Whenever I have a conversation about food, part of that conversation inadvertently involves culture, because food is the most defining aspect of the latter. Therefore, I am as passionate about learning new cultures as I am about food because it provides the most meaningful context for the dishes I savor and the flavors I experience, which are then committed to memory by association, building my flavor library in an organized and insightful way.
Every once in a while, I get asked the following question in one of these conversations – “What is Russian food…anyway?”
Russian food seems to be one of the great undefined mysteries in the United States to everyone except Russians…well, I’ll go as far to say that maybe even some Russians themselves sometimes find it difficult to explain exactly what their food is all about. First time I got asked that question, it took me a few moments to compose a plausible explanation as to why I wasn’t able to provide a comprehensive and distinguishable definition for the food of my culture.
Hence, I write this post on a mission to explain to my fellow foodies why I stumbled, at first, to explain the definition of my food, which led me to this thinking process, and ultimately the answer.
There is no such thing as Russian food.
Yes, I said that, feel free to disagree, but this is my ultimate conclusion. I will explain.
We have to start in the context of history, as all meaningful cultural food stories come directly from there. Let’s think about Russian history in the past 50 years or so and let’s focus on the beautiful (as considered by my parents) times of communism, when Russia wasn’t Russia, but the mighty USSR.
The territory spanned into Eastern Europe, all the Baltic capitals, and into a vast piece of Central Asia, equaling to 8,144,228 square miles (the land area of the continental United States is less than 3,000,000 square miles.) Now let’s discuss the cultures involved – Ukrainians, Slovaks, Poles, Estonians, Georgians, Armenians, Uzbeks, Kazhaks, and the list goes on an on – you get the point.
With this in mind, let’s discuss some of the most common dishes that are popularly mentioned as Russian and that I have grown up eating, and let’s really break them down and look at their origins to better understand this dilemma.
*Disclaimer – the photography in this post is not mine as I haven’t cooked anything Russian recently that I could have photographed for this. I know, shame on me.
First and foremost – Borscht
Borscht is a red-colored, hot soup, consisting of various cooked vegetables and a beef-based broth (traditionally). The beef provides flavor to the broth while the red color comes from beets incorporated into the soup. Other main ingredients include cabbage and potatoes. This soup has many variations and styles but is always normally serviced with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill on top. Simple, hearty, delicious and eaten everywhere in Eastern Europe and Russia. However, its humble origins come from Ukraine, or to be even more precise, from a time before any denominational country but rather the Slavic empire. Moving on to my favorites:
Pelmeni (Russian Dumplings)
Popularly claimed as THE staple Russian dumpling filled with any mixture of meat imaginable, the original recipe for pelmeni actually comes from Udmurtia a.k.a. the Udmurt Republic, which is an area that is now a part of Russia. Udmurt culture, however, consists of a mixture of Russian and Tatar influence and has its own official language and traditions.
What makes these paper thin pancakes distinctly Russian in this case is wheat flour. The French make their crepes with buckwheat flour while Russians tend to stick to wheat, since it’s so dominant in Russian cuisine in general. The only other distinctly-Russian aspect of blini is that they are first made in a pan, like pancakes, then stuffed with something, and browned in the pan again. Otherwise, they are not much different from those of the French. In the United States, blini with caviar have been popularized in upscale French-Russian fusion establishments and are thus best known to be an upscale food item.
These pan-fried ground meat wonders are present in almost every single world cuisine. Not very far at all from hamburgers, kotleti are served with mashed or fried potatoes and can be made with any type of meat, however, NO breadcrumbs. What keeps these babies together is the addition of pre-soaked stale bread and egg, but never are they coated with bread crumbs before being fried…unless you’re talking about Chicken Kiev, which is not even Russian…or Ukrainian…it’s French – you see the pattern developing here?
The infamous cold Russian salad made of boiled potatoes and carrots, peas, onions, pickles, egg, and – most commonly – bologna and heavily dressed with mayonnaise. There is a long-standing Russian tradition of serving this wonder for New Year’s celebratory dinner. This, unlike some of the other dishes, is NOT on my top 10 list and it was not invented by a Russian but by a Belgian chef by the last name of Olivier working in a Russian restaurant in Moscow back in the 1860’s. The original version had much more French-focused ingredients like wine vinegar and olive oil in the dressing. Olivier’s Russian sous chef stole the recipe and adapted it over the years to become a much more simple salad for the average crowd.
Perhaps one of my all-time favorite dishes, ever. I grew up eating these heavenly kebabs in Uzbekistan, where I lived for 4 years during my elementary school years. This dish did not reach Moscow until the late 19th century when it was brought over by the Cossacks. Although skewered meat can be found in almost any part of the world, the recipe for the “Russian” version of kebabs is originally from the Caucuses (countries like Georgia and Armenia) and usually entails lamb, beef, or pork, marinated with salt, pepper, and cumin, sometimes in white wine, and served with quick-marinated sliced onions. A Russian picnic favorite!
As you can see my friends, Russian food has really benefited from its multicultural diversity accomplished by the Soviet Union…if only communism was sustainable in 2016.
I am the biggest proponent of food globalization and am a very lucky individual to be living near New York City, giving me the ability to enjoy ANY world cuisine within an hour’s notice.
Russians really need to embrace the historically cultural aspects of their infamous dishes and praise the fact they are so incredibly diverse.
I forgot to include holodec…do you want to know what that is? Let me know in the comments.