FOOD, DIET AND EATING HABITS IN RUSSIA

FOOD IN RUSSIA

Russia is not particularly well-known for great food. Its cuisine has similarities with the cuisines of Scandinavia and Poland. Staples include beets, borscht, salads, cutlets. cabbage, potatoes, buckwheat, mushrooms, beef, lamb, game, sturgeon, grease and vodka. Some of the best dishes are stews and soups such as borscht or spicy fish stew. Good, fresh meat is sometimes hard to get.

In the mid 1990s, Russian families typically spent half of their income or more on food, compared to 13 percent in the U.S.). In the mid 1980s, 51 percent of all sales was in food stuffs, including 5 percent for meat and fowl, 3 percent for bologna, 3 percent for dairy products, 2.4 percent for fats, 2 percent for eggs, 2.6 percent for heavily subsidized bread, 3.5 percent for vegetables and fruits.

The kind of food available is often based on what is in season. Fish is popular in the summer, wild mushrooms in the fall and berries during the summer. Russia has wonderful berries including red currants, black currants, blue berries, lingon berries and the elusive cloudberry which only grow around the Arctic circle.

Negative aspects of Russian food includ the fact that meat is often boiled so it is has the texture and taste of leather. Fish is often too dry. Sometimes vegetables and fruit are in short supply. The food served Soviet-era have hotels and restaurants had a deserved bad reputation, but since the break up of the Soviet Union the food situation has improved a lot as new restaurants have opened up and their owners realized that serving good food is good business.

Food in the Communist Era

The Soviet-ear diet was overloaded with starches and grains and meat and milk products partly because of problems with Communist-style agriculture and infrastructure that made it difficult to get fresh fruits and vegetables to the shops and markets before they went bad.

People that had regular access to fresh vegetables often grew them themselves or got them from a friend or relative with a garden. The longest queues were people lining up to buy oranges and Cuban bananas. People would but huge bunches f green bananas and place them under their bed because they didn’t know when the would get the chance to get bananas again. Sometimes fresh eggs were equally coveted. Pineapples are also considered a prized luxury item.‡

In Soviet times, possessing the right to buy meat without a ration card was a mark of high status. The government distributed food. The milk processing system was so inefficient that by the time milk was delivered it was already sour.

Meat and Fish in Russia

Meat has traditionally been preserved through smoking and jerking. Russians traditionally eaten lots of sausages. You can find entire stores devoted to sausages. For many Russians the cheapest source of meat is frozen chicken legs from the United States. Sales reached $800 million a year before collapse of the ruble in 1998 and then was practically reduced to zero. About 70 percent of Moscow's meat and dairy products came form abroad before August 1998 ruble freefall. That too was greatly reduced.

Russians eat a lot of fish. Stroganina is kind of fish that is very popular in Yakutsk, Siberia. Preparing it is easy during the winter. After the fish is caught it usually freezes instantly. To eat it all you have to do is shatter it against a rock and eat the shards with salt. Today its usually shaved wafer thin and eaten with salt and mustard.⌛

Horsemeat is considered a delicacy in Siberia. On a visit to Moscow, Clinton ate a 22-course dinner that included moose lips. In Kamchatka people eat spiders. Beef Strogonov was invented in St. Petersburg by the cook of Count Strogonov, one of the richest men in the czarist era. In the Soviet era the meat often had a bluish or greenish tint

The worlds top consumers of red meats are (1988): 1) the U.S. (roughly equal amounts of beef and pork); 2) China (90 percent pork); 3) the USSR; 4) W. Germany; 5) France. The worlds top consumers of beef and veal are (1988): 1) the U.S., 2) the USSR; 3) Argentina, 4) Brazil, 5) France, 6) Italy, 7) W. Germany, 8) Mexico, 9) the UK and 10) Canada.

Russia’s High Fat Diet

The traditional Russian diet is heavy on meat and dairy products. An American doctor Tom Bell, who traveled extensively in Russia, wrote in the Washington Post, "There are four major food groups in the Russian diets: cabbage, bread, potatoes and grease."

Many dishes feature red meat and animal fat. Dairy products such as sour cream, butter, prostokvasha (soured milk), cottage cheese, yogurt have been essential ingredients in Russian cooking for a long time. Russians love things like dumplings covered in butter, beef slathered with sour cream, and vegetables smothered in oil. Slabs of pork fat are offered as main entrees at restaurants and served as a meat dish at homes. Salted lard is regarded as a delicacy. It is not surprising that a third of all Russians have high cholesterol levels.

Describing a meal he had in the Far East, Dr. Bell wrote, "After the tea and potatoes, he placed a jar of salted cabbage on the table. He poured sunflower seed oil over the cabbage. Then he poured oil on a spoon and began shoveling it into his mouth. 'Eat some oil,' he said. "It has vitamins.'" Another time, Bell wrote, "I put the spaghetti on a plate. As I began to eat, she picked up the frying pan and poured the chicken fat over my spaghetti. Then she and her husband sat down to eat their own meal pickled cucumber and cold, salted pig fat."

Vologda Butter is regarded as Russia's best. It is 82.5 percent pure milk fat and often sold in small imitation wood barrels rather than foil-wrapped blocks.

Russian Food Gardens

Tens of millions of Russians produce their own food. In the 1990s, there were something like 41 million small gardens or orchard plots owned privately by individuals. Back then the average worker had a home set on an acre of land which had a garden and perhaps of handful of sheep, goats, pigs, geese or chickens. Fish were caught and dried on laundry lines and tractors were sometimes borrowed or bought secondhand from the collectives [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Russians typically grow potatoes, radishes and cucumbers and pickle or store them. They try to grow enough potatoes and cabbage to last the winter. They often keep enough potatoes, flour, jams and canned food to last for six months. An average family harvests fifteen 100-pound packs of potatoes a year. Cucumbers and carrots are pickled so they can be eaten months later.

Some Russians have garden plots that are 30 kilometers or more from their homes. They plant things like potatoes and turnips which require little maintenance. If they harvest enough they sell them.

In the Far East, a typical dinner of potatoes, pickles, milk tea chicken and caviar is made from potatoes and cucumbers grown in the family garden, a chicken kept in the backyard coop and caviar taken from salmon caught in a local river. Milk in tea comes from the family cow.

In 1998, 56 percent of Russian' working age population said they grew their own food. The problem with the home gardens is what happens if weather or disease affects the harvest. Some communities were devastated in 1998 by a potato blight which wiped potatoes that people were counting on as their primary food source.

Russian Eating Habits

Russian-style black bread is vitamin-rich sour rye bread. It has traditionally been served at all meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. A meal without it is regarded as incomplete. Russian drinks tea, beer, or straight vodka before and after lunch and dinner and drink water or nothing with their meals. Describing what they typically eat one pensioner told the Los Angeles Times, “Good sausages and good cheese and coffee for breakfast. Or ham and eggs, for instance. Dinner has a first course of salads, yogurt, all sorts of dairy products, or it can be dumplings in broth or borscht. the second course would be baked fish or baked chicken with mayonnaise, cheese and onions, and various vegetable salads.”

Breakfast: Russian start their day with a light breakfast ( zaahvtrabk) between 7:30am and 8:30am that usually consists of some of the following: kasha (buckwheat porridge, similar to cream of wheat or grits), blinies (buckwheat pancakes), black bread, butter, jam, cheese, cottage cheese, sausage, boiled or fried eggs and tea or coffee. Some Russians eat raw eggs by sucking through a hole in the shell. Many hotels offer Continental breakfast often include boiled eggs, orange juice, different kinds of bread, marmalade, jams, butter, sliced meats, and items listed above. A standard breakfast on a boat or train is tea, bread and cheese, jam and oatmeal.

Lunch ( abbyed) is served between 1:00pm and 2:00pm and usually begins with an appetizer of salad, smoked fish, beet salad, followed by a soup or borscht, The main course is beef, chicken served with potatoes, noodles or rice. Some Russians eat bread with sliced meat, smoked fish, ham, sausage, or cheese. The meal is usually accompanied by water or a soft drink and followed by coffee. Meals on Sunday tend to be bigger and have more dishes. A standard lunch on a boat or train is borscht, rice and a slice of overcooked beef.

Dinner ( oozbin) is usually served between 6:30pm and 8:00pm, and typically consists of boiled chicken, roast, fish, beef, stew, pork cutlets or the Russian equivalent of Salisbury steak served with potatoes or rice, and vegetables or salad. A light dinner is based around leftovers from the midday meal, cheese, kielbasa, sandwiches, pasta, smoked or canned fish, or sausages.

A larger, more formal dinner usually begins with appetizers and soup, followed by a fish course and a main meat course, accompanied by dark rye bread and butter, boiled or creamed potatoes, and salad or winter vegetables such as cabbage or carrots. The meal ends with cheese, fruit or a sweet dessert followed by coffee and/or vodka. A standard dinner on a boat or train is stuffed peppers, boiled potatoes, a hard slab of meat, zucchini, sweet rolls and tea.

Russian Eating Customs

A typical place setting at a Russian home has a large plate for the main course, a small plate for hor' d'oeuvres, a shot glass for vodka, a glass for wine and a glass for water or juice. People generally help themselves from plates that are passed around. If your plate is empty your host will encourage you to eat more.

Meals are typically eaten in the kitchen. Meals at people's houses often begin soon after guests arrive. It is considered rude to eat and run. Guests are expected to remain for several hours after the meal is finished and drink and party.

Russians often smoke during their meals. Sometimes they spit bones onto their plates and go into long-winded description of their illnesses or technical skills at the dinner table. It is a custom to have a picnic with the car door open and the car radio or stereo on blasting out music.

At formal state dinners in the Place of Congresses the guests eat standing up. Chairs are considered a nuisance and Russians like the system because it allows them to move around and socialize.

Restaurants in the Communist Era

In the Soviet era there were few restaurants and virtually no good ones. Nearly all bars and restaurants were owned by the state. Restaurants were known for being overstaffed with surly waiters and waitress and offering tasteless boiled dishes with heavy sauces and little else. Typical menu items included leathery "cutlets”or pork and veal chops with soup and mushy vegetables and bony "chicken tabaca," with dishwater-colored coffee and dry cake.

In the Soviet-era restaurants were considered to be grim places. The meals were terrible; the service was awful; and sometimes door attendants wouldn't give you a table unless you gave them a bribe. Many restaurants have more employees than customers. One person brings a menu, another takes your order and two more deliver the food and drinks. Even with all these people you sometimes have tip the "cashier" waiter to get prompt service.‡

"Russians' relationship to restaurants was never functional, and was never about dining—you didn't go out to get something to eat," restauranteur and former rock star Stas Namin told the New York Times. "In Soviet times, there wasn't any food anywhere. People went out expecting to be entertained."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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