Rich in both history and carbs, Russian cuisine keeps you warm during cold winter months and helps you stay refreshed on a hot summer day. Strange to foreign eyes, food in Russia is usually made with simple ingredients, but is surprisingly comforting. We’ve made a list of traditional foods to show that Russian cuisine is much more than vodka and boiled cabbage.
Probably the most famous traditional Russian/Ukrainian dish internationally, borscht is a red beetroot soup, that generally includes some meat, potatoes, carrots, and tomato, although there are so many local variations – trying them all could take you years. Usually served with some dill and sour cream, borscht can be eaten either hot or cold, which makes it a go-to dish for both cold Russian winters and hot summers.
Known as Russian salad around the world, Olivier is a variation of potato salad invented in the 1860s by Lucien Olivier. A Belgian chef at Moscow‘s most popular restaurant at the time, the Hermitage. The original recipe was lost, but it is known that the salad was made with caviar, grouse, smoked duck, veal tongue and had its own secret sauce. Today the mayo-infused Olivier contains much simpler ingredients: boiled potatoes, carrots, eggs, peas, pickles, and boiled chicken or beef. This salad is ultimate comfort food for Russians and an absolute must on holidays like New Year’s Eve.
Another Russian dish to receive global recognition, Beef Stroganoff is made with finely sliced beef fillet, onions and mushrooms, all sautéed in white wine and sour cream. Supposedly named after count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganoff, the legendary dish has several origin stories, which all agree that it dates back to the 19th century. Beef Stroganoff has lots of variations around the world, so you can try to find the one you like best.
Another soup on the list to warm you during the six to eight months of cold that you generally get in Russia. This hearty sweet and sour soup is usually made with a mix of fresh and cured beef, pork and sometimes chicken, which gives Solyanka its peculiar taste. Other ingredients include pickled cucumbers, capers, olives, tomatoes, onions, parsley and dill. Solyanka is also believed to be the perfect hangover cure.
Blini or Russian pancakes are similar to French crêpes, only blini are made with yeasted dough, which makes them lighter. While blini often come with a variety of sweet and savory fillings like ground meat, egg salad or sweet cottage cheese, the most well-known companions to them are caviar, sour cream and honey. Blini are so popular, there’s even a pancake week or Maslenitsa held every year, when Russians celebrate their love for pancakes.
Perfect on a hot summer day, Okroshka is a cold soup, traditionally cooked with kvass – a refreshing drink made from fermented bread. The soup usually contains boiled meat or bologna, radish, cucumbers, scallions, boiled potatoes and eggs and is served with dill and sour cream. However sometimes kvass can be replaced by either kefir or mineral water, and meatless okroshka is equally popular.
Russian kotleti are fried meat patties, which come out particularly juicy thanks to minced onion and bread crumbs that are added to the meat. Kotleti are usually made of beef or chicken, however most of Russian-style restaurants will offer you pike patties as well (and those are usually fantastic). Fried and crispy, kotleti are served with a side of mashed potatoes, pasta or buckwheat kasha.
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No one really knows when Russians first started cooking pelmeni, but the dish eventually got right into the heart of the national cuisine. The time consuming dish is usually cooked for special occasions, but if you’re not ready to spend several hours forming tiny dumplings, you can always buy a pack of frozen pelmeni at any grocery store (of course they are never as good as the home-made). Pelmeni are usually stuffed with either lamb, pork or beef or all the three combined, and it’s the thinness of the dough that makes them so special. Pelmeni can be served with or without broth, but always with sour cream.
Kholodets aka studen may not look particularly appealing, but it’s a surprisingly delicious traditional Russian dish, that dates back to the times when people had to get creative to preserve meat. One of the most time-consuming dishes in Russian cuisine, kholodets takes more than seven hours to cook and just as much to chill. Fresh meat (pork or cow’s feet are obligatory to get the necessary jellied texture) is cooked for seven hours, then gets cut into pieces and the broth that it has been boiling in, is poured over it. Then it’s left to chill in the fridge (usually for a night) and if you’ve done everything right by the morning the broth will gel. Kholodets is one of Russia’s signature starters and is usually served with horseradish sauce or hot mustard.
Although the tradition of soaking herring in water with salt, sugar and spices is also common in Denmark, Holland, Sweden and Germany, salted herring is Russia’s number one starter. Usually served with rye-bread and sliced onion, it makes a great companion to vodka. You can also try it in a layered salad called “dressed herring” or “herring under a fur coat”, which also contains diced boiled potatoes, beets, carrots, eggs, fresh onions and mayonnaise, of course.
Not so long ago pickles used to be such a big part of Russians’ diet that they would spend summers at their dachas growing vegetables to preserve. They did it not just because pickles are so great with vodka (even though they are) but rather to include vegetables in their winter menu, when fresh produce is scarce. Also pickled cucumbers, tomatoes and cabbage are a healthy source of probiotics, which makes them a wonderful find for people who are lactose intolerant.
Russian pirozhki are pan-fried or oven-baked mini pies, stuffed with any fillings imaginable: from meat, fish and egg to potato, cabbage and mushrooms, to sweet cottage cheese and jam. You can buy them from a street vendor or at any bakery in Russia, however none of those can beat pirozhki that Russian grandmas make.
Vareniki look very similar to pelmeni, but unlike their meat-stuffed cousins, are usually filled with potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, sweet cottage cheese and even cherries. No matter what filling you choose, they all taste great with some sour cream or melted butter.
Although the dish is extremely popular in Russia, similar meat-stuffed cabbage rolls can be found in many cultures: from Iran to Poland. In Russia the dish is made with cabbage leaves and meat-and-rice filling and is traditionally served with a dollop of sour cream. If you don’t care for cabbage, in Uzbek restaurants across the country you can try can try dolma –meat-stuffed grape leaves.
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One of Russia’s most popular desserts, this super sweet honey cake is on the menu of most restaurants and cafés across the country. Invented in the Imperial Palace’s kitchen in the 19th century, Medovik was presumably the favourite cake of Empress Elizabeth, the wife of Emperor Alexander I. Traditionally layered with thick sour cream, today the cake has more variations than you can probably imagine: with condensed milk, custard and dried fruit, or buttercream and walnuts – no matter which one you decide to try, you’ll understand why the Empress loved this dessert so much.