All eyes are on Russia now, thanks to FIFA World Cup. But there is more to the country than roulette and Rasputin, Vladimir and Vodka. With FIFA throwing open Russia to a curious world, the global citizenry outside are enjoying Rossiya like never before, especially its cuisine. A look back into a long ago Russia is a time traveller’s delight as this sheds a lot of light on a country, its people and its food.
The weather, geography and social standing in a world community are major factors that decide the culinary habits of a nation and its people. This is exactly why anthropologists study the food habits and preferences of a race, a country or a people before they delve deeper into their history and culture.
Russia is a vast landmass extending over much of northern Eurasia. With vast swathes of its land covered with dense forests, lakes, rivers and water bodies, it is a country blessed with forest and fish wealth; a land of plenty - of meat, fish, mushrooms, nuts and berries. The main grains are maize, wheat, barley, rye, oats and buckwheat. The traditional gruel kasha, cooked with a whole lot of grains, is enjoyed by the young and old alike. To the Russians, having a bowl of kasha is more of a spiritual act than a mundane routine of downing some sort of gruel. “Kasha is our mother and bread, our father”, goes the saying.
There was a time, centuries ago, when life was hard for Russians. They are, therefore, a hardy set of people, who have learnt to brave the biting cold and sup on whatever little they could manage on lean days. They used to dig up the earth for their stock of vegetables. And they drank a lot of soup made mostly with carrots, beetroot and cabbage.
Russia sports two styles of cooking, the traditional cuisine and the Soviet cuisine. Though the first compilation of Russian recipes managed to get published in 1547, it carried only the titles of the recipes, neither the names of ingredients nor the way to put them together. They were thus lost to the centuries and only a handful like kasha, rye bread and blini, the Russian pancake got handed down, never to be forgotten.
As Russia is conveniently positioned east-west along the route from Europe to China, food preferences and influences from the east and the west started trickling in. Russia’s trade relations with Europe and Asia brought in their spices and leaves into the country. That is how cloves, coriander, bay leaves, pepper, olive oil, ginger, lemon, cinnamon, cardamom and saffron made their way into Russian kitchens. And Vodka fizzed in during the 15th century. Though the drink was banned almost immediately, it got back about a century later.
Almost before the 17th century, there was nothing spectacular about Russian cuisine to write about. It was mostly bland stuff, staid and very conventional. The rich and the poor dined on the same food, the only difference being the larger quantities of food the affluent enjoyed. Things took a turn by the 17th century. With Kazan, Astrakhan, Bashkiria and a lot of Siberia coming under Russian control, Tatar dishes like Pelmeni, noodles, tea, spices and baked stuff poured into mainstream Russian cuisine.
It was the tsar of Russia, the emperor Peter the Great, who in the 18th century brought Russia closer to European culture and traditions. With the borders open, cooks from across France, Sweden, Germany and Holland found employment in affluent Russian kitchens. However, it was the French chefs who brought in a culinary revolution to Russian food.
The French gave Russian cuisine a form and style, something that was missing in staid old Russia. The Parisians brought in sophistication and chic. They divided the main meal into separate courses. They taught Russians to cut their meat into slick small pieces before eating them. With Russia becoming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the food habits and preferences of 15 more republics got integrated with mainstream Russian cuisine. The tradition of smoking meat and fish became popular all over the Russian territory just around this historical moment.
Soups have been an integral part of Russian meals. They had a crude form of spoon at the dining table and the fork appeared alongside about four centuries later. These facts prove how vital a wooden bowl of soup must have been to the Russians, who were for most part of the year finding ways to keep themselves warm. Shchi or the traditional Russian cabbage soup is a must for all occasions. The shchi is a national food icon, something which the Russians revere.
Though nobody knows the soup’s exact origins, they know it has been around for more than a thousand years. While the less affluent make the soup with cabbage and onions, the upper crust add meat, carrot, basil, garlic, pepper, all spices, apple and pickle sauce. They drink bowlfuls along with cream and rye bread. The shchi is an all-seasons soup. As its left on the stove even after it is completely cooked, the soup on a perpetual simmer is delicious. Some of the other popular soups are rassolnik, solyanka, okroshka, botvinya, turiya, and ukha, the fish soup. There are a lot more, boiled with grains and vegetables.
The Russian salad or Olivier salad is a New Year special tomato salad. Pickles, boiled eggs, carrots, meat, peas and mayonnaise go into the salad recipe. While the Vinaigrette salad is a combination of beetroot, onions, potatoes, carrots and pickled cabbage, the shuba has small varieties of fish and boiled eggs. The common mixed salad first appeared in Russia in the 19th century.
The Russian bread is made of rye. It is rich in nutrients. What is served on special occasions are boyars' (government officials) rye bread made with butter, milk and spices. When bakers run short of rye, they make the bread with carrots, beetroot, potato and even the bark of the oak.
The baranki is a sweet, round bread, and the bublik, a traditional bread roll. Sushki is also another type of bread. The kolache is a pastry. The tsars used to give their high priests gifts of kolache. Of special importance is the famous drink kvass, popularly known as Russian Cola. Hard to believe, but the 50-centuries-old kvass is made from fermented rye bread. Ever so slightly intoxicating, it is nonetheless a heady brew.
The main dish
Meats are cooked in three different ways. Huge chunks of boiled meat are dunked either in soup or kasha. This is served cold and is usually given as the second course. Another meat speciality is to cook the internal organs of animals along with grains. And the next style of cooking comprises skewering and roasting the whole meat over open hearths or red-hot chulas. Pelmeni or dumplings, the west European dish, is quite a hit here. Pelmeni has close similarities with Tibetan momos. Beef stroganoff and shashlik, a sort of kebab are other favourite dishes. The shashlik is more of a street treat.