Yesterday, I got back from an amazing trip to Saratov, Russia, where I was one of 41 men recording sacred music for a men’s choir CD. One of the more surprising aspects of the trip was the food. It was actually good. And this despite it being a fasting period.
A little while ago, some friends of mine got into a discussion about Russian cuisine. The usual opinions were expressed—Russian food is terrible, boring, tasteless, fatty. But then someone made an important point. All the bad things people hear about Russian food are more properly referred to as Soviet problems.
Interested, I looked for some properly patriotic articles on the internet, and found a good one. Here is it: five myths about Russian cuisine busted!
Five Myths about Russian Cuisine
For some, it’s too fatty. For others, it’s simply tasteless. A third might think it too simple, a fourth, too old-fashioned. Turns out, they’re all wrong.
- The Post-Soviet Myth: Russian food is fatty and uninspired
Seventy years of Soviet life have created this myth. Or rather, this is definitely true of Soviet cuisine, but not Russian cuisine in a more general sense. Soviet cuisine loves lots of mayonnaise, oils, fatty sausages, sardines, margarine—everything that would maximize a Soviet citizen’s caloric intake from the minimum amount of food eaten.
But in 1913, which historians generally consider the year of Russia’s peak of cultural development, the cuisine was completely different. There were many competing restaurants and eateries, with Moscow at the center of a bustling culinary culture. The highest aristocrats from Petersburg came to Moscow for special culinary tours, including such stops as the public houses of Testov, Gurin, Egorov, and the Saratov Restaurant.
The variety of dishes in these places was staggering. Here’s a typical menu from the restaurant of the merchant Guliarovskii: “piglet wrapped in dough, lobster soup with small pies, cream of wheat made with heavy cream (Gurievskaia), botvinia (a cold, fermented soup) with sturgeon, white cured fish fillet, baidak pie (a huge savory pie with a twelve-layer filling, everything from eel livers to beef brains) in a brown butter sauce.
- The Peasant Myth: Russian cuisine is too simplistic
There’s a Russian proverb: “Cabbage soup and porridge—that’s all we need to eat”. This ironic maxim is everywhere used literally to characterize the actual state of ancient Russian cooking. It’s true that perhaps a peasant from Tambov could live mostly on turnips and porridge, but in many regions even peasants ate well. This was especially true of the areas around the capital and in Siberia. As proof, we have the writings of foreign travelers.
Take, for example, the travel journal of Marco Foscarino (1537): “Two chickens or ducks are sold for some tiny silver coin. The peasants also have all varieties of meat. In the winter, meat can survive for an entire month. They have wonderful fowl, which they catch with nets or with falcons (they have very good breeds here). Near the Volga, huge and delicious fish are served, especially sturgeon. The white lakes give a great variety of large and small fish of varying quality.
- The Myth from Nature: Russian cuisine uses few fruits because of the long winter
Simply not true. Even Pierre Bezuhov (in War and Peace) cultivated pineapples in his hothouses. Everyone used greenhouses and hothouses. The common people had a million ways of preserving berries and fruits for the entirety of winter in ways that preserved their vitamin content. These included baking, preserving in honey, freezing, or drying. Even the Domostroi (a document more famous for its questionable advice of husband-wife relations) included recipes for preservation of fruits:
“Take a watermelon, cut it into pieces, cut out the seeds, leaving behind two finger’s width of the skin. Put them into alcohol and hold them until it is time to change the alcohol. Repeat the procedure. Then, having taken the molasses, boil them on a low fire and take off the foam from the top.
- The Myth of Fasting: Russian cuisine is tasteless
This may be partially true of some fasting dishes, as many people who search old recipes find out. However, this is not characteristic of Russian cuisine in general. In many regions, dishes were seasoned extensively. Coastal cuisine, for example, added volozhi to all dishes. These were sauces in which food was cooked, baked, or garnished. There was a huge variety to these volozhi. Some were based on sour cream or butter, some were based on berries. The rich even had spiced lemon sauces.
- The Myth from Folklore: Russian cuisine is archaic
Yes, traditionally speaking, Russian cuisine had been rather one-sided. This is because of the universal prevalence of the Russian oven, which led to the majority of dishes being baked (whether fish, fowl, or meat). However, in the city culture of the 19th century, this one-sidedness was decidedly overcome.
There were many French chefs working in Russian restaurants, which does not mean that they imported French food. Rather, they effectively experimented with traditional Russian styles. Russian officers also brought back with them (after wars) various tastes that now are considered typically Russian. This kind of “fusion” cuisine includes such delicacies as pastries, charlotte pies, veal Orloff, crepes with oysters, as well as the now world-famous salad created by Lucien Olivier in the famous Hermitage Restaurant.
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