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

By 0 and 0 and 0
20 May 2013


'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 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)

Russian food is great. Lots of cabbage though I prefer it in soups. But piroshki ... PIROSHKI ... the best things in the world. ever. No other food. ... piroshki, ground beef, turkey or pork with diced onions and pepper mixed in, baked, and then dipped in light broth with some dill. Well that stuff is just amazing. Every time I returned back from university, my mum would make them. I would eat 6 in one sitting. They were so good. Unfortunately I could not get her recipe because she passed away. I can make the meat part (must be ground. she'd grind chunks of meat in soviet era meat grinder) but finding a good dough recipe is difficult.
anon, murricuh
25/05/2019 03:52
Good review, although don't confuse Ukrainian and Russian food, Borsch is actually Ukrainian soup and has nothing to do with Russia. However it is popular in Russia because of the Soviet Union legacy, were all the republics shared their cuisines. So if you go to a Russian restaurant you will see Georgian Harcho, Caucasian Shashlik, Uzbek Pilaf, Ukrainian Salo and Borsch, all labelled as "Russian" food. However it is really not.
Nikei, Barcelona
29/07/2016 22:45
Russian cuisine, like that of Poland, and other Eastern European countries is nothing to brag about and is usually very heavy, bland and unappetizing fare. I recently bought a Moscow-Salami and Russian cheese that were both imported from Russia in a deli here in the states. They looked fine from outside, until I tasted them. They were really horrible and I can see why travelers complain how lack-luster and often downright unappetizing Russian food can be. The salami looked almost as good as a fine Italian sopressata, but was anything but ! It was completely tasteless, overly smoked, fatty and just bad ! The cheese had a mozzarella quality texture, but was also bland, tasteless and rubbery. If these two samples are what their foodstuffs are generally like....YULK !Poor quality and absolutely no flavor ! There is nothing like good and simple Italian foodstuffs. Their cuisine is built on simple and fresh, seasonal ingredients. Easy to prepare and always flavorful. No wonder Italian salted and cured meats are prized around the world and a fine Italian restaurant can be found in every major capital city across the globe, from Korea to South Africa and from Chile to Nepal !
Wilhelm Van Grber, Netherlands
09/02/2016 12:27
Brittany, there is are lot more words than "vkysno" in Russian language to describe the taste of food.
I am sure fellow Russians will be more than happy to share, if you ask someone.
Hunni, Canada
14/08/2015 03:06
I've been living in Moscow for almost a year now. I've spent a lot of time as a guest in many Russians' houses, food courts, camp cafeterias, the average grocery store and I have an opinion about Russian food: it is terrible. Bland, tasteless, uncreative, and redundant. I mean, how many combinations of cabbage, meat, potatoes and stale bread can one make? Also, the Russian language is not sufficient to describing food in any meaningful way. 'Vkusno' is about as much as anyone says when they take a bite of something--when it's actually the antithesis of tasty. Every American here I know has the same opinion. Also to see the way that Russian people gain weight is is of course attributed to their diet, which they seem to think is 'healthy', but they are way off. In Russia's defense though: what can you expect from a people that over the centuries have experienced great periods of famine? Not an exquisite cuisine. Just food that should fill you up.
Brittany, Moscow
22/07/2015 02:41
Well, I've read on other site that Russian cuisine isn't popular abroad because cooking one takes lots of time and I have to admit that that's true. For example cooking a traditional Russian soup takes no less than two hours, and cooking one of a traditional salad takes a few hours. But I also have to say that Russian cuisine is delicious no matter what is a dish: some nutritional main course or a light vegetable salad. As for saying about lots of mayonnaise I wouldn't say that Russian cuisine is too full of one, and moreover cooking a Russian dishes is always flexible: a shef can add pepper, garlic (other spices if you will ask him for it and if a spice/s will not ruin the flavor and taste of the dish). There is just the only sad fact here: Russian homemade cuisine is much much better than restaurant's one. Russian cuisine that is served in Russian restaurants can make you really upset and disappointed.
Yekaterina, Yekaterinburg
28/03/2015 11:53
I would love to try the stuffed salmon. But more, I would love to see you in La Traviata! The ballgowns look lovely. What an experience to sing in those operas! Well done. Lovely to see you with Russian friends, you are really making the most of your Siberian experience. XX
Godmother Amanda, Loughton, UK
29/05/2013 01:39
@ Anastasia: I think what you describe is exactly what I meant by Soviet time recipes - or even the hungry 90s when people were buying mayonnaise in tons and were putting all sorts of foods together, like the salad you describe with vegetables, cheese, mashroom and whatever else. Its the hungry years heritage and it will take some time to wipe the memory of it from people's mind.

I actually remember a much healthier diet before the 90s with a lot of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs from my grandmother's garden, a lot of healthy salads and beautifully cooked meats, a lot of fruit drinks she preserved for the winter, and early in spring she would be gathering some early herbs to make the most fantastic soups I've ever tried - ever, and I travelled a lot.
Oleg, Siberia
24/05/2013 00:27
I am native siberian, but I have to say in my opinion russian food is a bit tasteless and sometimes very unhealthy... Pelmeni, pirozhki (pies), pancakes with meat inside, vareniki, fried potato with salo (fat of pig), kotlety (meatballs) together with potato or makaroni - this typical russian combination of products isnt very nice at all! Well russian salads are alright to eat (but only if they are a mix of vegetables. In lots of russian salads you will discover tons of mayonese and often apart from vegetables there will be mix of fried or boiled potato, mushrooms, chicken, cheese etc etc..) There are some good tasting soups,including borsh and okroshka. But in general i think russian food is far away from being something to be pround of...
I belive food should be healthy,have big range of flavors, be balanced and therefore healthy too. Indian food could be a good example, but in Siberia food like that isnt very popular unfortunately.
Anastasia Oliver, Krasnoyarsk
23/05/2013 17:51
blue skirt picture is sooooooo cute)))))
Kath, Oz
22/05/2013 20:06
Charlotte: Russian/Ukrainian food is varied, healthy and extremely tasty. My own parents and ancestors are Ukrainian/Mongolian/Siberian and since being torn from their families during the last war, they had to make do with living in Britain as DPs. The English unfortunately do not know how to cook healthy fresh meals. I have visited many, many English friends and was revolted at what they dished up.

We now have a fourth generation scattered around Australia and Scotland and we all have our ancestral meals. I myself have introduced my Scottish husband to our national dishes and he is extremely healthy - 73 years of age, has lost all that blubber from eating western food and the like.

By the way Charlotte, you must not forget garlic - we love our garlic and need no medication to keep us healthy.
Valentyna, Perth, Scotland
22/05/2013 12:34
The Easter cake looks like a giant cup cake, my daughter saw it and said oh mummy why don't we make cupcakes THAT big like in Russia)))))))
Joan, Australia
22/05/2013 11:07
'baked salmon stuffed with apricots and prunes and wrapped in pastry, made by the mother of the family I'm living with' - would love to try
May, China
22/05/2013 10:48
lots of likes from Novosibirsk, thanks Charlotte, its very interesting! I love it that people from England come to sing and Opera Theatre!
Olga P. , Novosibirsk Siberia
21/05/2013 11:31
sorry but i think its nonsense about 'no vegetables and herbs'. I live in Siberia and my family would not start a meal without a fresh salad, never mind the season. Greenhouses you know... and it doesn't matter which country you live in
Tamara , Omsk
20/05/2013 23:52

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