Why You’ll Love The Taste of Traditional Russian Food

Traditional Russian food, a rare find in many parts of the US, has a long and interesting history. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

For me, eighth grade was the year of traditional Russian food. We were studying Russian history and literature in Mrs. Readler’s class for gifted students, and the final lesson to end the unit would be a culinary celebration of Russian culture.

As this point, as a thirteen-year-old, I already loved to cook and bake. I can’t remember if the suggestion was made by my teacher or if I had gleaned this particular desire myself from hours spent reading Tolstoy and Gogol, but I was determined to make Russian tea cookies. Black walnuts were the main ingredient, and I was pleased to find a package of these special nuts at the local grocery store. Their flavor was different from that of regular walnuts, somehow more spicy, deeper and earthier.

I didn’t realize at the time that it probably would have been a good idea to sort through the finely chopped nuts by hand, in search of tiny shell fragments, before dumping them into the batter. Nonetheless, the cookies were delicious despite the occasional unexpected crunch.

To be completely honest, I can’t remember what any of the other students made or otherwise procured for our feast. In fact, at first I couldn’t even remember the names or faces of many of the students who shared that classroom with me that day. After getting in touch with one of them (Hi Rob!) via Facebook, I found the opposite to be true– he rattled off a list of at least ten of our classmates, but couldn’t remember anything about the food other than saying “I think there was borscht.” I think this shows that my priorities have not changed with time.

Trying borscht and caviar for the first time

delicacy red and black caviar fish macro in white spoons on a plate

Regardless of whether or not my “peers” shared my passion for food, or brought food of their own to share that day, my teacher came through. As far as I can remember, sitting at one of two or three round tables with a small group of my classmates in a tiny windowless classroom, I had my first taste of caviar and my first sip of borscht.

Rather than homemade blini, I think the caviar was served on store-bought crackers with cream cheese. I remember the texture of the tiny orange roe, the way the perfect little orbs burst delicately in the mouth, with a touch of salinity. It was glorious.

The borscht was homemade, bright pink with a dollop of sour cream on top. It was smooth, made without meat or cabbage and served cold. I had grown up eating beets and was ready for the challenge presented by this somewhat unusual (to me, at least) soup. Other students weren’t quite so adventurous. More for me!

I wonder if any other students from that class remember this particular day quite as vividly as I do… I’m willing to bet they probably don’t. By the same token, as far as I know, none of them are restaurateurs or chefs or food writers today. (Again– more for me!)

Russian culinary tradition

Russia is a big place that encompasses many different culinary traditions, including Ukrainian, Armenian, Belarusian and Georgian foods. As is the case in all cuisines, the category of traditional food may include everyday fare as well as that reserved for special occasions. When these traditions are translated in the US and other countries, the celebratory foods are often favored over the everyday, those special items that are made with the most luxuriant (and often expensive) ingredients, sometimes altered to presumably appeal to the palates of the locals. After all, cold borscht isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. (More on tea later…)

According to Dmitry Paranyushkin, writer for the Way to Russia website, “To eat like a Russian is to become one.” He describes traditional Russian food as an intense cuisine, and highlights the frequency with which alcohol is generally consumed as part of a meal. This is a cuisine that’s entrenched in ritual, with a deep history.

Let’s talk borscht, and the universe

borscht soup

Though Paranyushkin explains that borscht (or Борщ) may be made in several different varieties, he provides only a single method for making the rich soup. Paranyushkin claims that “the best and the easiest way to cook it” involves frying onions, carrots and cabbage in a pan while boiling potatoes and beets in broth at the same time in a separate pot. He offers a “secret” for helping the beets to retain their deep red color (pre-frying with sugar, lemon juice or watered-down vinegar before boiling). The fried vegetables are then combined with the boiled vegetables in their broth. He cautions the reader to let the flavors meld before serving.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Paranyushkin’s recipes and descriptions of traditional Russian food is that he describes the nature of the food as something that is connected to the universe. Borscht “communicates through our gut flora into our brain and body something about the universe that’s both thick and powerful, solid and intense, beautiful and agile, nutritious and overwhelming.”

Though his recipes often do not include ingredient measurements or cooking times, Paranyushkin expresses something key to the nature of the food that he describes– its effect on the body, and the eloquence of the ingredients not on their own, but acting in concert in a carefully constructed dish. Food is a celebration, one with the power to both nourish and overwhelm us.

Though most of us today have access to beets and cabbage, carrots and onions, whether or not they are native vegetables, something almost magical happens when they are combined in a very specific way, allowing the vegetables to take on an entirely new quality, one that is decidedly Russian.

Time for a toast

Paranyushkin describes Russian vodka (водка), an important part of any traditional Russian meal, as “the magical drink of all times.” As he explains, Dmitri Mendeleev, the famous Russian chemist known for inventing the periodic table of elements, distilled “the perfect formula for vodka, which is still used today.” According to Paranyuskin, “Vodka is where the centuries of tradition meet scientific research, and that’s why it’s so special.”

Again, Paranyushkin has touched on a significant point– the act (or art) of cooking resides at the intersection between tradition and science. Without one or the other of these elements, we could not have a cuisine. Though “authentic” cuisines change with time and every basic recipe is repeatedly refined and changed according to the whims of the cook (based on familial traditions, availability of ingredients, and culinary training, for example), all recipes that we consider “authentically” of a particular cuisine today are based on certain patterns, traditions, chemical reactions and culinary techniques.

RusCuisine.com provides a more detailed history of vodka in Russia, explaining that over a thousand years ago, Prince Vladimir forbade his subjects from drinking wine but also claimed, “Russians’ merriment cannot be without drinking.”  In the past, wine tended to be prohibitively expensive and thus could only be afforded by the Russian nobility. Russian historian Willam Poklebkin argues that Russian monks produced vodka for the first time in 1503, with an alcohol content that was significantly lower than that which is enjoyed today. Peter the Great was said to “[check] the aptitude of all ambassadors before sending them abroad [by making] them drink a bucket of vodka.” If they could still hold their own in a conversation after downing their substantial drink, they were good to go.

RusCuisine.com again recounts the story of the modern-day vodka formulation created by Mendeleev. The Russian Standard brand of vodka backs this story, claiming, “In 1894, Dmitri Mendeleev, the greatest scientist in all Russia, received the decree to set the Imperial quality standard for Russian vodka and the “Russian Standard” was born.”

In the end, according to RusCuisine.com, excessive drinking was a product of poverty and misery more than a celebratory behavior. Their page on Russian drinking states, “So if you meet a Russian, don’t ask him about Russian drinking; we have plenty other things to talk about.” На здоровье! (pronounced na zda-ró-vye, or ‘to your health!’)

A vast sea of tasty tidbits and delectable dishes


Backing away from the bar for a moment, traditional Russian food encompasses much more than borscht and vodka, including everything from piroshki (пирожки , bread stuffed with vegetables, meat and/or cheese, but with a hard crust rather than a soft doughy covering like that of the similarly named pierogies), golubtsy (Голубцы , cabbage stuffed with ground meat and rice or buckwheat), black bread (черный хлеб , often topped with a sprinkling of caraway seeds), blini (блины , thin Russian crepes that are sometimes folded up or made in miniature and topped with caviar and sour cream), beef stroganoff (Бефстроганов , a beef and mushroom stew served over egg noodles, with origins in the 19th century)  and so much more!

Tea time

Still curious about those black walnut “tea cookies” that I made nearly two decades ago? I did some research and found that they are actually called teacakes. That is, depending on whom you ask. They’re also called snowballs, or wedding cookies, or shortbread, or maybe even pfeffernusse. Let me explain.

A simple combination of butter, confectioners sugar, flour and nuts is formed into balls and then baked. The particular recipe that I remember using included vanilla and black walnuts, and the cookies were then rolled in confectioners sugar before serving. Check out one recipe similar to the one that I used here.

As it is in England and other parts of the world, afternoon tea is a big deal in Russia, often consumed with great ceremony. In fact, it was first introduced when the Chinese ambassador to Moscow brought tea as a gift for the Tsar in the early 1600s, a time when the Russian leader was attempting to establish trade routes with China.

The trade route between Russia and China that developed was long and rough, nearly 11,000 miles of bleak, mountainous terrain. The trip took about sixteen months to complete, so tea became an expensive luxury product, available only to the tsars and nobles. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that tea prices went down and the drink gained popularity throughout the land.

Russian teacakes are often served at teatime, as well as various other delights, or they’re sometimes reserved for Christmas celebrations.

Historically, teacakes have been linked to Russia as well as Mexico. No one knows for sure, but they seem to be decidedly European in origin. In fact, though the Russian liking for tea was not a transplant from Great Britain, the cookies might be British after all. Some historians believe they are a type of “jumble” cookie, similar to that which was popular there during the Middle Ages. In Russia, it’s believed that they became popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, served alongside tea and eventually taking on their location-based moniker.

As for the Mexican connection? It’s thought that European nuns brought the recipe with them. This type of cookie is often served at Mexican weddings to this day.

Was I surprised to discover that my contribution to that Russian feast back in middle school was perhaps not “authentically” Russian at all? Not a bit. After all, this is the nature of culinary traditions– they travel and they change over and over again, but they are remembered by the people who love them. Whether your tea is served from a samovar or not, whether these cookies are truly “Russian” or not, they are delicious and meant to be enjoyed.

They’re also easy to make. I definitely recommend that you try them. If black walnuts and vanilla aren’t your thing, try almonds and anise instead, or incorporate your favorite ingredients and flavors. Roll the finished cookies around in melted chocolate or shaved coconut. You can even omit the nuts altogether! Change it up to make it your own, and create a new tradition.

Russia and the black walnut

Black walnuts in still life on log

I was happy to find that black walnuts do have some history in Russian tradition. Besides culinary applications, they’re known for their cleansing properties and may be used to aid the healing of wounds, applied via tinctures and compresses. They’re very American, too. I already knew this, since we used to have a big black walnut tree in the backyard when I was growing up. It dropped its heavy nuts in the fall, sometimes denting cars or whizzing by dangerously close to our heads. Though we never ate them, as a kid my brother used to experiment with whatever he could get his hands on, both mechanical and natural, to use in his projects. He would chop up and soak the black walnuts, using them to make homemade dye.

When members of the USDA visited Russia in 2013, Missouri Director of Agriculture Jon Hagler noted that Russian interest in black walnuts came up “over and over again,” and stated, “They had a high level of interest in not only our native pecan, but particularly our walnuts and our black walnuts, so there’s one opportunity I see right off the bat.” Mindy Ward’s article on the subject claims Russians were “drawn to the strong flavor of the black walnut.” Missouri is apparently the world’s largest producer of black walnuts.

A closer look at caviar

Because that first taste of caviar back in eighth grade had such a lasting impression on me (whether it was served on blini or not) I wanted to know more about its history as part of the traditional cuisine of Russia. Traditional Russian caviar is the fish roe (or eggs) harvested from sturgeon living in the fresh waters of the Black or Caspian Sea, and then salted (or cured).  These fish eggs are black, making it abundantly clear that my first taste of caviar was less than “authentic” with its pale orange color, most likely salmon roe.

Caviar has been considered a delicacy by Russians for some time, beloved by tsars and nobles. It contains zinc and various antioxidants, so it’s certainly nutritious. There are several varieties of sturgeon, but the beluga is the most prized, providing caviar known by some as “black gold.” Though these amazing fish are known for having lifespans of up to 120 years, sadly they have been overfished. As of 2005, sales of beluga caviar within the US are illegal. I guess I won’t be tasting it any time soon…

Even if I am lucky enough to go to Russia and sample some beluga caviar myself someday, I don’t think I’ll be able to afford more than a thimbleful– sevruga and oestra caviar (harvested from other varieties of sturgeon) are often sold for more than $12,000 per kilo. Luxury indeed!

As is often said at the end of a great meal in Russia, Nostrovia! I can’t wait to hear all about your favorite Russian recipes, and your own adventures in Russian cuisine. Tell me all about it in the comments!

About the author

Allison M. Sidhu

With a master’s degree in gastronomy, this girl’s got food on the brain! Allison’s a Philly native and recent transplant to LA. When she’s not exploring the local food scene, she loves snacking on homemade goodies in front of the TV with her husband.

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