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Russian Cooking (history and traditions)
The traditions of Russian cooking
Russian cooking is both tasty and filling. In addition to the expected borsch and beef Stroganov, it includes many delectable regional dishes from the other Commonwealth states, such as Uzbekistan, Georgia or the Ukraine.
The traditions of Russian cooking date back to the simple recipes of the peasantry, who filled their hungry stomachs with the abundant supply of potatoes, cabbages, cucumbers, onions and bread. For the cold northern winters, they would pickle the few available vegetables and preserve fruits to make jam. This rather bland diet was pepped up with sour cream, parsley, dill and other dried herbs.
In an Old Russian saying, peasants described their diet as Shchi da kasha, Pishcha nasha (cabbage soup and porridge are our food). The writer Nikolai Cogol gave this description of the Russian peasant’s kitchen: “In the room was the old familiar friend found in every kitchen, namely a samovar and a three – cornered cupboard with cups and teapots, painted eggs hanging on red and blue ribbons in front of icons, with flat cakes, horseradish and sour cream on the table along with bunches of dried fragrant herbs and a jug of kvas (a dark beer made from fermented black bread).
Russians remain proud of these basic foods, which are still their staples today. The will boast that there is no better khleb (bread) in the world than a freshly baked loaf of Russian black bread.
In 1996, the Russian samovar celebrated its 250th birthday. Stemming from sam (self) and varit (to boil), the samovar came to represent the warmth of the Russian soul and was even given a place of honor in the household. Samovars were made mainly from copper, silver, platinum and porcelain, and decorated in the style of the times. One made from gold (fashioned as a rooster) won a grand – design prize at the Vienna’s World Fair in 1873. Samovars were to boil up water for the favorite national pastime — drinking a cup of chai or hot tea. It was popular to sip tea through a cube of sugar held between the teeth (known as vpriskusku) rather than mixing the sugar directly into the tea (vnakladku). As Alexander Pushkin wrote, Ecstasy is a glass full of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth. It was customary, in the 1700s, to pour the hot tea directly into the saucer, from which cooler mouthfuls could be taken. By the 1800s, Russians enjoyed sipping their steaming tea from a tall glass placed in a podstakan’nik (metal holder).
The introduction of tea to Russia is said to have been in 1638, when Czar Mikhail Romanov was gifted a foreign herb from the Mongolian Altun Khan. He tried to chew the bitter herb and the Khan’s emissary finally had to instruct the court how to brew the tea in hot water. The tea drinking habit caught on and by the turn of the 20th century, Russia’s tea consumption ranked second in the world. A 2001 survey discovered that half of the Russian population enjoys at least five cups of tea a day (preferring chyorni or black tea) and 82 per cent still prefer loose tea to tea bags. Many artists painted scenes of samovars and tea drinking, such as Boris Kustodiev’s Kupchikha (Merchants Wife) Drinking Tea (1916) and Moscow Traktir (1916), and Kuzma Petrov – Vodkin’s By the Samovar (1926).
The potato has long been a staple food of most Russian families. Legend has it that Peter the Great brought back the potato (kartosh’ka) from Holland and ordered it planted throughout Russia; it was called ‘ground apple’. During these times, so many changes were being implemented upon the peasantry that many, particularly Old Believers, refused to eat what they considered the devil’s apple. But, by 1840, after the government decreed that peasants had to plant the potato on all common lands, this ‘second bread’ soon became the staple food for most of the poorer population. During the lean times of revolution and war, potatoes fed entire armies. Since soldiers did not have time to cut and clean them, they would first boil the potato whole and then eat them with the skin. To this day, unpeeled cooked potatoes (with grated cheese, mayonnaise, or minged garlic added) are known as ‘Potatoes in Uniform’. Raisa Gorbachev once presented Nency Reagan with a cookbook containing hundreds of potato recipes.
Peter the Great also introduced French cooking to his empire in the 18th century. While the peasantry had access only to the land’s crops, the nobility hired its own French chefs, who introduced eating as an art form, often preparing up to ten elaborate courses of delicacies. Eventually, Russian writers ridiculed the monotonous and gluttonous life of the aristocrats, many of whom planned their days around meals. In his novel Oblomov Ivan Goncharov coined the term ‘Oblomovism’ to characterize the sluggish and decadent life of the Russian gentry. In Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol described a typical meal enjoyed by his main character in the home of an aristocrat:
On the table there appeared a white sturgeon, ordinary sturgeon, salmon, pressed caviar, fresh caviar, herrings, smoked tongues and dried sturgeon. Then there was baked 300 – pound sturgeon, a pie stuffed with mushrooms, fried pastries, dumplings cooked in melted butter, and fruit stewed in honey… After drinking glasses of vodka of a dark olive color, the guests had desert… After the champagne, they uncorked some bottles of cognac, which put still more spirit into them and made the whole party merrier than ever!
Dining and Drinking
The first point to remember when dining out is that most Russians still consider eating out an expensive luxury and enjoy turning dinner into a leisurely, evening-long experience. Many restaurants provide entertainment; so do not expect a fast meal. (Russians can spend a few hours savoring appetizers — if your waiter is not prompt with bringing your entree, this may only be for a cultural reason.) It is also customary for the waiter to take your entire order, from soup to dessert, at the beginning. Different parties are often seated together at the same table, an excellent way to meet locals and other visitors.
Most restaurants (in Cyrilliñ Ðåñòîðàí pronounced ‘restoran’) are open daily from I I am to I I pm, and close for a few hours in the mid – afternoon. Nightclub s and casinos can stay open all night and also be expensive. For fast foods other than pizza, burgers or hot dogs, be on the look out for specialty cafes, such as shashliki (shish kebabs), blinnaja (pancakes), pelmennaja (dumplings), pirozhkovaja (meat and vegetable pastries) and morozhnoye (ice cream and sweets). Try to drink only bottled water and beware of iced drinks, homemade fruit juices and kompot, fruit in sugared water, which are often made withy the local water.
If invited to a Russian home, expect a large welcome. Russians love hospitality, which means preparing a large spread. If you can, take along a bottle of champagne or vodka. Remember, a Russian toast is followed by another toast and so on. This usually entails knocking back your entire shot of vodka each time! Since toasts can continue throughout the evening ( and if you want to be able to stand up in the morning), you may want to consider diluting the vodka with juice or water, or just giving up—to the chagrin of your host. Some popular toasts are: Za Mir I Druzhbu (To Peace and Friendship), Do Dnya (Bottoms Up) and, the most popular, Na Zdoroviye (To Your Health).