EATING & DRINKING IN RUSSIA
So you thought you’d be on a diet of cabbage, potatoes and sloppy stews during your travels? Think again: Russian food is not nearly as bad as you may fear. The local cuisine is undoubtedly on the heavy side, favoring fatloaded but delicious bliny (pancakes with savoury or sweet fillings), creams and hearty meat dishes. This is fine in winter, though less palatable in summer, when Russia’s colorful and tasty range of salads and zakuski (appetizers) come into their own; the wonderful, unique soups are a delight any time.
In the major cities you’ll find a decent range of restaurants, with Moscow and St Petersburg particularly well served; there, you can feast on anything ranging from sushi (a favorite repast of the ritziest Russians) to Brazilian barbecue. The most common foreign cuisine is that of the Caucasus, particularly Georgia -their spicy meat and vegetable dishes can be excellent.
This said, only a small percentage of the population eat more than one meal at a restaurant each year, so outside of the main cities the choice of places to dine is limited. Dress is informal in all but the top-end restaurants.
All large cities now have Western-style supermarkets and food stores, with a large range of Russian and imported goods. The old food stores (with their infuriating system of queuing three times for each purchase: once to find out the price, once to pay, once to collect) are fast converting to one-stop service (if not to full supermarket-style shopping). Many places are now open 24 hours.
As well as the supermarkets, there are smaller food stores specialising in particular products, such as bliny or pelmeni, Russianstyle ravioli dumplings. And then there are the ubiquitous food-and-drink kiosks, generally located around parks and markets, on streets and near train and bus stations – their products are usually poor, but the kiosks are handy and reasonably cheap.
Every sizable town has a colorful market, where locals sell spare potatoes and carrots from their dacha plots (check the market fringes), while bigger traders offload trucks full of fruit, vegetables, meat, dried and dairy goods – you name it – often from the Transcaucasus or Central Asia. Take your own shopping bag and go early in the morning for the liveliest scene and best selection; a certain amount of bargaining is acceptable, and it’s a good idea to check prices with a trustworthy local first.
Places to Eat
With so many restaurants and cafes around the major cities and towns, it’s not necessary to endure poor hotel food and service. The Western-run luxury hotels will usually have a decent restaurant or two, and sometimes offer good-value lunch deals or buffets.
If you fancy a snack in an old-style hotel it, bufet is often a better bet and far cheaper than its restaurant. Bufery are also found in station, and serve a range of simple snacks: open sandwiches, boiled eggs, salads, pastries, drinks.
The stolovaya, the Russian version of the canteen, is the common person’s eatery: sometimes decent, often dreary, always cheap. For little more than a couple of dollars you can take your pick from a range of small dishes and drinks (some of them less than mouthwatering). Slide your tray along the counter and point to the food, and the stall will ladle it out. Stolovava will often be found in market or station areas, with poetic names such as ‘Stolovaya No 32’.
Western fast-food chains have hit Moscow St Petersburg and other cities and are incredibly popular. McDonald’s is expanding rapidly and Russian imitators are getting in on the act, with street kiosks, vans and cafes with tables. Pizza and kebabs (often the Caucasian shashlyk form) are common fare.
Ordering & Paying
It’s always worth asking if a restaurant has an English-language menu (Anglesky menu, an glay-ski mozh-na). If the menu is in Russian only, you may in some places get translation help from the waiter. Otherwise you’re on your own, especially at some of the new places away from the major cities, where they never see non-Russians.
If the menu leaves you flummoxed, look around at what the other diners are eating and point out what takes your fancy to the staff. If a waiter – or the food – takes an eternity to appear, ponder on a Russian word given to dining’s universal vocabulary, After the victory over Napoleon, impatient Russian soldiers in Paris cafes would bang their tables and shout Bistro, bystro!, meaning ‘Quickly, quickly!’
Breakfast (zavtrak, zahf-truk) in a hotel can range from a large help-yourself buffet spread to simple bread, butter, jam, tea and boiled egg. Try bliny, kasha (various types of porridge, sometimes made from buckwheat or other grains) and syrniki (cottage cheese fritters), which are delicious with jam, sugar and the universal Russian condiment, sour cream (smetana, smi-tah-nuh).
Russians often like a fairly heavy earlyafternoon meal (obed, ah-byet) and a lighter evening meal (uzhin, oo-zhin). Night-out suppers can go on and on.
Meals (and menus) are divided into courses. First come zakuski, appetisers often grouped into cold and hot dishes. The fancier rakuski rival main courses for price and include caviar, the most expensive of which is black, or sturgeon (ikra chvornava, also called zernistava). Cheaper and saltier is red (salmon) caviar (ikra krasnaya, also called ktfovaya), traditionally served with buttered toast or bliny and washed down with a slug ol’vodka. There’s also ersatz caviar made entirely from eggplant or other vegetables.
Salads are included with zakuski. Old IMVOUrites include olivie, a chopped-meat and vegetable salad smothered in sour cream, and rrlvodka pod shvuboi, from the Soviet era of cooking – known as ‘herrings in fur coats’, this is a fish salad with all but the kitchen sink thrown in (both dishes are making a retro comeback across the country). Discovering what’s actually under all the creamy mayonnaise of these and other exotic concoctions is often part of the fun, unless you happen to be vegetarian: salads often include shredded meat, fish or seafood.
After zakuski come the soups, sometimes listed under pervyve blvuda (first courses). They are the pinnacle of Slavic cooking, with dozens of varieties often served with a dollop of sour cream. Most Russian soups are made from meat stock and ones to try include horshch (beetroot), lapsha (chicken noodle), okroshka (a cold vegetable soup made with kvas, a beer-like drink) and solvanka (a hearty meat or fish soup with vegetables).
Vtory_ve blyuda (second courses, or ‘mains’) are also known as goryachiye blyuda (hot courses). They can be divided into firmenniye (house specials, often listed at the front of the menu), mvasniye (meat), ribniye (fish), ptitsa (poultry) and ovoshchnive (vegetable). If it’s not already on the table, you might want to ask for khleb (bread), which comes in a wide variety of styles – a favourite is ‘black’ bread made with vitaminrich sour rye dough.
Perhaps most Russians are exhausted or drunk by desertv (dessert, also known as sladkiye blvuda), since this is generally the least imaginative course. Most likely there will be ice cream (morozhenoe, ma-roh-zhi-nah-yuh), which Russians love with a passion (it’s not unusual to see people gobbling dishfuls at outdoor tables, even in freezing weather). Weirdly colored cakes are also popular.
Russia is rough on vegetarians and nonmeateaters, though some restaurants have caught on, particularly in Moscow, St Petersburg and other large cities. Main dishes are heavy on meat and poultry, vegetables are often boiled to death, and even the good vegetable and fish soups are usually made from meat stock. If you’re vegetarian say so, early and often. You’ll see a lot of cucumber and tomato salads, and – if so inclined – will develop an eagle eye for the rare good fish and dairy dishes. Zakuski include quite a lot of meatless ingredients such as eggs, salted fish and mushrooms. During Lent, many restaurants have special nonmeat menus. A useful local website for vegetarians is www.vegrussia.org.
By the way, potatoes (kartoshka, kartofel) aren’t filed under ‘vegetable’ in the Russian mentality, so you must order them separately.
‘Drinking is the joy of the Rus. We cannot live without it’ – with these words Vladimir of
Kyiv, the father of the Russian state, is said to have rejected abstinent Islam on his people’s behalf in the l Oth century. And who wouldn’t want to bend their minds now and then during those long, cold, dark winters? Russians sometimes drink vodka in moderation, but more often it’s tipped down in swift shots, with a beer, and with the aim of getting legless.
The average Russian drinks more than l2L of pure alcohol a year, equivalent to over a bottle of vodka a week; men drink much more than women.
The nearest thing to a pub is a traktir (tavern), becoming more common as the Russian taste for beer exceeds the love of vodka. A lot of public drinking (other than on park benches) goes on in restaurants and cafes – since many of these are in hotels, the average tourist is likely to encounter quite a lot of it.
Foreign brands are common, but be very suspicious of cheap spirits – there’s a lot of bad stuff around that can make you very ill. Only buy screw-top bottles and always check the seal is not broken.
The classic Russian alcoholic drink is distilled from wheat, rye or occasionally potatoes. The word comes from voda (water), and means something like ‘a wee drop’. Its flavour comes from what’s added after distillation, so as well as ‘plain’ vodka you’ll find Pertsovka (pepper vodka), Starka (apple and pear leaves), Limonnaya (lemon), and Okhotnichya (Hunter’s, with about a dozen ingredients, including peppers, juniper berries, ginger and cloves).
Two common ‘plain’ vodkas are Stolichnaya (perhaps the most famous Russia vodka), which is in fact slightly sweetened with sugar, and Moskovskaya, with a touch of sodium bicarbonate. Don’t get excited when you see how cheap Stoli is here- the stuff made for export is way better than the domestic version. Better brands include Flagman, Gzhelka and Russky Standart (Russian Standard).
Supermarket and liquor store prices range from around R50 to R150 for half a litre of regular brands, more for flavoured, and Western prices for imports.
These days beer is much more popular than sodka among Russians, not least because it’s cheap (around R10 a bottle) and very palatable. There are now scores of breweries across the country pumping out dozens of tasty local brands, as well as Western brands including Stella Artois, Efes and Holsten.
The local market leader is Baltika, a Scandinavian joint venture (with Russian management) based in St Petersburg. You’re bound to find something to like among its I’ different kinds of beer: No 3, a light beer, i, the most popular; No 10 has natural almond and basil aromas; No 7 is fine, but only found in bars; Medovoye is supposedly made with a taste of honey; No 0 is alcohol-free; and No 9 is a lethal 16.5% proof.
Other brands to look out for include Stepan Razin, Nevskoye and Bochkaryov (all produced in St Petersburg ), Staryy Melnik o product of the Turkish-owned Efes breweryl_ Klinskoye and Sibirskaya Korona.
Wines & Brandy
Shampanskove, sparkling wine, is popular and comes as bryut (very dry), sukhoe (dry), polusukhoe (semidry) polusladkoe (semisweet) and sladkoe (sweet) Anything above dry is sweet enough to turn your mouth inside out A 750g bottle is about R240 in a restaurant and R120 in a supermarket, kiosk or liquor store.
Most other wine comes from outside the CIS, with Eastern European brands the cheapest, although you can find Georgian, Moldovan and Crimean wine, some passable.
Brandy is popular and it’s all called konyak, though local varieties certainly aren’t Cognac. The best non-Western konyak in Russia is Armenian, and anything classified five-star is usually fine.
Water & Mineral Water Tap water is suspect in some cities and should definitely be avoided in St Petersburg. Many people stick to ubiquitous, cheap mineral or bottled water – a couple of tasty local brands are Borzhomi from Georgia, and Narzan, both carbonated.
Tea & Coffee
The traditional Russian teamaking method is to brew an extremely strong pot, pour small shots of it into glasses, and fill the glasses with hot water from the samovar, an urn with an inner tube filled with hot charcoal; the pot is kept warm on top of the samovar. Modem samovars have electric elements, like a kettle, instead of the charcoal tube. Putting jam instead of sugar in tea is quite common.
Coffee comes in small cups; unless you buy it at kiosks and stand-up eateries, it’s usually good. There’s been an explosion of Starbucks-style cafes across Moscow and St Petersburg (but not yet Starbucks itself) – cappuccino, espresso and mocha are now as much part of the average Russian lexicon as elsewhere. (In other cities, you might want to check that the cappuccino you order isn’t the instant powdered kind.)