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RUSSIAN CUISINE    
Soups      Main Dishes     Drinks      Mediterranian Cuisine  
   

Russian cuisine is as rich and varied as its vast and multicultural expanse. Its foundations were laid by a mainly peasant 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, of course, vodka. Flavorful soups and stews centered on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. These wholly native foods, along with the spices and techniques used for grilling meat and making sour clotted milk brought by the Mongols and Tatars of the thirteenth century, 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 cooking methods.

Russia 's great expansions of territory, influence, and interest during the 16th-18th century brought more refined foods and culinary techniques. It was during this period that butter, sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, chocolates, ice cream, and 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, in the West, are considered to be traditionally Russian come from the Franco-Russian cuisine of the 18th and 19th Centuries and include such ubiquitous dishes as kulebiaka, beef stroganov, and Sharlotka (Charlotte Russe).

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Soups
Soups have always played an important role in the Russian meal. The traditional range of soups such as Shchi, borsch, Ukha, Rassolnik, Solyanka, Botvin`, Okroshka, and Teur' 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 kvas such as teur', Okroshka, and botvin'ya.
  • Light soups and stews based on water and vegetables.
  • Noodle soups with meat, mushroom and milk gamma.
  • 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 and kal'ya.
  • Grain and vegetable based soups.

Cold Soups

Okroshka
Okroshka is a cold soup based on kvas, the main ingredients are vegetables which 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 (boiled potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, fresh cucumbers) the second must be spicy consisting of mainly green onion as well as other herbs (greens of dill, parsley, chervil, celery, 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, perch, pike-perch, cod or other neutral tasting fish.

Kvas that is most commonly used is white okroshka kvas, which is much more sour than drinking kvas. Spices used include mustard, black pepper and cucumber pickle (the water used), solely or in combination.

And for the final touch boiled eggs and smetana are added.

Teur 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, that went almost extinct because it is very hard to make. Recipes that you can find in some modern cooking books give advices as how to prepare it "easily" by substituting some of the ingredients. But that will not give you the real taste.

A full botvin'ya consists of three parts: 1) the soup, 2) boiled "red" (most prized) fish (salmon, sturgeon, 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 keep in line with the name: leafy tops of young beet, beetroots, oxalate sorrel, green onions, dill, cucumbers, two types of kvas, then some mustard, lemon juice and horse-radish as spices.

It is eaten as first course or right after a hot soup, before the second course as an appetizer. You have to eat it with two spoons and a fork: the fork is used to take the fish, the first spoon to sip the soup and the second spoon to put ice into the soup, so it always stays cold. Botvin'ya is eaten with fresh rye bread.

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Hot Soups

Shch i (cabbage soup) had been the main Russian first course over a thousand years. Although tastes changed, it steadily made its way through several epochs. And it never knew social class boundaries, it was a soup for everyone. Of course shchi was not the same for different people: the one richer in ingredients, was called accordingly "rich", on the contrary "poor" shchi was made out of cabbage and onions solely. Nevertheless all these "poor" and "rich" variations were cooked in the same tradition thus obtaining its taste and flavour. The unique taste of this cabbage soup was from the fact that after cooking it was left to draw (stew) in a Russian stove. "Spirit of scshi" was ineradicable from a Russian izba (log hut). Many Russian proverbs are connected to this soup, such as "Shchi - vsemu golova" ("Shchi is head to everything"). It can be eaten regularly at any time of the year.

The richer variant of shchi includes 6 main components: cabbage, meat (very rarely fish or mushrooms), carrots or parsley roots, spicy herbs (onions, celery, dill, garlic, pepper, boy leaf) and sour components (smetana, apples, cabbage pickle (water). The first and the last components are a must.

When this soup is served, smetana is added. It is eaten with rye bread.

Kislye (sour) schi are made from pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), "serye" (gray) 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 string unique taste. Beans, sour cabbage, beetroot are never used.

Ukha is a hot watery fish dish, calling it a fish soup would be not absolutely correct. "Ukha" as a name for fish broth was established only in the late XVII - early XVIII centuries. In earlier times this name was first given to meat and later chicken thick broths. Beginning from the XV c. more and more often was fish used to prepare ukha, thus creating a dish that had a different distinguished taste amongst other 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 can't make a good ukha from seafish, but this is untrue. Fresh fish is best to be cooked, so if it frozen its better not to defreeze it. Preference is given to smaller, younger fish, with the tail part of bigger fish discarded.

Rassolnik is a hot soup on salty-sour cucumber base. This dish formed in Russian cuisine quite late - only in the XIX ?., and at about this time the name rassolnik was fixed behind it. It originates from the Russian word "rassol" which means brine (pickle water). Pickle water was known to be used as base for soups from the XV c. at the latest. Its concentration and ratio with other liquids and soup components gave birth to different soups: kal'ya, solyanka, pohmelka and of course rassolnik. The latest are moderately sour-salty soups on pickled cucumber base - vegetarian or more often with subproducts: veal or beef kidneys solely or all poultry giblets (stomach, liver, heart, neck, feet). For best taste there has to be a balance between the sour part and neutral absorbers (cereals, potatoes, root vegetables). Like most Russian soups rassolnik is whitened with smetana (sour cream).

Kal'ya was a very common first served dish in the XVI-XVII c. Subsequently it almost completely disappeared from Russian cuisine. Often it was incorrectly called fish rassolnik. Cooking technique is mostly the same as of ukha, but to the broth were added pickled cucumbers, pickle water, lemons and lemon juice, either separately or altogether. Main characteristic of kal'ya is that only fat rich fish was used, sometimes caviar was added along with fish. More spices are added, the soup turns out more piquant and thicker than ukha. Formerely kal'ya was considered a festivity dish.

Solyanka is a thick piquant soup that combines components from schi (cabbage, smetana) and rassolnik (pickle water and cucumbers), spices such as olives, capers, tomatoes, lemons, lemon juice, kvas, salted and pickled mushrooms are make up a considerably strong sour-salty-piquant base of the soup. Comparing to other soups solyanka is much thicker, about 1/3 less liquid ratio. 3 types are distinguished: meat, fish and simple solyanka. The first two are cooked on strong meat, fish broths, the last on mushroom or vegetable broth. All the broths are mixed with cucumber pickle water.

Noodle soup was adopted by Russians from Tatars, after some transformation became widespread in Russia . Noodle soup comes in three variations: chicken, mushroom and milk. Cooking all the types is easy, including preparation of noodles, cooking of corresponding broth and boiling of noodles in broth. Noodles are made based on the same recipe out of wheat flour or buckweat, wheat flour mix. Mixed flour noodles go better with mushroom or milk broth.

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Main Dishes

Pelmeni are a national Eastern European (mainly Russian) dish - usually made with minced meat filling, wrapped in thin dough (made out of flour and eggs, sometimes with milk or water added). The name means "bear's ear" (or "bread ear") in Uralic languages, from which it was borrowed by the Russians. For filling, pork, lamb, beef or any other kind of meat can be used; mixing several kinds is popular. Traditional Ural recipe requires to make filling with 45% of beef, 35% of lamb and 20% of pork. Often various spices, such as pepper, onions, and garlic, are mixed into the filling.

Pelmeni became the "national" dish of Russian Siberia, where they were made in large quantities and stored safely frozen outside for several winter months. By late 19th century, they became a staple throughout urban European Russia. They are prepared immediately before eating by boiling in water until they float, and then 2-5 minutes more. The resulting dish is served with butter and/or sour cream (mustard, horseradish and vinegar are popular as well). Some recipes suggest to fry pelmeni after boiling until they turn golden brown.

Pelmeni belong to the family of dumplings. They are closely related to vareniki - Ukrainian variety of dumplings with filling made of mashed potatoes, cottage cheese or cherries, to mention the most popular three. They are also similar to Chinese potstickers. The main difference between pelmeni and other kinds of dumplings is in their shape and size - typical pelmen' is roughly spherical and is about 2 to 3 cm in diameter, whereas most other types of dumplings are usually elongated and much larger.

Pirozhki are small stuffed buns (pies) made of either yeast dough or short pastry. They are filled with one of many different fillings, and are either baked (the ancient Slavic method) or shallow-fried (this method of cooking - priazhenie - was borrowed from the Tatars in the 16th century.) One feature of pirozhki that sets them apart from, for example, English pies is that the fillings used are almost invariably fully cooked. The use of chopped hard-boiled eggs in fillings is another interesting feature: fish sauteed with onions and mixed with hard-boiled chopped eggs, chopped boiled meat mixed with sauteed onions and eggs and mashed potatoes mixed with eggs and sour cream are three typical fillings for traditional pirozhki.

Shashlyk A form of Shish kebab (marinated meat grilled on a skewer) popular in former Soviet Union countries, notably in Georgia , Russia , Armenia , Azerbaijan , and Uzbekistan . It often features alternating slices of meat and onions. Even though the word 'shashlyk' was apparently borrowed from the Crimean Tatars by the Cossacks as early as the 16th century, kebabs did not reach Moscow until the late 19th century, according to Gilyarovsky's " Moscow and Moscovites". From then on they spread like wildfire: by 1910's they were a staple in St Petersburg restaurants and by 1920's they were already a pervasive street food all over urban Russia .

Blini is a thin pancake which is often served in connection with a religious rite or festival in several cultures.

The word "blin" comes from Old Slavic mlin, that means "to mill". Blins had a somewhat ritual significance for early Slavic peoples in pre-Christian times since they were a symbol of the sun, due to their round form. They were traditionally prepared at the end of the winter to honor the rebirth of the new sun (Pancake week, in Russian ?????????.. um.. which means "Butter" week, if anything). This tradition was adopted by the Orthodox church and is carried on to the present day. Bliny were once also served at wakes, to commemorate the recently deceased.

Syrniki are fried curd fritters, garnished with sour cream, jam, honey, and/or apple sauce.

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Drinks
Almost all Russian traditional drinks are original and are not present in other national cuisines. Those are sbiten`, kvas, medok, mors, curdle with raisins, boiled cabbage juice. Many of them are no longer in use. Long since they were drunk as a complement to meat and poultry dishes, sweet porridge and desert. Standing apart from all of them is sbiten, whose place was taken by tea when it came to Russia .

Most ancient drink is medok (medi, medki), this word in Russian is the diminutive form of the word "honey". It should not be mixed up with the so called "stavlenniy myod"(brewed honey, mead): medok is made on water with small amounts of honey and hops, "stavlenniy myod" is a strong alcoholic drink, composed of berry juice, large amount of honey and vodka. Mors is made of berry juice, mixed in different proportions with water, slightly fermented. Curdle is prepared on raisins and is slightly fermented as well. Cabbage juice (fresh, but more often sour, from fermented cabbage) is boiled with a small amount of sugar. These drinks are non-persistent, made in small amounts in household conditions.

Kvas and sbiten' on the other had were always mass drinks. Most widespread was kvas, having a few dozen variations.

The basic method of preparing kvas is that out of water, flower and malt liquid dough (zator) is made which is subjected to fermentation. This fermented "zator" is diluted by water; yeast, sugar and aromatic additives are mixed in and then it is brewed. The role of additive can be played by fruit and berry juices(cherry, rasberry, lemon, etc.) as well as ginger and mint.

Comparing to kvas, sbiten` is very simple to prepare. Separately honey and sbiten' flavour(spices, juices) are boiled down and then these two parts are combined and boiled again. It is a hot winter drink.

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