This is my blockbuster email. The one that tells it all. I am not Andrew Zimmern, and if it looks good, I have been told NOT to eat it!!!! Locals that I have met are very selective about what they eat. Of course, they are all normal size!
I was saving this for my parting shot at Russia. But I think I have seen and tasted enough. So, here you go,
I have heard various things about Russian food, mostly bad. But I hear and observe there is more to Russian cuisine than borsch and chicken Kiev. The main goal of trying Russian food involves eating most of my meals AWAY from the train, and its dining car. Train food has been stuck back in the 1950s, unless there has been a radical change in the last year or so.
It would be a shame to visit such a diverse and interesting country without getting to try their best cuisine. I am patiently waiting. Every local that spoke English said to avoid train food!
When a Russian eats at home, their first meal of the day may include fruit and cheese, eggs, bread, jam, kefir (sour yogurt drink), tvorog (cottage cheese), or kasha (porridge). Lunch and dinner may consist of at least three courses.
Zakuski is the name of Russian hors d’oeuvres that may include some or all of the following delicacies: sausage, cold meat (veal tongue was pretty good), salmon, pickled herring, pate’, tomato salad, sturgeon and caviar. Of course, beer and vodka are present in copious quantities. Thankfully so!
Soups are a meal unto themselves, much as they at home in the U.S. The usual side dish to accompany the soup is a stack of brown bread. We all know the most famous of Russian soups, borsch or beetroot soup. It often contains other vegetables, like potatoes, cabbage and onions, and other items like chopped ham, and the signature swirl of sour cream (Smetana).
Another popular soup is Soyinka, a hearty dish made from meat, pickles, olives, lemon and honey. It is the trifecta of flavors, sweet, salty and sour. Another is cabbage soup (shchi), the traditional soup of the proletariat, and a favorite of Czar Nicholas II, who enjoyed plain cooking, despite having a French chef at his disposal. Akroshka is a chilled soup of meat, vegetables, and kvass, a beer like brew made from fermented bread. Fermented bread reminds me too much of that awful injera from Ethiopia. Rassolnik is a soup made from pickled vegetables.
Needless to say, vegetarian cooking is practically non-existent in Russia. Perhaps there are some Hare Krishna style Asian restaurants in the larger cities. On most Russian menus is Julienne, also known as griby v smetane, or wild mushrooms baked in cream sauce. Sounds really healthy!
One of my favorite Russian snacks is the piroshky, dough pastries, usually deep-fried, containing onions, carrots, cabbage, and sometimes with meat filling. I did buy a couple on the platform, though it is now outlawed. I bought one potato filled, and one meat filled. Neither were as good as those I have consumed in the states.
Vatrushkies are cream cheese pastries, and vereniki are cheese filled dumplings. Also quite prevalent are blini and oladi, both types of Russian pancakes, often served with sour cream and jam. The pancakes are actually more like crepes, and pretty good, compared to their other dishes.
I often read in several of the travel journals and diaries of Trans Siberian travelers about the great fish. In Irkutsk, the famous fish is the Lake Baikal omul, purportedly delicious, and delicately flavored. Smoked omul is said to be very good, as are other smoked fish that I might encounter. Other fish, common to Russia, are herring, halibut, salmon, and of course, sturgeon.
Sidebar: I love the dried or smoked omul. Totally primo!
Believe it or not, the most famous Russian main course is chicken Kiev. It is a basic fried chicken breast filled with lots of garlic and butter. That is followed by beef stroganov, named after a wealthy merchant family who financed the first Siberian explorations in the 1580s. It is a basic beef stew with sour cream and mushrooms, often served over noodles or rice.
I am also told I might encounter some regional specialties, including mutton, pork, and lamb kebabs, and the often scorned preserved pig fat called salo. In Siberia itself, pelmini is popular. They are small meat filled dumplings, often served fried or in a broth, boiled, and topped with sour cream. The ones I had were filled with either chicken or pork, and quite greasy on the outside. I am told the supermarkets will have excellent salami and other smoked meat products. So far, the smoked meats have been rather sad.
The sushi is barely passable, compared to what we get in the U.S. Plus, how do they run a Japanese restaurant, while speaking only Russian? I think they do a little better when they smoke the fish! But I found a much better sushi and Japanese place in Yekaterinburg. For you sushi novices, let me explain how you judge a sushi or Japanese restaurant. It all depends on how well they make their rice! Yes, that is the key, having spent a lifetime in a Japanese American family, eating some of the best rice dishes in places like Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Vancouver.
For dessert, I am glad to see ice cream or morozhenoye. Less palatable is the fruit compote, which consists of a fruit salad floating in a large dish of syrup (just dreadful). I have had Russian blinis, think pancakes, almost crepe like, with sour cream and fruit jam. Similarly varenki are dumplings of sweet cottage cheese or cherries. Rice pudding and fresh fruit is also available from street vendors at the stations.
Russian bread is the basic cornerstone of Russian cuisine, and served with every meal. They say over 100 types are baked in Moscow. But we shall see the variety available out in the hinterlands of Siberia. The range of breads goes from basic white, to rye, and on to black sourdough, similar to German pumpernickel. And many sweeter styles exist in the form of croissants and poppy seed rolls. The bread is quite dry, and hard. And for some reason, they do not like to toast or warm it! One secret I learned from reading is that brown bread stays fresh much longer than white bread!
I can understand why these people are so large. They consume mostly fats and carbohydrates, with almost no vegetables or fiber. My dinner a few nights ago had a scoop of canned corn, served cold, along with two slices each of tomato and cucumber. Plus they always serve a dinner roll or bread with each meal.
When in doubt, I think the Russkies just make a pie out of it! I had a salmon pie for dinner, among other choices, meat, no chicken, veggie, cabbage, and just plain dough on dough. But they make the top of them so decorative, it is difficult to get upset with them.
Mostly, the Russians love their ice cream. Many little portable stands dot the streets where people are walking. It started this morning around 10am, and has now grown to about two or three on each block! Even on the train, people bought ice cream at the little train station stores when we stopped.
My BIG conclusion, is to eat Asian, mostly Pan Asian, Japanese, sushi, noodles, or Chinese. Stay away from the overpriced Russian cafes and restaurants, unless you just want to fill up at a low cost in a Russian cafeteria style place, which abound here.
Guess what I had today? I had a GUM pizza! Not that kind of GUM, or gum, just some pizza from GUM. Yes, I had a piece of pizza at the GUM department store, and a soda. Actually, it was a pizza with jamon, which is one of my all time favorite cured meats. If I could steal one of the parma hams into the U.S., I would, in a heartbeat!!!!
I had some Italian food today with my Peter guide. The salad looked okay, but the focaccia is more like a hard pita, with some pesto on it. The pasta was quite basic, without much flavor, but lots of various veggies. The Aqua Panna water was quite good! The Italian coffee looked good, as did the little cup cake, about the size of a quarter, with lots of whipped cream and a berry on top.
I had a barely decent Greek salad and above average chicken and avocado sandwich at a streetside café, with three glasses of Cava brut rose’. Maybe it was the Cava that made both the salad and sandwich a little more palatable. Ice cream afterwards makes everything better, trust me!!
So, if you decide to visit Russia, do not expect gourmet meals. Enough said!