Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural expanse of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate, with a combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Flavourful soups and stews centred on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. This wholly native food remained the staples for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century. Lying on the northern reaches of the ancient Silk Road, as well as Russia’s close proximity to the Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire has provided an inescapable Eastern character to its cooking methods (not so much in European Russia but distinguishable in the North Caucasus).
Russia’s great expansions of territory, influence, and interest during the 16th-18th centuries brought more refined foods and culinary techniques. It was during this period that smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, chocolate, ice cream, wines, and liquor were imported from abroad. At least for the urban aristocracy and provincial gentry, this opened the doors for the creative integration of these new foodstuffs with traditional Russian dishes. The result is extremely varied in technique, seasoning, and combination.
From the time of Catherine the Great, every family of influence imported both the products and personnel – mainly German, Austrian, and French – to bring the finest, rarest, and most creative foods to their table. This is nowhere more evident than in the exciting, elegant, highly nuanced, and decadent repertoire of the Franco-Russian chef. Many of the foods that are considered in the West to be traditionally Russian actually come from the Franco-Russian cuisine of the 18th and 19th centuries, and include such widespread dishes as Veal Orloff, Beef Stroganoff, and Sharlotka (Charlotte Russe).
Soups have always played an important role in the Russian meal. The traditional range of soups such as shi, borsh, ukha, rassolnik, solyanka, botvinya, okroshka, and turya was enlarged in the 18th to 20th centuries by both European and Central Asian staples like clear soups, pureed soups, stews, and many others.
Russian soups can be divided into at least 7 large groups:
* Cold soups based on kvass, such as turya, okroshka, and botvinya.
* Light soups and stews based on water and vegetables.
* Noodle soups with meat, mushrooms, and milk.
* Soups based on cabbage, most prominently Shchi.
* Thick soups based on meat broth, with a salty-sour base like rassolnik and solyanka.
* Fish soups such as ukha.
* Grain- and vegetable-based soups.
Okroshka is a cold soup based on kvas. The main ingredients are vegetables that can be mixed with cold boiled meat or fish with a proportion 1:1. Depending on this, okroshka is called vegetable, meat, or fish.
There must be two sorts of vegetables in okroshka. The first must have a neutral taste, such as boiled potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, or fresh cucumbers). The second must be spicy, consisting of mainly green onion as well as other herbs — greens of dill, parsley, chervil, celery, or tarragon. Different meat and poultry can be used in the same soup. The most common ingredient is beef alone or with poultry. If it is made with fish, the best choice would be tench, European perch, pike-perch, cod, or other neutral-tasting fish.
The Kvas most commonly used in cooking is white okroshka kvas, which is much more sour than drinking kvas. Spices used include mustard, black pepper and pickled cucumber (specifically, the liquid from the pickles), solely or in combination.
For the final touch, boiled eggs and smetana (a heavy sour cream, similar to crème fraîche) are added to the okroshka.
Turya is very similar to okroshka, the main difference being that instead of vegetables, bread is used.
Botvin`ya is one of the most typical cold Russian soups. It almost became extinct because it is difficult to make. Some modern cookbooks list recipes showing how to prepare it easily by substituting some of the ingredients, but cutting corners tends to diminish much of the authentic taste.
A full botvin’ya consists of three parts:
1. The soup.
2. Boiled red (most prized) fish (salmon, sturgeon, or stellate sturgeon), that is served separately from soup.
3. Crushed ice, served on a separate platter or cup.
The name of the soup comes from the Russian word botva, which means leafy tops of root vegetables, and the ingredients are in line with the name: leafy tops of young beet, beetroots, oxalate sorrel, green onions, dill, cucumbers, and two types of kvas, then some mustard, lemon juice, and horseradish as spices.
It is eaten as the first course or right after a hot soup, before the second course as an appetizer. It is eaten using two spoons and a fork: the fork is used to eat the fish, the first spoon to sip the soup and the second spoon to put ice into the soup, so it stays cold for a long time. Botvin’ya is eaten with fresh rye bread.
Shi (cabbage soup) had been the main first course in Russian cuisine for over a thousand years. Although tastes have changed, it steadily made its way through several epochs. Shchi knew no social class boundaries, and even if the rich had richer ingredients and the poor made it solely of cabbage and onions, all these poor and rich variations were cooked in the same tradition. The unique taste of this cabbage soup was from the fact that after cooking it was left to draw (stew) in a Russian stove. The Spirit of shchi was inseparable from a Russian izba (log hut). Many Russian proverbs are connected to this soup, such as Shchi da kasha pishcha nasha (Shchi and porridge are the food). It can be eaten regularly, and at any time of the year.
The richer variant of shchi includes several ingredients, but the first and last components are a must:
2. Meat (very rarely fish or mushrooms).
3. Carrots or parsley roots.
4. Spicy herbs (onions, celery, dill, garlic, pepper, bay leaf).
5. Sour components (smetana, apples, cabbage, pickle water).
When this soup is served, smetana is added. It is eaten with rye bread. During much of the year when the Orthodox Christian Church prescribes abstinence from meat and dairy, a vegan version of shchi is made. Kislye (sour) schi are made from pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), serye (grey) schi from the green outer leaves of the cabbage head. Zelyonye (green) schi are made from sorrel leaves, not cabbage, and used to be a popular summer soup.
Stews are first-course dishes that are actually strong vegetable broths.
Unlike shchi or other soups based on meat broths, stews are light soups based on vegetables and water.
One vegetable always prevails in stews, hence the name: onion, potato, turnip, rutabaga, lentil, etc. Preference is given to tender vegetables with short boil times and strong unique taste. Beans, sour cabbage, or beetroot are never used.
Ukha is a hot watery fish dish, however calling it a fish soup would not be absolutely correct. Ukha as a name for fish broth was established only in the late 17th to early 18th centuries. In earlier times this name was first given to thick meat broths, and then later chicken. Beginning from the 15th century, fish was more and more often used to prepare ukha, thus creating a dish that had a distinctive taste among soups.
A minimum of vegetables is added in preparation, and in classical cooking ukha was simply a rich fish broth served to accompany fish pies (rasstegai, kuliebiaka, etc.). These days it is more often a fish soup, cooked with potatoes and other vegetables. A wide variety of freshwater fish can be used. There is an opinion that you cannot make a good ukha from seafish, but this is untrue. Fresh fish is best to be cooked, so if it is frozen it is better not to defrost it. Preference is given to smaller, younger fish, with the tail part of bigger fish discarded.
In traditional Russian cuisine three basic variations of meat dishes can be highlighted: – large boiled piece of meat cooked in a soup or porridge, and then used as second course or served cold as a snack:
Studen (or Kholodets) – Jellied chopped pieces of pork or veal meat with some spices added (pepper, parsley, garli?, bay leaf) and minor amounts of vegetables (carrots, onions). The meat is boiled in large pieces for long periods of time, then chopped, boiled a few times again and finally chilled for 3-4 hours (hence the name) forming a jelly mass, though gelatine is not used because young meat contains enough glue substances. It is served with horse radish, mustard or grinded garlic with smetana.
– Sub-product dishes (liver, caul fat, rennet), baked in pots together with cereals;
– Whole animal (bird) dishes or it’s part (leg), or large piece of meat (rump) baked on a baking tray in a stove, so called zharkoye (from the word zhar(???) meaning heat)
As a garnish to meat dishes in the past the most common were porridges and cereals, in which the meat was boiled, later on boiled or rather steamed and baked root vegetables (turnips, carrots) as well as mushrooms; additionally the meat, without taking account its type, was garnished with pickled products – pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), sour and soaked apples (mochoniye yabloki), soaked cranberries, vzvars. In modern day conditions baked vegetables to accompany meat dishes can be cooked in foil. Succus formed in the meat roasting as well as melted smetana or melted butter is used as gravy to pour on garnishing vegetables and porridges. Meat sauces i.e. gravies on flour, butter, eggs and milk, are not common for traditional Russian cuisine.