A Travellerspoint blog

Russian Cuisine

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Traditional Russian food is comfort food -- hearty, warm and filling. I see a lot of similarities with Polish cuisine, though the Russian versions were more elaborate. I don't mean sophisticated so much as using more ingredients with a sauce on top.

Soups are a mainstay. My hands down favourite was borsch (a type of beet soup). The Russian version has a rich broth and hunks of beef. Yum! Other soups, not so much. There was a lot of cabbage and a little too much vinegar.

The "salads" were interesting. I use quotation marks because there was nothing remotely resembling a leafy green. For example, Russian Olivier salad involves diced potatoes, carrots, peas, pickles, ham and a lot of mayo. Vinegret salad was somewhat lighter -- diced beets, potatoes, carrots, onion, sauerkraut and pickles with an oil and vinegar dressing. I tried an interesting concoction on the train -- a base of minced pickled herring (with mayo) on the bottom topped with a layer of finely shredded beets (in a dressing) with crumbled/diced boiled egg on top. Weird, but strangely delicious.

Forget salt, sour cream was the condiment of choice in Russia. It came with breakfast, soup, lunch, dinner and even dessert!

Crepes (blini) and dumplings -- savory or sweet -- were fantastic! I like my blini stuffed with ground meat, but they were also yummy for dessert with jam or fruit. Pelmeni are a kind of Russian ravioli served in butter or broth. The dough was tender and each pelmeni had a serious meatball inside. Vareniki is the Russian version of a pierogi. OMG so much better than the frozen ones from Loblaw's! The dough was thin and delicate and melted in your mouth. I had some vareniki stuffed with sour cherries -- so flavourful!!

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A highlight for me was the beef stroganoff -- thin strips of tender beef in a flavourful cream sauce -- with butter-whipped mashed potatoes. Someone even made me a version without mushrooms!!:-)

I wanted to like Russian vodka. Polish vodka has a wonderful flavour, while Russian vodka was more about the burn and when it kicked you in the teeth (before, during or after you swallowed). I quickly learned Russian vodka was to be consumed with snacks -- pickles, herring, etc. The food really mellows it out.

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Russians rave about Georgian food (a former state of the USSR on the Black Sea above Turkey) -- pastes of ground vegetables and nuts smeared on flat breads, stews, and grilled meat kebobs. The restaurants were colourful and lively and the food was competent, but I was underwhelmed. It reminded me of Turkish, Greek and Lebanese cuisine, but with less flavour.

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Russians love, love, love ice cream. Given the Arctic breeze off the Baltic Sea, the last thing I wanted was ice cream, but I eventually succumbed to my curiosity. One of my friends makes his own ice cream with pure cream and fresh fruit. This was the quality which comes in a $1-2 ice cream cone in Russia. I tried some unique flavours like strawberry basil. I now understand the love affair!

I was surprised and impressed with non-Russian cuisine. I had a few wonderful bistro meals in upscale, trendy restaurants (e.g., seared duck breast with porto wine sauce and roasted vegetables) for $30-$50 with wine, and including tax and tip. Service was also superb, though English was sometimes a tad dicey. Most servers only had a few set English phrases. If you ever asked a question off-script, the answer was yes, or sublime confusion, depending on your reaction to the yes.

Sigh. I'm now back home -- no more breakfasts of smoked herring and salmon with little sweet cottage cheese pancakes and freshly baked bread -- withdrawal sucks!!

Posted by Caro369 20:53 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Moscow

Full of surprises

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I expected Moscow, with a population of 12 million people, to be another big city. Given its years as the seat of communism in Russia, I was thinking it would be a bit dusty, a little grey and very dowdy. Well -- hmm -- I was very wrong. The city was modern, vibrant with a lot of of character, and very welcoming.

Not a lot of skyscrapers. Buildings were a mix of modern glass buildings, and well-kept European or neo-classical/Communist architecture. The centre of town was buffed up spic and span with numerous public squares, wide boulevards with parks in the median, or wide pedestrian walkways running parallel. To make public areas safe and inviting at night, parks were lined with giant neon flowers or cheery strings of lights. While the city is huge, it never seemed to feel crowded.

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Built in Communist times as "palaces for the people," the subway system is fast, efficient and cheap. Many of the stations are faced with marble and decorated with chandeliers, carvings, paintings, mosaics and other decoration. It is a good thing that walking and taking the subway are pleasant, because traffic in the centre is notoriously bad. Travelling just a few kilometres can take a half hour or more!

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The Kremlin (basically a walled city/fortress) and Red Square (on the other side of the wall) have been the heart of Moscow for 900 years. In the movies, the Kremlin is portrayed as an ominous, dark place where the Communists plotted against the West. It seems so odd that you can just saunter in for a tour. It was an unexpectedly beautiful place.

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Today, President Putin has his office in the same building where Lenin and Stalin lived and worked. He has added a couple of helipads so he can avoid the rush hour traffic. I didn't realize that the Kremlin was also the home of the Tsars for centuries (before Saint Petersburg) and the fortress contains a former imperial palace as well as many stunning onion-domed cathedrals where Tsars were crowned, baptised and buried. The Diamond Fund Museum displays Russia's crown jewels (e.g., crowns, scepters, etc) and many other treasures from Tsarist times.

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Moscow is something of a study in contrasts. On the surface there appears to a lot of wealth. The famous GUM shopping arcade on Red Square is filled end to end with stores for Gucci, Versace, Prada and the like. Many other shopping malls in the centre are of the same ilk. But this is deceiving.

There is sharp divide between the ultra rich and everyone else. From the elderly people begging for money in subway stations, where families with more than one child seemed unusual, to the "taxi" driver (a guy doing this on the side) who was happy to drag his ass out of bed at 4:30 am to make less than $20 by driving me from my hotel to the train station.

Like at home, everyone has some sort of mobile device, but they seem to cut corners in other ways. In cafes and cafeterias, people are very careful about their food choices -- a small pastry and espresso for breakfast, and a soup or a small sandwich for lunch. It wasn't just the women, I saw men in business suits make the same kinds of choices.

Maybe it is a money thing, or a beauty thing, or a combination of both. Young women in Russia are Hollywood thin. I went to the spa (loved the soapy massage and crazy branch invigoration) which is more affluent activity and looking around, I was carrying an extra 10-20 pounds.

The level of English in hotels and restaurants in Moscow was much better than in Saint Petersburg. For the most part, people were very kind and friendly. though I also met a lot of grumpy people, typically middle aged ladies with a snarl. Russia does not use the Roman alphabet, they use an alphabet (Cyrillic) based on Greek and in Moscow, most of the signs (including in the subway) were only in Cyrillic. This sometimes made navigation a challenge!

I'm home and very jet lagged (7 hour time difference). Another post on food will follow soon!

Posted by Caro369 04:54 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Saint Petersburg

The lady with a stormy past

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The historic centre of Saint Petersburg is stunning! The capital of Russia until the Communist revolution in 1917, the city is rich with graceful bridges, grand boulevards and elegant European rococo architecture (reminded me of Prague) framed by picturesque canals. Hard to believe, the city founded by Peter the Great in the 18th century was built on the site of a giant swamp!

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I was surprised how much of the Tsarist legacy survived communism and the invasion by the Germans during the Second World War. We visited several of the Tsar's Palaces - the elegant Winter Palace (now the home of the famous Hermitage art collection) and the sumptuous summer palaces around the city (reconstructions). Room after room with high ceilings, drenched in gold leaf decoration with amazing treasures on display. Then there was the French-style gardens with elaborate fountains and statues in marble, or covered in more gold leaf! After awhile, seeing the parade of silver furniture guilded with gold, the gold toilet sets, and the Faberge eggs and snuff boxes encrusted in precious gems became numbing. I better understand why the starving serfs overthrew the Tzar in 1917!

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Saint Petersburg has had some tough times. After the communist revolution, the capital was moved to Moscow. During the Second World War the city was under siege by the Germans for almost 3 years. Despite the constant bombing and a naval blockade, the city never surrendered. However, the suffering was great -- 2 million people died, mostly from starvation.

After the Communist Revolution, all of the buildings in the city were nationalized. Large fancy apartments were turned into communal apartments for the families of industrial workers (one family per room). Can you imagine 10 families sharing 1 kitchen and 1 bathroom? That all changed after the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s -- people were given the deeds to their apartments and, not surprisingly, few people wanted to continue with this arrangement.

The Russian Orthodox faith was frowned upon in communist times, but not banned. Some churches were torn down, but many iconic ones were converted into buildings to serve the public such as museums, schools and even swimming pools! Attending church regularly was a career limiting move, but there was still an emotional attachment. Every tour guide had a story about their grandmother taking them to a church to be baptised (just in case ;-).

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Saint Petersburg is the cultural heart of Russia -- ballet (Kirov trained Baryshnikov), music, and art. The patronage of the Tsars gave these institutions their start. The richness and the quality of the traditions is wonderful! However, I suppose greatness doesn't come easy. One of my tour guides suggested that the life of a ballet dancer involved more physical rigour and privation than that of a soldier in the army. I was also quite shocked to see it openly acknowledged that art looted from Germany during the Second World War was on display at the Hermitage museum. This was of course on top of the private collections of Russian nobles nationalized after the Communist Revolution.

Another interesting fact, Saint Petersburg is located at the latitude of the Arctic Circle. Something about the humidity from the ocean currents/jet stream mellows the climate. The city of 5-million people is famous for its White Nights (24-hour day light) from mid-May to mid-July -- pretty much a second Christmas!

I very much enjoyed Saint Petersburg. So far, Moscow has been a pleasant surprise, but I'll get to that later. :-)

Posted by Caro369 07:59 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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