Russian cuisine: the taste of Russia
Traditional and contemporary home cooking
Welcome to the new edition of Matryoshka’s diary. Today we will explore traditional and contemporary home cooking and share a few delicious and easy recipes. This is an invitation to experience some of the best and most iconic Russian dishes.
Russian cultural mosaic
Russian cuisine is a mirror reflection of the country’s diverse ethnic, geographical and cultural mosaic. It evolved gradually over time, with influences from Europe in the West and Asia in the East. Situated between these polar opposites, Russia formed its owned unique approach to cooking by blending different techniques and developing its own.
The ingredients typically used in Russian cuisine (beets, onions, cabbage, oats and buckwheat) are the same now as they were 2000 years ago. While there are more varieties of these nutritious staples available today, the basic agricultural techniques for growing them are essentially the same. Cooking methods have evolved over time with changes in technology and the availability of resources.
The evolution of Russian cuisine, with the middle (merchant) class having the greatest impact on the development of classic Russian cuisine as we understand it today. While the same basic raw ingredients and certain recipes were enjoyed by all social classes, poor peasant households differed greatly from middle class and nobility households in the variety of cooking tools used and the availability and complexity of cooking methods.
Poor peasant households were limited in the choice of ingredients used and relied mostly on the traditional Russian oven and several basic preservation techniques such as drying, pickling, fermentation and smoking (primarily for meats and fish). These limitations created boundaries in the variety of dishes prepared in peasant homes.
Nobility in Russia, since the times of Peter the Great, preferred to follow European cuisine trends, with French cuisine being the most influential. If you had looked at a typical table of a Russian prince, you would have likely found an array of fine French dishes rather that authentically Russian ones.
The middle class – mostly merchants, lesser nobility and well-to-do city dwellers – had enough income to afford a variety of ingredients and cooking tools. Yet, unlike the nobility, they had a strong attachment to their ethnic roots and preferred Russian cooking to fancy but foreign cuisine as their everyday nourishment. The socio-economic position of the merchant class created the perfect setting for the development of authentic and classic Russian cuisine with its great variety, richness and unique flavour.
Russian cuisine has been shaped over thousands of years. However, as noted by William Pohlebkin – a late 20th century Russian culinary historian – Russian cuisine, in the form that we know it today, was shaped primarily in the end of the 19th century. This was around the time that cookbooks for the general public became available and thus provided a recorded account of foods that were eaten throughout the Russian Empire.
Typical Russian cuisine from a historical perspective
- Medieval Russian period – From the 9th to the 16th century.
- Muscovian Tsardom Period – From the 17th century (right up to the reign of Peter the Great).
- Late Imperial Period – From the beginning of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century when railway systems and other modes of transportation helped regional Russian cuisine reach different parts of the country and gain popularity in new places.
- Soviet Period – From the Russian Revolution in 1917 until collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Setting the mood
(These suggestions are included to help you recreate the authentic feeling of old Russia).
To set the mood you will need to bring out the fancy china and a nice ornate table-cloth. Dress yourself up too, invite a few of your dear friends (or a lot – whatever you prefer) for dinner. A pleasant conversation is the centrepiece of any Russian feast.
- A film to watch
War and Peace director by Sergei Bondarchuk. This movie, based on the famous epic novel by Leo Tolstoy won an Oscar for best foreign language movie. It took many years to film, and the beautiful cocstumes and brilliant acting make this an
- Music to listen to
Tchaikovsky or a collection of Russian romance (performed by Zhanna Bichevskaya, Alexander Vertinsky, Feodor Chaliapine, Anastasia Vyaltseva) or folk songs performed by the Kuban Cossack Chorus.
- A book to read
Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls is one of the major works of 19th century Russian literature. Gogol creates unforgettable images of typical middle-class people of that era. His work is laced with delectable descriptions of all sorts of food fare – a definite must-read from a culinary perspective. I am excited to share a few recipes that use traditional ingredients and, at the same time, have been updated to incorporate more modern methods.
This classic Russian fish soup, called Ukha, is delicious and comforting. Fish fillets are gently cooked to perfection together with potatoes and carrots in a rich broth infused with subtle flavors of bay leaf and black peppercorns.
The history of Ukha
Ukha (also sometimes spelled Uha) is a very old Russian dish that has been around since the 12th century. Nobody knows for sure what the original recipe was, and the way of preparing Ukha has changed over the years.These days, the recipe very much depends on the region. Every family has their own unique way of cooking this Russian fish soup.
Fishing is a very popular hobby in Russia and modern-day Ukha is often cooked over an open fire by fishermen using the freshly caught fish. Ukha is also a popular soup that people cook at home and you can also often find it on restaurant menus.Ukha (pronounced OOH-ha) can be cooked using various types of fish. Those who are lucky enough to have access to freshly caught fish use the catch of the day, others buy fish at a grocery store.The other main ingredients in Ukha are vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and carrots. Aromatics and spices used are black peppercorns, bay leaf, parsley, and/or dill. Regional recipe variations might include other vegetables and spices.
The traditional way to cook Ukha
Traditionally, Ukha is cooked with fish stock which is prepared using fish bones, tails, and heads. When it’s cooked outdoors with a catch of the day, often the smaller fish are cooked first to make the stock and the bigger fish are added at the end. Or, all ingredients are added at the same time and simply cooked together.
The simple way of cooking Ukha at home
Those who cook Ukha at home can buy frozen fish bones and heads specially packaged to make homemade fish stock. Making your own fish stock might become problematic if fish bones and heads are not available at your local grocery store. However, a delicious Ukha can be prepared with simple vegetable stock, which can be easily made at home. Another way of simplifying Ukha recipe is by buying fresh fish fillets so that you don’t have to spend time dealing with the bones from whole fish.
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