04.10.2016 - 17.10.2016 5 °C
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!!
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.
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.
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!!