sauerkraut or pickles, sugar and salt, butter, parsley and many types of dried or fresh mushrooms. Foods are generally not highly seasoned; the predominant flavors are either buttery and creamy or a blend of sweet and sour. There is a frequent use of equal measures of both sugar and salt to heighten flavor.


Tea and vodka rank as the great Russian beverages. Tea is always served very weak. Kvass, a fermented drink made from black bread, sugar and yeast, is said to be the drink of the Russian peasants. Kumiss (or Koumiss) is an ancient Tatar drink said to have legendary nutritive and restorative powers. It is made from mare’s milk that has been fermented in wooden tubs or horse skins. It is drunk mainly in the Central Asian Kirghiz region. Other fermented beverages include pear and raspberry liqueurs, cider, beer, and Med (similar to mead). Soured or clabbered milk and whole milk are also enjoyed as beverages.

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