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Russian Food History and Lexicon
History, East Slavs and Rus
Some of the earliest evidence of modern humans comes from Russia, in Kostenki, where they found bones dated to 35 thousand years ago. Throughout prehistoric times, Russia was populated with nomadic tribes. During classical antiquity, the age of the Greeks and Romans, trade was taking place and there were some Greek and Iranian settlements in the southern Ukraine but there were no major hubs or cities in what we know as Russia today. The Russia we know had its beginnings in the 3rd through the 8th centuries AD when the East Slavs emerged as a recognizable group in Europe. The name Russia was derived from an ancient people, the Rus or Ros. There is some scholarly dispute about the origin and identity of the Rus but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Russia has the largest landmass of any country in the world with a quarter of the fresh water and more forestland than anywhere else. There are a multitude of cultures and variations of cuisine across this massive land but we will concern ourselves with the Slavic cuisine of the people closest to Europe.
Most of Russia lies above the 50th parallel, roughly the same as the border between the US and Canada. As with every other cuisine, the climate determined what foods were to be eaten. Russia is a cold place with a limited season for growing crops. Cool weather crops predominate with relatively little use of fresh vegetables and fruit but a reliance on dairy and meats. Perhaps surprisingly, Russia is not known for its cheeses in spite of having all the ingredients needed for a cheese industry. They produce many cheeses now but the native original cheeses come from the fringe areas around the heartland.
Rural peasants built the cuisine of Russia out of the food available to those living in a harsh climate, with plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Traditional spices were mostly horseradish and mustard, with some pepper being brought in by traders, many spices were traded through Russia for the European market but the Russians did not develop a taste for them at first.. Crops of rye, wheat, barley, buckwheat and millet provided the ingredients for a wide variety of grain products like breads, pancakes, beer and vodka, lots of vodka. To this day vodka is an important part of Russian life and woe to the person who demurs to drink a vodka toast; that may be a major insult to your Russian host. Alcoholism is a big problem in Russia. For the last hundred years, various Russian leaders have tried to limit the consumption of vodka with very little success yet the sale of vodka contributes a great deal of the tax revenue.
The ease of growing cabbage and later potatoes gave these items a place on the menu for the poor, who rarely if ever saw any other vegetables. A long history of poverty and separation of the classes meant that serfs relied on native foods that could be gathered or hunted from the forests and coarse grains while the best crops were saved for the nobility. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Russian nobility would send their chefs to France to learn how to cook in a European manner; this led slowly to an improvement in the diet with new foods being introduced from Europe and the Columbian exchange. A long time went by before the foods from the New World were accepted and used by the peasantry but the Nobility ate well. Peter the Great and later Catherine the Great opened Russia up to modernization and chefs went along for the ride. During this period, Franco-Russian chefs created dishes like Veal Orloff, Beef Stroganoff, and Chicken Kiev and these dishes have been adopted, carried around and crucified around the world.
"America, Are You Tough Enough To Drink Real Russian Kvas"?
"While American kids stand in line for the ice cream truck on sweltering summer days, kids in Russia have historically queued up for something different: the kvas truck.
Kvas is a fermented grain drink, sort of like a barely alcoholic beer. And in the heat of the summer, it was served from a big barrel on wheels, with everyone lining up for their turn at the communal mug. It may sound like a far cry from rocket pops and ice cream sandwiches, but most Russians have fond memories".
Listen to this story on NPR.
Famine has been an all too frequent situation in Russia, before the 20th century, famines were usually connected to extended droughts and as many as a half million people may have died during the famine of 1891-92. During the 20th century, politics created many famines, first starting in 1921-23 because the government was confiscating grain. The government policy of Collectivization caused famines repeatedly through the first half of the 20th century. Having a population that exists perpetually under a threat of famine certainly played a part in determining the diet. If you are concerned about having enough food, you are not likely to waste anything edible. The Communist years along with the earlier famines taught the populace to accept low quality foods as long as it is cheap and this practice continues today.
Of course not all food in Russia is bad or of poor quality and things are even improving due to the Westernization of the country.
In the video recipe below, note the following.
1) The chef starts with a whole chicken and bones it, this enables him to use the first wing bone as a garnish, and to use the supreme as a separate piece to flatten and protect the chicken during cooking. Commercially boned chicken breasts may be ragged and more difficult to prepare for Kiev.
2)The chef butterflies the breast to make a pocket for the butter, rather than trying to flatten out a breast, this means he has no holes to let the butter escape.
3) He uses no milk in the egg wash, milk browns at a lower temperature and would give a much darker chicken Kiev. 4) He double breads the chicken to yield a heavier crust to keep the butter in.
Thomas Keller gives a caviar lesson
Glossary A, Thru' F
Abzhorka Russian (lit. Food lover) Beef salad w pickles onion and mayo
Adjika a very spicy tomato sauce with garlic. Traditional sauce to grilled meat or poultry.
Aleksander torte, Dessert strips of puff pastry filled with raspberry preserves and iced
Apogare Sparkling water. Made from water, berries and sugar
Arachu Kalmyk vodka made from clabber, smells badly
Baba, Babka The name of Easter's cake in Poland. It is made from yeast dough with eggs, rum, almonds, raisins, and orange peel.
Baklazhanovaya an eggplant salad slightly similar to babganouj
Beef Stroganoff: thin slivers of beef tenderloin in sour cream sauce seasoned with hot mustard. The addition of mushrooms is a North American adaptations and adding tomato puree is an American adaptation and an abomination! Stroganoff is a wonderful dish that has fallen out of favor in our health conscious diet and it deserves a comeback.
Biskvit (sponge cake) Confectionery dough or cake, made from eggs, sugar and flour.
Bitky: toothpick appetizer of tiny seasoned meatballs.
Blinchiky: small, thin pancakes usually served with jam for dessert. Diminutive of Blini.
Blinchaty pirog, Casserole made by layering blinis with seasoned meat, cottage cheese and rice built the way we build lasagna and topped with a yogurt sauce.
Blini: round pancakes traditionally made with yeast and buckwheat flour. These are served in great quantities during the springtime pre-Lenten festival called Maslyanitsa. They are eaten with a generous quantity of melted butter plus sour cream, preserves, fish, etc.
Bokhon Bread loaf.
Borsch (borscht) a classic Slavic soup originating in Ukraine traditionally prepared from beets and cabbage and served with a dollop of sour cream. It can also be a clear sweet and sour beet broth. There are more than 40 varieties of hot and cold borsch, depending on the vegetables and or meat in them.
Botva or Botvinya A thin porridge or soup made from boiled beet tops, onion, cucumbers and fish in kvas.
Bryndza Salted sheep’s milk cheese made across Central and Eastern Europe, bryndza is the generic word for "cheese" in Romanian.
Bublik Round, donut-shaped bread made from wheat dough; boiled at first and then baked like a bagel but much chewier.
Bulka Common Polish name of wheat bread.
Buzhenina Russian style spiced baked fresh ham
Chakhokhbili Georgian recipe of chicken with wine and spices.
Chalop: an Uzbek hot-weather soup of diced fresh vegetables and sour milk topped with chopped fresh herbs. Often served chilled and with an ice cube.
Caviar, sometimes called black caviar, salted, non-fertilized sturgeon roe. The roe can be "fresh" (non-pasteurized) or pasteurized, the latter having much less culinary and economic value. Traditionally the designation caviar is only used for sturgeon roe from the wild sturgeon species living in the Caspian and Black Sea (Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga caviars). Malossol on its label indicates that the roe is preserved with a minimum amount of salt,
Beluga caviar is the best caviar consisting of the roe (or eggs) of the beluga sturgeon.
Ossetra (also Oscietra, Osetra, or Asetra) caviar, comes from the Ossetra sturgeon and us thought second best.
Sevruga Comes from the Sevruga sturgeon and is last in quality though still far superior to imitations.
In this country we see things like lumpfish “caviar” colored with powdered charcoal but the quality is markedly inferior to the real thing, much caviar does come from Iran and that quality can be very good
Cheburek Cheboureki Small fried pies with meat filling.
Chekmasy Wheat dumplings
Chicken Kiev: is a breast of chicken, filled with herbed butter, coated with crumbs and fried or baked brown and crisp. In Ukraine it is served with fried julienne potatoes and fresh peas. There are two apocryphal stories about the birth of chicken Kiev; in the 1700s, Russian nobility sent their chefs to France to learn from French chefs, there, a French chef called Nicolas Francois Appert invented Chicken Kiev in the early 1800s. However, the Russian food historian William Pokhlebkin claimed that Chicken Kiev was invented in the Moscow Merchants' Club in the early 20th century.
Cotlety Russian hamburgers; breadcrumbs are usually added to the meat like our meatloaf and covered in a semi-sweet reddish sauce that resembles ketchup.
Deruny - Ukrainian Potato Pancakes
Ditch: name used for any game meat.
Drachona is a baked Russian omelet made with eggs and sour cream.
Dranik Fried flatcakes made from potato batter.
Dzerenina The meat of deer or wild goat, needs to be tenderized with a marinade.
Erly Lenten dish, millet with raisins
Erofeich Traditional name of herb and spices, nastoykas (without sugar). Named after the hairdresser Erofeich, who cured Count Orlov from a stomach disease with his herbs and liqueurs and got the right to sell them.
Forshmak: The name comes from German that means “foretaste”. Forshmak is hot appetizer of potatoes, onions, apples and herring or ham blended with sour cream.
Glossary G Thr' K
Galubtzi or Golubtsi: cabbage rolls filled with meat (beef and pork) and baked with a thin sauce of sour cream. There are many variations.
Galushki Ukrainian dish – boiled dough pieces. Galushki are usually served with sour cream. (Isn’t everything?)
Golubtsy Cabbage rolls, golubtsy (holubtsi) traditionally consist of cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice, often baked in tomato sauce, and served with sour cream
Gorchitsa (Mustard) Traditional Russian condiment, served with meat dishes.
Grechnevaia Kasha or Guryevskaya Kasha is the full correct name for a buckwheat kasha
Grusheviikvas: alcoholic beverage made from pears.
Hachapouri Baked or fried cheese stuffed biscuit
Holodetz: Russian jellied beef dish, made with pigs feet and served with boiled eggs and meat in aspic.
Hvorost: traditional cookies for Christmas. They are shaped like branches.
Ikra: Caviar. This name is also used sometimes for chopped, seasoned, and cooked eggplant, "the poor man's caviar."
Kachapuri, Georgian cheese bread made in many shapes and sizes to serve many functions throughout a meal such as, small diamonds as appetizers and large round loaves to slice for brunch
Kaimek: "baked" milk. Milk is heated slowly in a low oven for several hours until a thick skin forms.
Kalach is a round bread that looks like a dish with two handles.
Kapoustnik Belorussky Byelorussian sauerkraut and mushroom soup
Kasha: the name used to refer to cooked grain. It most often means cooked buckwheat groats. Others include: Mannaia Kasha, semolina; Ovsjanaia Kasha, oats; and Risovaia Kasha, rice.
Kefir is a drinkable yogurt, but with a greater variety of cultures and significant health benefits
Keshka: a winter dish of thick porridge pureed with meat and served in a soup plate with butter and cumin.
Kharcho Georgian soup with lamb, or beef walnuts, cherries and rice.
Khazan Pirog: a thick Tatar chicken pie served by placing a wedge in a soup plate and pouring hot chicken stock over it.
Kholodets (or Studen'): Jellied chopped pieces of pork or veal meat with some spices
Khvorost Russian fried cookies served with sugar or jam with tea.
Kisel or Kissel: pureed cooked fruit that is thickened slightly with cornstarch or potato starch and served warm or chilled with cream or custard sauce.
Klettsky These are boiled dough balls, like dumplings, served with sautéed onions or broth, or made with chopped apples and served with sugar.
Koliadki Small biscuits with different fillings served at Christmas.
Kopchenaya Senga: smoked salmon.
Kournik traditional Russian wedding pie with a layered filling of mushrooms, rice and chicken meat.
Kovrizhka: Russian Spicedcookie with ground almonds
Kotletki: Russian meatballs made of finely ground beef, seasonings, and shaped into rounded ovals, crumbed and butter-fried. Diminutive of Kotleti.
Krendel: the traditional pretzel-shaped sweet yeast bread for Christmas, dotted with fruits and lightly iced.
Kromeskies Mixture of diced cooked meats and seasonings, wrapped in bacon then dipped in fritter batter and deep-fried. These are served as appetizers and eaten dipped into ketchup.
Kroucheniki Russian beef rolls filled with cabbage and stewed in tomato sauce.
Krupenik: Russian barley and mushroom soup based on broth and served with sour cream.
Kulebiaka: rich flaky pastry usually filled with a mixture of salmon, cabbage, and mushrooms, but many other fillings are possible, then rolled up and baked. It is served hot or cold in thick slices, with the addition of extra butter and the inevitable sour cream. See Pirogi.
Kulesh a gruel or thick soup from peas, potatoes and cereal, dressed with onion and oil.
Kulitch: delicate yeast-leavened fruit cake, blessed by the priest and served with Pascha for Easter.
Kumiss or Koumiss: considered the oldest of Russian beverages and one cloaked in legendary attributes. Still a favored drink in the Kirghiz region. Kumiss is made from fermented mare's milk prepared in wooden tubs or horse skins.
Kutija: ancient Slavic dish of cooked grain, sugar, honey, raisins, and nuts usually prepared especially for Christmas Eve and also served to mourners at a funeral. In the south, rice replaces the whole grains of wheat used in most other areas of the Russian Federation.
Kvaschenaya Kapusta: sauerkraut.
Kvass: is a fermented (non-alcoholic drink, by Russian standards, with an alcohol content of ½ to 1 %) made from water, black or regular rye bread, sugar, and yeast; repeated soakings and pouring off of the liquid yield Kvass.
Kyurdyuk: the fat rendered from fat-tailed sheep; used in cooking and as a final hint of flavor.
Kvass imbibing a very unique drink
Glossary L Thru' P
Lacomstvo Dainty food, sweets.
Lagoschi Sweets, candies
Lapsha: noodles. Crumbled dough for soups, vermicelli, may also refer to a soup of milk and noodles.
Lekakh is a pastry with honey raisins and walnuts
Loby (Lobbio) Armenian recipe - string beans in a sauce with onion and spices.
Lox: salmon that is cured by salting. Lox is not the same as smoked salmon, lox is cured entirely with salt and can be done easily at home. Lox is actually a Yiddish word. It is served as part of the zakusky.
Lula-Kebab Small fried lamb sausages from Kasakh cuisine
Makanets Pie or a thick pancake, dipped in butter
Makivnyk Georgian, Sweet,yeast raise roll filled with poppy seed filling
Malinovo wine Has a strong aroma of raspberry, produced by special technology,
Marlenka: Armenian honey and nutmeg cake, ancient
Mazurka: a rich cake of fruit and nuts baked especially for Christmas. Polish origin.
Med: a beverage of honey and diluted wine similar to mead.
Medianyky Ukrainian rolled, spicedhoney cookies served at Christmas
Medovik: a famous traditional Russian honey cake with sour cream
Morozhenoe Ice cream, A little icier than ours, Russians eat ice cream all year
Nalivka traditional home-made liquor. Made from various kinds of fruit, herbs and spices macerated in vodka.
Nastoyka A Russian national drink with a very long history. Made from almost any herbs, spices and fruit. It can be produced either by infusing herbs with alcohol or by distillation. Has an ancient history that is said to predate the distillation of vodka.
Okroshka: A cold Summer soup made from finely chopped vegetables combined with a liquid, either kvass (a fermented bread drink) or kefir (buttermilk
Oladky or Oladyi: small fluffy pancakes made with separated eggs, kefir or and fried in butter. Served with sugar and sour cream.
Pahlava Uzbek cuisine, pastry filled with walnuts drizzled with honey. Uzbek version of baklava
Pampushki May refer to a garlicky yeast raised bread roll or a potato dumpling that can be fried or baked
Pannkoogid Dessert pancakes, leavened with meringue and served with lingonberry preserves
Paskha: paska, pasca, paskha and pascha. Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Polish cuisine all feature paskha Sweet cheese mold traditionally served at Easter. Made of sweetened Pot Cheese, almonds and candied or dried fruit, molded into the shape of a four-sided pyramid. Molded or decorated with nuts or candy to form the letters XB, which stands for Christ is risen. Paskha is the traditional accompaniment for the sweet yeast bread Kulic.
Pashtet or Paschtet: Pate or chopped chicken livers, browned onions, and butter smoothly ground or pureed together. Eaten as part of the Zakusky.
Paramach: Tatar-originated pastry is like a meat-filled doughnut, a five-inch dough circle spread with filling, pinched up, and deep-fried.
Pelmeni, Pilmenu: Siberian half-moon-shaped dumplings of wheat noodle dough usually filled with meat. Customarily these are prepared in huge batches and frozen by hanging outdoors on strings. Dropped into a boiling soup or water, they are often taken by travelers as "instant food.
Pirog or Pirogi or Piroshki or Perogies a flaky turnover that can he filled with almost anything, the smallest is called by the diminutive Piroshki. Pirojok is the singular. The largest version is called Kulebiaka, usually made large enough to feed six.
Piroznaya Plate: a special small plate that accompanies almost all soup plates, especially to place soup accompaniments on.
Pisken Balyk Classic Boiled fish from Kazakhstan cuisine.
Pivo: Czech word for beer.
Pleeta: a remarkable stove used in homes in Russia. Often provides the heat for the entire house, serves as a warm bed at night, cooks meals and bakes foods in either one of two ovens: a slow oven and a fast oven. There is an area near the ovens for broiling shashlyk ,while the chimney carries the charcoal fumes away from the heating samovar.
Plov Uzbekistan's national dish,plov is rice with raisins, and dressed with melted butter, or with lamb (chicken) and saffron
Pokhlebka is a kind of strong vegetable broth. Unlike soup based on meat stock, pokhlebka is a light soup based on water and vegetables.
Ponchiki Russian yeast raised doughnuts
Porsa Ancient way for Northern people to store fish by drying, mashing and frying in fat.
Pryanik (prianik) An ancient heavily spiced Russian confection.. Made with plenty of spices, cloves, cardamom, wild orange or lemon candied peel, Jamaican pepper, nutmeg, mint, anise, and ginger are usually added plus others; The first pryaniki appeared in Russia in the 9th century and were nothing more than a mixture of rye flour, honey and berry juice.
Prostokvasha is cultured low fat fermented milk with a great variety of bacterial cultures, promoted for its probiotic benefits
Brewing tea Russian-style, with a samovar
Glossary R Thru Z
Rassolnyk Russian soup in a salty-sour cucumber pickle base, kidneys and other meats are used such as giblets.
Russkaya Piechka: proper name for the Russian built-in kitchen stove, maid's bed, baking oven, Shashlyk broiler, and extension for samovar all in one!
Ryazhenka It is cooked low fat sour milk,
Samovar is a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water, traditionally heated with coal or charcoal, many newer samovars use electricity.
Schav: a spinach or sorrel soup, usually vegetarian but there are recipes that call for beef or even spare ribs, tart in taste, served with sour cream and Vatrushky.
Schi: Once, soups were called Schi. Later Schi were meant as cabbage soups. But now you can find the recipes of Schi with sorrel, spinach and young nettle served with Kasha and traditionally accompanied by Vatrushky (cheese tarts). Sour Schi, is made with sauerkraut; green Schi, also called Schav, made with spinach, sorrel or both: and spring Schi, prepared from the first spring cabbage sprouts.
Selodka: salt herrings, made by covering whole herrings, not gutted, with coarse salt, coarsely ground pepper and bay leaves for 3 days in a cold place. Later marinated with garlic and spices, they are not gutted until serving.
Shashlyk: Georgian, skewered broiled meats, usually lamb.
Solyanka is a thick, strong sour-salty soup, may be meat or more usually salmon, chopped pickled cucumbers, olives, capers, onions, etc
Sushki is a traditional Russian tea bread. It is a small, crunchy, mildly sweet bread. If they are cooked well they are very light and crispy, and they are called “Chelhochok”. Like bagels (and bublik and baranki), sushki are boiled and then baked, but the results are much, much drier.
Smetana: sour cream.
Sochny Russian half moon fried cookies stuffed with cheese and seved with sugar and sour cream
Solianka: a sour beef or mixed meat soup, always with cucumbers. Also, Ribnaia solianka which is made by poaching sturgeon steaks or any white-fleshed fish in court bouillon. The vegetables are strained, pureed, then returned to the soup with the fish pieces.
Sult Estonian, jellied veal dish made by cooking veal with pig knuckles to extract the gelatin.
Syrniki fried quark cheese curd pancakes that can be served sweet, sprinkled with sugar and sour cream, or savory, topped with sour cream and herbs such as dill.
T'Chai or Chai: Russian name for tea, probably derived from the Chinese name for tea, ch'a.
Tkemali Georgian, sour prune Sauce,serve w chicken, fish or pork.
Tvorog: dry white cottage cheese or pot cheese.
Tyurya A soup made of bread soaked in Kvass, historically important during times of famine and religious fasts.
Ukha is a warm watery fish broth or soup, originally served to accompany fish pie but now as a soup.
Varenyky, Ukrainian dessert dumpling filled with sweetened pot cheese or fruit. Another version of Perogies
Vatrushky: small open-face pastry tarts filled with cottage cheese and sour cream, may be sweet or savory. (Vatrushka refers to a large cheesecake.)
Vesenny, Spring, as in Vesenny (spring) salad of cucumbers radishes, hard boiled eggs and sour cream
Zakusky or Zakuska: Russian hors d'oeuvres, or small plate meals which can include any of a variety of foods such as anchovies, blinis, (small buckwheat pancakes), caviar, cheeses, fish, oysters and fish- or meat-filled pastries. A zakuska assortment is generally served with bottles of ice-cold vodka
Zrazi: similar to Kotleti, only the "hamburgers" are filled with mushrooms and Kasha then crumbed and butter-browned.