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Let's be honest - Russian food doesn't usually get a great press

By Charlotte Walters
20 May 2013

It is regarded so awful that it is forever stuck around the bottom of world cuisine polls (not below English though, I hasten to add!)

'Here in Siberia I work at the State Opera and Ballet Theatre as a translator - I am also fortunate enough to sing in the theatre choir'. Picture: Charlotte Walters

My first culinary impression of Russia - aged 17- was a pickled herring, sour cream and apple salad. Cruelly disguised as the British summer staple of potato and mayonnaise salad, I loaded it onto my plate and made sure it was the main feature of my meal (I love potatoes).

I will never forget the overwhelming feeling of dismay combined with sour fish that accompanied that first mouthful. 

Before I left England I was quite frankly dreading the food I'd encounter- the usual British preconceptions of the bland, stodgy and sometimes downright weird are still very much prevalent. As my friend who lived in Siberia last year warned me: 'in the supermarket I once found an aubergine, but somebody quickly grabbed it and I haven't seen another vegetable since'. 

But that was in winter and that was a different city, and since then I've decided it's time to set the record straight: Russian food can be unpalatable, but it can also be really really delicious.

As I'm in my third year of studying languages at university, I'm currently on my year abroad. I lived in Milan for the first half of my year, studying at university there, and this next half is divided between Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, and Moscow. 



La


La Maison Novosibirsk

Welcome to Novosibirsk - some of the city's popular restaurants, top to bottom: 'Beerman&Grill', 'TBK lounge' and 'La Maison' 

Here in Siberia I work at the State Opera and Ballet Theatre as a translator - I am also fortunate enough to sing in the theatre choir.

I've taken part in two productions, La Traviata and Madame Butterfly. I learnt the music in the space of two weeks which was not the easiest of tasks, but well worth it - even if the black wig was incredibly itchy. 

Having lived in Italy for the past six months I felt really apprehensive about being in Russia, not least because I have never been this far east before and had no idea what to expect from Siberia (yes, British people still think it's full of forests, bears and balalaikas). 

If Winston Churchill described Russia as a 'riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma' then how on earth was I going to come to terms with it on my own? For the first few days every time I opened my mouth only Italian came out, but slowly random words I had no idea I even knew came back and with the help of my lovely Siberian family, my Russian has started to fall back into place. 

Only I'm dreading returning to university next year as I know I'll have to contend with speaking both of them at the same time! I've decided to focus this post on food because I believe you can ascertain a great deal about a country from what the people eat and how. 

Despite not getting to experience Russia's real winter (therefore arguably not real Russia) I'd decided to go through year with the attitude of gorging myself on calzone and carbonara in sunny Italy while working it off in Russia. 

Whilst the first part of that assumption is very accurate, what is becoming increasingly evident is that somehow, out of everybody travelling to Russia, I will be the only person who will not return a scrawny, ravished version of their former selves.

Charlotte Walters


Charlotte Walters


Charlotte Walters

Charlotte Walters during her work at Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet theatre, roller skating with friends at Zayeltsovskiy Park and singing in the theatre's choir during La Traviata . Pictures: Charlotte Walters

This is because since living in Novosibirsk, I have learnt that it is completely unfair to judge a country's 'national cuisine' on its hotels, university accommodation or even restaurants.

What would people make of England if they only ate at Holiday Inn or Hiatt Baker (the latter being my university halls from first year, whose idea of a pasta bake was one oily, squashed lump of penne and tuna with no sauce), but never tried my mum's roast beef or my auntie's pavlova? 

Believe it or not I had some terrible meals in Italy - I once ordered a pizza with the egg so overcooked it tasted like a dried crisp, not to mention a mozzarella salad with one tiny token piece of mozzarella (non sto scherzando!). Bad food is rife in every country and needs to be stamped out, along with raw onions in salads.

I put the bad food in Russia down to the fact that the entire country is buried under a pile of snow for about 5 months a year. If you think you're going to find your fresh coriander for your Moroccan cous-cous salad during that time, think again.

Once you realise that, coupled with the concept that trade with other countries was very much limited until about twenty years ago (a relatively short time for foreign foods to become widely circulated and included in the diet of the average Russian), it is easy to see how their staple diet consists of foods such as pelmeni (ravioli-like dumplings), pirozhki (baked buns stuffed with meat, potatoes and mushrooms) and last but not least, various soups derived from cabbage. 

I'll take this opportunity to say how impressed I am at how much soup can be made from a chunk of cabbage, a joint of meat for the stock and a couple of carrots. A dish that cannot go unmentioned was the bizarre chicken breast topped with cornflakes that I ate at the theatre's stolovaya (canteen) - I have no idea whether it is a traditional dish or a Russian take on the concept of brunch, but the, erm, chefs at the stolovaya really outdid themselves that day.

Charlotte Walters on food in Siberia

Despite not getting to experience Russia's real winter (therefore arguably not real Russia) I'd decided to go through year with the attitude of gorging myself on calzone and carbonara in sunny Italy while working it off in Russia. Top to bottom clockwise:  calzone in Milan, carbonara on Lago Maggiore, homemade polenta with gorgonzola - typical milanese dish which is also incredibly rich, and an aperitivo served in La Scala Opera House.  Pictures: Charlotte Walters

Having said this, I know that Russia has a lot of good food because going to a Russian house as a guest, if only for dinner, is a truly amazing dining experience. Obviously I am not going to contest the worldwide dominance of Italian cuisine as the ideal combination of fresh produce, fine artisan meats and cheeses, giving a plethora of easy-to-prepare comforting pasta dishes and delectable deserts (ever had a homemade Milanese tiramisu? You genuinely haven't lived!)

But what has struck me about Russia and its similarities to Italy is the importance of the family meal: sitting round together at the table, enjoying lots of different courses of snacks, soup, salads, meat and fish- albeit washing down the majority of them with a healthy shot of vodka- and finishing off with a refreshing tea and chocolates or a spoon of jam. 

I have to admit that I am very lucky to be living with a family who are not only unbelievably kind and generous but also incredible cooks, who often entertain friends and family in their flat.

So what have I been eating? 

  • One of the tastiest dishes I've had here was baked salmon stuffed with apricots and prunes and wrapped in pastry, made by the mother of the family I'm living with. Usually I am firmly against the sweet/sour combination- ham and pineapple pizzas are my nemesis- but the juices of the fruit had soaked all the way through the salmon making it indulgent but light too. 
  • Another surprise was the spicy beef plov, similar to a biryani I would say, topped with crunchy frozen cranberries. I had this as my very first meal in Siberia after a horrendous night flight of turbulence (throughout which everybody on the plane slept?!), although my mind was unprepared my tastebuds were blown away. 
  • My breakfasts here are also unusual as they consist of 'tvorog'. Tvorog is translated by Russians as cottage cheese but it definitely isn't - the closest thing I can think of is curd cheese. The first time it was presented to me I was more than a little suspicious, but it tastes ok and I've got used to it. At the weekends however I've developed a rather expensive penchant for poached eggs with caviar- a decadent combination of eggs and eggs... and if that isn't 'making the most of my year abroad' then I don't know what is.
  • It would of course be a crime to write about Russian food without a quick reference to borsch. This beetroot, vegetable soup is the mother of all Ruski soups, and my Russian mother makes it really spicy with a dollop of smetana (sour cream). Although I love it here I'm not sure it would be the same in England...
  • Russians also love tea and 'zakuski' (snacks). Whenever invited to tea you can expect to be served a meal-sized amount of food on the table that you must eat (hosts are incredibly stubborn). I've been guilt-tripped into eating as many as 5 blinis against my will. At my friend Masha's house I watched her mother frying kalamari in a pan, which we devoured with cucumber sticks and blinis with condensed milk afterwards.

Charlotte Walters on food in Siberia

'Whenever invited to tea you can expect to be served a meal-sized amount of food on the table that you must eat ; I've been guilt-tripped into eating as many as 5 blinis'. Top to bottom clockwise: tvorog, or curd cheese, tea with snacks and Easter cake. Pictures: Charlotte Walters

Where there is good there is bad, therefore I feel I wouldn't be writing honestly if I didn't include some of the less positive culinary aspects of the motherland:

  • fish soup. I'm still undecided about this one, perhaps it's unfair of me to automatically place it in the 'bad' list. I do love fish and technically I cannot fault the saury soup my Siberian mother made me- I just don't think it will ever be my favourite dish.
  • Pechen, or liver. I am continuing to fight a very bitter war with this irksome organ. I've already chosen it more than twice by mistake in the stalovaya thinking it was beef stroganoff, putting me in a suitably bad mood for the rest of the day. I've also managed somehow to convince the family that I like it (although I have never eaten it), so we've had it several times at home. It's now got to the stage where I can't bear to tell them the truth... Oh the shame.
  • Kvass. I am well aware that this is a cultural thing, as I've been told many times that I just need to find the right one, and that if I were Russian I would automatically love this fizzy fermented beverage made from rye bread. Perhaps I simply need to keep looking...
  • 'Pu'er' chai. This Chinese tea is really popular in the provinces, so I'm told, but unfortunately as with kvass I am yet to discover why. It looks like soil, smells like soil and tastes like soil- bitter and grainy.

However, like I said before, bad food is everywhere, and Russia is no exception. But contrary to popular belief, there are lots of markets here with plenty of fresh produce, a variety of restaurants: 'Riba Ris' sushi is a particular favourite, and great value if you choose the popular 'business lunch' option, or if you feel like a relaxed coffee house head to the aptly named 'Kofe House' or 'Chashka Kofe'.

In short, I cease to believe that Siberia is a scary place with terrible cuisine. And people here are among the kindest I have ever met, and my experience has been truly enjoyable and enriching. I'm glad I took the plunge in coming here. Za russkuyu yedu! 

Comments (20)

I think Charlotte is right in that Russian - or rather the post-Soviet cuisine - is a bit of an unknown territory; some of the chefs around Russia and certainly in Siberia are coming back to the pre-Revolution recipes, which is great because these are what you can refer as to the 'Russian' cuisine.

There is only a poor shadow left of it now... I'm very much hoping that it will find its way back
Oleg, Siberia
20/05/2013 23:17
14
1
Charlotte tvorog is not a curd cheese, but a cottage cheese. President Putin starts his day with it, so its not a bad choice for breakfast))))))
Dina, Moscow
20/05/2013 15:46
9
0
Those restaurants in your pix Charlotte .....that's never Siberia. never. Is it....? That's got to be London? I went there once to Novosibirsk and you couldn't get a decent meal anywhere. Has it changed so much? And you say good coffee houses. When I was there the coffee was as thick as soup. Say more about this revolution?
Pam, NZ
20/05/2013 02:31
14
1
Charolotte let's hear more about your impressions of Siberia apart from food..... say more about the people and the life here in your next blog?
Pavel, Novosibirsk
20/05/2013 02:17
21
0
I love your 'Sent to Siberia', its always so interesting to read. Thanks for sharing your experience, Charlotte!
Ute, Germany
20/05/2013 02:10
18
0
12

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