Like all great national cuisines, the Russian tradition developed as a unique response to its climate, geography and history. Over the centuries its culinary richness evolved as it absorbed and then transformed the influences brought by trade with Western Europe and the Orient, as well as through foreign invasion and its own territorial expansion. The highly sophisticated cuisine of the 17th and 18th centuries, with its elaborate courses, ornate table service, and exotic imported delicacies existed only for a rare few—the landed aristocracy and wealthiest city dwellers. The bulk of Russia’s population was scattered across a vast terrain in tiny villages, isolated by great distances, and feeding themselves from their own small farms and the forests, rivers and lakes nearby. Challenged by a harsh and often fickle northern climate, yet endowed with a creative native ingenuity, these peasants created a “cuisine of the people” out of simple ingredients that was nevertheless nourishing, appealing and enduring. With some additions and refinements, this peasant cuisine became the solid basis of Russian cooking up until the twentieth century.
The early Russian diet depended heavily on grain products, and especially those that could be grown during its short, cool growing season. Medieval records vividly depict in a few words the regular disasters and famine befalling both men and livestock in frequently undependable weather. These extracts describe a four-year span from The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1017-1471:
AD 1125…The same year there was a great storm with thunder and hail… it drowned droves of cattle in the Volkhov, and others they hardly saved alive.
AD 1127….And in the autumn the frost killed all the [grain] and the winter crop; and there was famine throughout the winter…
AD 1128…This year it was cruel; the people ate [linden] leaves, birch bark, pounded wood pulp mixed with husks and straw; some ate buttercups, moss, horse flesh; and thus many dropping down from hunger, their corpses were in the streets, in the market place, and on the roads, and everywhere. . . fathers and mothers would put their children into boats in gift to [foreign] merchants [to be slaves], or else put them to death.
When nature obliged, rye, spelt, millet, barley, oats and buckwheat were the primary grain crops, and provided the foundation of the diet in the form of bread, kasha, and grain product called kissel.
The Russians likely learned the art of sourleavening bread from the Scythians—Central Asian nomads who ruled southern Russia for three centuries from about 300 AD. Sourdough rye bread has been recorded as a staple in the diet since at least the 9th century. It has remained a favorite and respected mainstay for centuries; revered even as the very essence of life. In the typical peasant diet an adult would consume close to two pounds of this dense, sour bread per day.
Wheat flour was introduced as a trade item during the 15th century, but was not suitable for growing in the northern European portion of Russia. After Ivan IV (the Terrible) conquered Kazan and Astrakhan in the 16th century, Russia gained territory where wheat could be grown, and this was transported to the rest of the country. In this era, filled, leavened pies, such as pirogi, made from wheat flour were introduced into the cuisine. The peasants continued to rely upon rye as the source of their daily bread, however.
The great reliance on grains resulted in creative ways of preparing each one, both to provide variation in the diet and to maximize their nutritive value. Grain kissel, for instance, is a method of soaking, fermenting and cooking grain (and also dried peas) that produces a jelled liquid “concentrate” of the grain, and is usually eaten cool with sour cream or kvas. The procedure for oat kissel, for example, involves drying whole oats carefully on the floor of a warm brick oven, and then pounding the oats in a mortar to partially crush them. The oats are covered in hot water and left to sour in a warm place for a day and a half. The soured oats are then pushed through a sieve and the thick oat “milk” that is extruded is slowly cooked until it thickens further like a jelly. It is then poured into a wide plate and left to cool, becoming even more jelled. This oat “aspic,” served with sour cream or kvas, is considered especially good for children, the elderly and convalescents, as it is nutritious and very easy to digest. The soured oat remnants did not go to waste, but were stirred into flour, left for 24 hours to sour further, and then baked into flat breads called lepyoshki.
Kasha, or porridge, ascended to the status of a mass ritual dish between the 10th and 14th centuries. To mark great undertakings, such as the ground-breaking for a cathedral or fortress, a wedding, baptism, and so on, kasha was prepared to feed a large crowd. The word “kasha” became synonymous with “feast” and indeed there were many delicious ways to prepare it. The preferred grain for kasha was buckwheat, although barley, spelt and green rye were also made into kashas. The kasha was cooked in an oven in earthenware pots with a strong meat bouillon and any number of additions such as meat, mushrooms, and onions.
Shchi and Soups
Accompanying bread and grain was the other great mainstay of the traditional Russian peasant diet—soup, and in particular shchi. Shchi is a soup made from green cabbage in the summer and soured cabbage or sorrell in the winter. Depending upon the wealth of the household it could be very plain, made with just vegetables and herbs, or quite rich, made with a strong meat broth and cooked with a large piece of meat that was served alongside. Often a thick shchi might make up the entire meal. Its popularity transcended all economic classes and was regularly served on the tables of the rich and poor alike. In a climate that experienced six months of winter each year, hot soup was a comfort as well as a nourishing centerpiece in the diet, and Russian cuisine has never lost the requirement of a first course of soup in the daily menu.
Borshch and ukha are two other basic soups common to Russian cuisine, although borshch is actually of Ukrainian origin. There are literally hundreds of borshch recipes, some including sausages and other cuts of meat and even beans, some are vegetarian, but the primary and sole requirement is that it must contain beets. Borshch is traditionally enhanced with sour cream in the soup plate, and often the broth is spiced with pickle brine.
Ukha is made from fish, yet is not technically a fish soup. The simplest method was to poach a whole fish in water with herbs and seasonings and the entire fish (including softened bones) would be eaten with its broth. A more elaborate variation calls for several varieties of bony fish to first be cooked to produce a stronger broth. These fish are then discarded and whole pieces of better quality fish are poached in this broth.
Peasants with a bit of land to support a few pigs, chickens and a cow or two greatly improved their diets with meat, eggs and dairy products for most of the year. Most milk products were eaten fresh, or soured, such as clabbered milk (prostokvasha) and sour cream (smetana). Cheese was traditionally the simple dry-curd pot cheese (tvorog) made from raw milk that soured naturally into curds and was then strained. Tvorog is eaten as is with sweet or sour cream or spread thickly on bread, and can also be used in baked dishes. Another ancient means of preparing milk was “baking” it in an earthenware jug at very low temperatures in the brick oven overnight or all day until a thick, honey-brown skin appeared on the milk and it soured slightly. This toplyonnoye moloko was an early delicacy, somewhat similar to custard.
Kefir was originally a product of the tribal peoples of the northern Caucasus region and became a popular Russian food later on. Cultured dairy products (never sweetened) have always been a permanent fixture in the Russian diet, and even today a wide variety of fermented dairy products is commercially available in Russia, including several varieties of kefir cultures and two varieties of “baked” fermented milk (varenets and ryazhenka) with special bacterial cultures added. Bifidok and Acidophilin contain kefir cultures with yet other beneficial lactic acid bacteria.
The Russians had known of and enjoyed the nutritive and medicinal benefits of fermented mare’s milk, kumyss, since earliest times. This was another food introduced many centuries before by the Scythians and in widespread use as noted in the oldest Russian chronicles. In the 17th century the Russian Orthodox Church proscribed the eating of horse flesh and drinking of mare’s milk as unclean, and kumyss dropped from the scene until appearing again in more recent times.
Kvas: Drink of the People
Kvas is a lightly fermented, slightly alcoholic beverage commonly made from rye bread sweetened with a bit of honey or fruit juices. Its widespread use among Russian peasantry has been recorded since at least 1000 AD. The sweetsour drink contains a good supply of B vitamins and active enzymes and was used, along with beet kvas, as a frequent addition to soups. Large pieces of meat were often oven-braised in kvas.
Besides kvas, early Russians enjoyed mead (medok, medovukha) and other forms of fermented honey, some mildly alcoholic and some much stronger. In the tenth century a form of mead was soured with hops and berry juices, and a method similar to wine making and requiring a five- to 35-year aging period produced a potent honey drink resembling Cognac. Earlier still, the Russians fermented birch sap into a sort of “beer.” Beer-making with grains did not develop until the end of the 13th century, and vodka made from rye grain appeared in Moscow somewhere in the mid to late 15th century. There was already a state monopoly on its production by the 16th century.
The Mongol invasion and conquest of Kievan Rus by Batu Khan occurred in 1237 and lasted until Ivan III terminated their “yoke” in 1480. For nearly 250 years the Russian people were subjected to waves of brutal sieges by the Golden Horde, as well as extortion exacted in the form of ransom tributes paid to forestall annihilation.
In spite of its destructive impact on Russian society, the Mongol presence also enriched the Russian diet in several important ways. With the reopening of the old Silk Road to China the Mongol invaders introduced spices such as saffron and cinnamon. Even more important than spices, however, the Mongols brought from China the art of fermenting cabbage. Although the Russians had long grown cabbage, they did not know how to preserve it in brine as sauerkraut. Once introduced, soured cabbage and other vegetables quickly became central in the Russian and Eastern European diet. In fact, it is nearly impossible to imagine Russian cooking without sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers and the many other brined vegetables and fruits, which greatly enlivened the table year round with much longed-for variety and important nutrients. Fresh vegetables and herbs included radishes, parsley, dill, chervil, green onions and garlic. Wild-growing chickory, nettles, sorrel and purslane were most often cooked in soups.
In 988 Prince Vladimir of Novgorod converted to Christianity and established the Byzantine rite of Orthodox Christianity as the Russian national faith. Legend has it that Vladimir chose the Orthodox Church because he didn’t like the dietary restrictions of either Judaism or Islam, and rejected the western Catholic tradition of an unleavened Eucharist host. Russian Orthodoxy nevertheless exerted a strong influence on the national diet through the imposition of a strict regimen of fast days. Depending on the calendar year, there are about 250 fast days each year, including every Wednesday and Friday, and the Great Fast (or Lent) of 50 days.
Among a people inured to food scarcity and occasional famine it seems heartless to impose further dietary restrictions, but the Russian diet actually expanded after the adoption of Orthodoxy. The prohibition from eating meat during fast days led to a blossoming in the creativity of fish dishes. Russia’s many rivers, streams, ponds and lakes were stocked with an astonishing variety of fish and crayfish, and its inland population had regular recourse to this rich bounty. Mushroom dishes also abounded, aided in great part by the many prolific mushroom species native to Russian forests. Here are two menus from a 19th century fast day of a comfortable, but not aristocratic, household:
Mushroom and sturgeon marrow pirog
Sturgeon head soup
Potatoes with herring
Plum soup with wine
Pike in yellow sauce
Potato cutlets with mushroom sauce
Stewed fruit compote
The Russian ecclesiastical calendar culminates in the spring with the progression of Butter Week, or Maslenitsa, through the Great Lenten Fast and finally the joyous feast of Easter (Paskha). Maslenitsa is an ancient holiday celebrated in mid winter that has been incorporated into Russian Orthodoxy, and in fact is so beloved it has been celebrated without interruption up to the present day. Originally a festival in honor of the coming spring, increasing sunshine and hoped-for fertility, the week-long holiday is one of a merry-making and carnival mood, with sleigh rides, dancing, and the eating of great quantities of blini drenched in butter and sour cream—two favorite foods that would be banned during the upcoming seven-week fast. Blini are themselves an ancient leavened pancake—thicker than crèpes, but not as thick as American breakfast pancakes. They were originally made of buckwheat flour and round in shape to remind one of the sun.
In rural Russia the long fast period also served to ensure that livestock would not be eaten but survive to fatten and reproduce in the spring. When the fast was broken with the great feast of Easter, celebrants of every ilk presented a holiday table as lavish as families could afford.
Several ritual foods are always required for the Easter table. Boiled eggs, usually decorated simply, are symbols of the fertility of spring and are presented in great quantity. Kulich, a very rich yeasted cake made with wheat flour, butter, eggs, and milk is only prepared for Easter. Its traditional accompaniment is paskha, a sweet cheese dish made from tvorog, sour cream, egg yolks, ground almonds, vanilla and sugar, shaped in a truncated pyramidal mold. A 19th century Easter table of a prosperous country family might look like this:
Butter sculpted in the shape of a lamb
Cold roast hare
Cold roast antelope or venison
Roast marinated beef
Stuffed suckling pig
Bread, horseradish, mustard, vinegar, olive oil
Various vodkas and wines
The Russian Oven
Perhaps one of the most profound influences on Russian traditional cuisine is the Russian oven (russkaya pechka) around which all family life centered in rural Russia. Of colossal size and weighing a ton or two, the Russian oven was made of clay, stone or brick. The multi-purpose oven was built with an ingenious internal channel system that directed hot smoke through a series of chambers before it exited the hut (izba). A fire was built in the main chamber, and controlled via several flue dampers. The structure burned fuel very efficiently, and a single firing was enough in all but the coldest weather to prepare the oven both for cooking all meals and heating the izba for the entire day. When the fire had died down, and the oven was very hot, the coals and ashes would be swept out or pushed to the side and food could then be cooked or baked. The hottest temperatures were used to bake bread, and as the oven slowly cooled other foods would be placed inside to “stew.” Nooks and shelves built on the sides of the oven were perfect spots for souring foods at a steady warm temperature. The tops of the ovens were flat and provided a cozy spot for the old folks (and cats) to sleep.
The oven had no burners, so all food was cooked inside the oven by the experienced housewife. Most food was cooked in earthenware containers that had rounded sides to maximize heat exposure. A long-handled tool with a U-shaped end served to move the jars in and out of the oven. Other oven utensils were bread peels and wooden paddles for turning grain that was dried on the oven floor. Long, slow cooking in radiant heat characterizes most of early Russian dishes, such as kasha and even soup, which was “stewed” more than boiled. Meat stews, interestingly, were not typical Russian fare as the traditional method of preparing meat was baking it on trays in large pieces, or even, if possible, cooking the whole animal. Chopped meat dishes, pâtés, ground meat and pureéd soups were introduced to Russian cuisine from western, mostly French, sources. Western-style stoves—enclosed metal ranges with burners that could deliver high heat—were introduced toward the middle of the 19th century in Russia, mostly for city dwellers and the provincial gentry, although the Russian oven was preferred for most traditional cooking and processing of raw ingredients.
The most novel refinements in Russian cuisine introduced in the 17th through the 19th centuries came largely from the west, and particularly from France. The influence turned out to be a mutual one, producing a grand Franco-Russian culinary style that featured hallmarks of both traditions, but was largely enjoyed only by the nobility and large landowners. Changes to the diet and daily lives of the peasants came much more slowly, due in good part to their deep suspicion of novelty. Potatoes, for example, were first introduced during the reign of Catherine the Great, yet took another 70 or 80 years before they were accepted and widely cultivated.
In some ways it could be said that Russia’s medieval period, as far as the bulk of the population was concerned, continued largely intact until it collided abruptly with the twentieth century. Upheaval in the shape of civil war, revolution and world war touched and forever altered every soul in the country. Collectivization ended the tradition of the peasant class, and also changed the face of agriculture for decades to come. A second world war and the long, hard recovery that followed, with chronic food shortages and deficits, made permanent because of Cold War military spending, ended only in the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union. Although consumer goods have since multiplied greatly, with many expensive foreign food imports, it will still take time for private ownership of the land to recreate a domestic food production economy to feed the people, although already there are some beginnings.
In the wake of such history, it is revealing to learn that during the period of perestroika, one of the first books to be reprinted after long neglect was an 1861 classic, Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewives. This beloved cook book had been continually in print and revised for 20 editions by its author until 1911. Written at a time that some consider the zenith of Russian cuisine, the book was condemned as decadent and bourgeois after the 1917 Revolution. Found only rarely at high prices in used book stores, the book recalled the culinary glory of a vanished age. The renewed popularity of Molokhovets’ masterpiece among modern ordinary people as well as restaurateurs speaks of the enduring pride in the cultural heritage of Russian traditional dishes and cooking methods.
A French View of 17th Century Muscovy
This excerpt is from the account of a French soldier of fortune, Jacques Margeret, who entered the services of Tsar Boris Godunov from 1600 to 1606. He returned home to France and in 1607 published his Estat de l’Empire de Russi et Gran de Duche de Muscouvie. His account provides a clear picture of the country’s possessions and natural resources, as well as the behaviors of its people, court officials and rulers. Margeret comments below on the general constitution of Muscovites and in particular their love of the banya, or sauna, as a health aid.
“’Tis almost a miracle to see how their bodies, accustomed to and hardened by cold, can endure so intense a heat, and how that, when they are not able to endure it any longer, they come out of the stoves, naked as the back of a man’s hand, both men and women, and go into the cold water…and in winter how they wallow in the snow….The Muscovites are of a healthy and strong constitution, long lived and seldom sick; which when they are, their ordinary remedies, even in burning fevers, are only garlic and strong waters…
“There are among the Russians many people aged 80, 100, to 120 years old. They are not subject to illness as in these parts. Except for the emperor and some principal lords, they do not know about physicians. They even consider to be unclean several things which one uses in medicine. Among other things, they do not take pills voluntarily. As for enemas, they abhor them…If the common people are sick, they usually take a good draught of aqua vitae, place in it…a peeled clove of garlic, stir this and drink it. Then they go immediately into a hot house which is so hot as to be almost unendurable, and remain there until they have sweated an hour or two. They do the same for all sorts of maladies….”
- Medieval Russia: A Source Book, 850-1700, Basil Dmytryshyn, Harcourt Brace, Third Edition, 1991.
- Classic Russian Cooking, Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewives, Joyce Toomre, Indiana University Press, 1992.
- The Art of Russian Cuisine, Anne Volokh with Mavis Manus, Collier Books, MacMillan Publishing Co., 1989.
- Russian Cooking, Helen and George Papashvili, Time Life Books, 1969.
- Кулинарный словарь, В.В. Похлебкин, Москва Центрограф, 1999.
- Обрядовая кулинария, Е. Й. Высоцкая, составитель, Мн.: Литература, 199
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2008.