Travelling extensively with his work as a freelance architect, Kulvir Singh Virk enjoys immersing himself in the culture and art of the countries he visits, sampling authentic local dishes and cuisines.
With nuances of Asian, European and Middle Eastern cookery, Russian cuisine is very diverse. From the Slavic cultivation of cereals and vegetables to make porridge and stews, to the shish kebab introduced by nomadic Tatars, this vast country’s cuisine is incredibly varied.
This article will explore the origins of six traditional dishes no visitor to Russia should miss.
Dating back to the 1800s, this renowned Russian dish has a fascinating story behind it. In the age of the Tsars, the Russian upper classes were incredibly wealthy and particularly fond of Paris, with many communicating in French at home and while attending social gatherings. In 1891, a French chef working for a wealthy family in St Petersburg created beef stroganoff for a cooking competition, serving sautéed beef in a sour cream sauce. This decadent dish, which is surprisingly easy to prepare, quickly became a firm favourite with countless hostesses, as well as a headline entrée in many upscale restaurants.
A rich beet soup that is very popular in Russia, borscht originated in Ukraine. Beets may seem a strange base for a soup by Western standards, but this hearty dish is incredibly nutritious, packed with sautéed meat and vegetables – with carrots, onions, potatoes and cabbage as common components. Borscht may be served hot or cold and is usually accompanied by a liberal dollop of sour cream.
With an entire festival dedicated to them at the start of spring, blini are an important part of Russian cuisine and a safe bet for tourists if they unsure of other dishes. A blini is a wheat pancake roll that may be served with either sweet or savoury fillings, with sour cream, caviar, onions, cheese, jam and chocolate syrup as common accompaniments. Since pre-Christian times, blinis have been symbolic of the sun to Slavic people due to their round form.
Shashlik is a Russian variation of the kebab, consisting of cubed meat and vegetables grilled on skewers. The origins of the dish lie in the Caucasian Mountains, where tribesmen became fond of the dish in the 19th century. Today, virtually every Russian family has its own shashlik recipe, the details of which are often a closely guarded secret. The name shashlik originates from the Crimean Tatar word ‘shish’, meaning ‘a spit’.
Pashka is a festive dessert that is popular in Eastern Orthodox countries around Easter time. Essentially a cream cheese and fruit egg custard, pashka has a similar texture and appearance to blancmange. A delicious dessert that is typically made to celebrate the end of Lent and the start of Easter, pashka is made with either curd or cream cheese, nuts, dried fruit and a generous slug of liquor. It is traditionally made in a pyramid-shaped mould, representing the tomb of Christ.
Pelmeni are a type of dumpling that are extremely popular throughout Russia. The origins of pelmeni are a hotly debated topic to this day, with many different countries laying claim to the dish with their own distinctive versions, including Georgian khinkali, Jewish kreplah, Uzbek manti and Chinese xiaolongbao. Historians believe that the dish was introduced to Russia from China via Ural and Siberia some time in the 15th century. Many Russian households continue the family tradition of sculpting pelmeni together to this day, filling them with a mixture of minced lamb, beef and pork before cooking and serving the dumplings on a platter accompanied by a dish of sour crème.