Russian food tradition has been influenced by religious tradition in many ways. Although today this may be less important, indelible signs of it still remain in cooking customs.
For orthodox Russians, eating habits are divided into two periods: fasting, during which they cannot eat eggs, fat, butter, milk, alcohol and, above all, meat; and non-abstinence from food. In the 17th century, the number of days of fasting varied from 192 to 216 per year. Today there are four main fasting periods and the most important of these is certainly the 40 days of Lent, before Easter. This explains the presence in Russian cuisine of a variety of vegetable-based dishes: mushrooms, greens, dried fruit, berries and cereals.
Fasting is not dieting: it is rather a period of intense spiritual tension to purify the body and spirit and permit the person fasting to celebrate the subsequent feast – whether Christmas or Easter – with greater serenity. Fasting obviously does not have a dietary purpose but contrasts greatly with the Russian habit of eating well and is undoubtedly physically beneficial for those who manage to resist temptation.
At the end of Lent Easter, is celebrated with blessed eggs, painted red or decorated, kuli_ (typical Easter cakes like Italian panettone but smaller and iced) and pascha, a special dessert made from cream cheese, eggs and sultanas, which marks the high point of the year for believers and unbelievers alike. This is the moment in which they can eat all the things they have done without for so long.
The most representative of the religious feasts is the equivalent of Mardi Gras, Maslenitsa, the week of celebrations prior to Lent which heralds the beginning of spring. On this occasion people eat huge quantities of blinis. There are celebrations all week: sledging, fireworks, and snowball fights. Once marriage and the family were an important part of the Maslenitsa customs and couples who were married the previous year were at the center of the celebrations. Newly-weds were also ‘put to the test’: for example, they had to kiss in public or be covered in snow or straw. During the week their families saw a great deal of each other. On the last day of celebrations an effigy was made of the Maslenitsa with straw or rags and was dressed in female clothes to be carried through all the streets of the village in a procession before being burned on a bonfire. The most important day of Maslenitsa was the Sunday before Lent, when everyone apologized to each other for any insults or offence given.
Zakuski are one of the most famous elements of Russian food tradition the world over.
They may be warm, cold, savory, marinated, made from meat or fish – the list of possibilities for this delicious starter is endless.
Perhaps the most universally famous of all zakuski is sturgeon caviar: large dark grey Beluga; small Osietr, with its sophisticated fruity flavor; and small, light gray, delicate Sevruga. There are various kinds of smoked fish, cold meats, delicious pirojki, little pasta parcels filled with meat, cabbage or fish; and again, marinated mushrooms of all colors and sizes, aubergine caviar, sauerkraut, vegetable salads and above all, pickled cucumbers straight from the cellar of the babushka. There is nothing better than vodka to help digest this mountain of food. They say that zakuski were invented thanks to vodka – because after every glass of vodka you should eat something: zakusyvat. Zakuski are served with ‘bread wine’ – vodka – which has existed in Russia for over 500 years and vodka production is a flourishing sector of the economy.
The alliance between vodka and zakuski is unbreakable. Without vodka it is difficult to distinguish the flavors of this variety of food, and a good vodka without pickled cucumbers would get the drinker’s head spinning in no time.
Because zakuski are an entrée, it is thanks to vodka if you can get to the second course after the amount you have already eaten, while it is thanks to zakuski if, after a few glasses, your morale is high without losing your head completely.
Zakuski are a contrast of sensations, a game for the senses: the bitterness of vodka enhances the saltiness of the cucumbers and the acidity of the sauerkraut; the sophistication of caviar blends with the sweetness of butter; the pink of the salmon contrasts with the bright green of the dill – it’s a heady mixture of flavors. And don’t forget the herbs and spices, parsley, dill, garlic, pepper, and coriander, all contributing towards making life spicier and more exciting.
In Russia you eat with your eyes too. Zakuski are a unique artistic expression. In keeping with Russian craftwork, the dishes are carefully decorated.Foods are shaped like mushrooms with tomato caps, carrot and beetroot flowers adorn serving dishes and salad bowls, and fennel stalks and parsley leaves crown the various dishes.
Russians love soups. There is nothing better than a good hot soup on a freezing winter evening. All Russian families know how to prepare meat, chicken or fish broths with various vegetables and flavorings.
In Cuisine russe en exil (Russian Cooking In Exile), Petre Vail and Alexandre Genis note ironically that families who cook soups regularly are less likely to divorce. This dish does not give a first impression of sophistication, but it does require a certain order and respect for harmony. People who respect the necessary order for making a soup cannot logically then have disorder in their daily life.
Soups play a central role in Russian cooking. The fact that metal spoons appeared in Russia 400 years after forks confirms the popular saying that a soup tastes better if it is tasted with a wooden spoon. The rounded wooden spoon was very important in ancient Russia because it allowed the head of the table to keep order amongst the diners, striking the offenders on the forehead.
Borsch, chicken pasta, mushroom soup, and ucha (fish soup) are just some examples from a list that could be much longer. But the king of all soups is schi, always in the plural. This is an acidic soup, whose main ingredient is cabbage in summer and sauerkraut in winter. The best way to make it is to cook it slowly on the stove. Invented by Russian peasants, for whom it was a main course, schi soup was loved by the Czars and simple folk alike. The only difference was that the poor could not afford to add meat, and so they ate schi-pustye – ‘empty’ schi. Schi soups can be served as a main course because they are so nutritious and filling that after a good plateful it is hard to leave the table. The right consistency is obtained when the spoon stands up on its own in the soup.
As the saying goes, ‘A good wife is not a good talker, but a good cook of schi.
Natasha Mukhina is the western European correspondent of the Russian magazine Restaurateur
Translation by Ailsa Wood