Food in Russia
The foundations of Russian cuisine were laid by the peasant diet in an often harsh climate, with a combination of fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries and honey. The cultivation of rye, wheat, buckwheat, barley and millet provided the ingredients for an abundance of breads, pancakes, muesli, kvass, beer and vodka. Tasty soups and stews were prepared from seasonal or preserved produce, fish and meat. The famous Russian caviar is easy to get, but the prices can exceed the expenses for your entire trip. Dishes such as beef stroganov and chicken Kiev, which date from the pre-revolutionary period, are available but are mainly aimed at tourists as they lost their status and notoriety during the Soviet era.
For many decades, Russia suffered from a negative reputation for its food, and Russian cuisine was known for being bland and too indigestible. However, the food situation has improved in recent years and Russia is also known and famous for its delicacies such as caviar.
Russian specialities include:
- Ikra (sturgeon or salmon caviar)
- Pelmeni (meat-filled meatballs, similar to potstickers, especially popular in the Urals and Siberian regions)
- Blini (thin pancakes made from white flour or buckwheat flour, similar to French pancakes)
- Dark bread (rye bread, similar to that found in North American delicatessens and less dense than the German variety).
- Piroshki (also known as Belyashi – pies or rolls with sweet or savoury filling)
- Golubtsy (cabbage rolls)
- Ikra Baklazhanaya (aubergine spread)
- Okroshka (cold soups based on kvass or sour milk)
- Shi (cabbage soup) and green shi (sorrel soup, can be served cold)
- Borscht (Ukrainian beet and cabbage soup)
- Vinegar (cooked beetroot salad, eggs, potatoes, carrots, pickles and other vegetables in vinegar, mustard, vegetable oil and/or mayonnaise)
- Olivier (Russian version of potato salad with peas, meat, eggs, carrots and cucumber)
- Shashlyk (various skewers from the Caucasian republics of the former Soviet Union)
- Seledka pod shuboy (fresh herring salted in “vinegar”)
- Kholodets (aka Studen’ – meat, garlic and carrots in meat aspic)
- Kvass (fermented thirst-quenching drink made from rye bread, sugar and yeast, similar to young low-alcohol beer)
- Lemonade (various soft drinks)
Both St Petersburg and Moscow offer sophisticated world-class restaurants and a wide range of cuisines, including Japanese, Tibetan and Italian. They are also excellent cities to try some of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union (Georgian and Uzbek, for example). It is also possible to eat well and cheaply without resorting to the many western fast food chains that have opened. Russians have their own versions of fast food, ranging from cafeteria-style restaurants serving convenience food to street kiosks preparing blinis, shawerma/gyros, piroshki/belyashi, stuffed potatoes, etc. Although their menus are not in English, it is quite easy to point to what you want – or to a picture of what you want, as is the case in Western fast food restaurants. A small Russian dictionary is useful in non-touristy table-service restaurants where the staff do not speak English and the menus are entirely in Cyrillic, but the prices are very reasonable. The Russian soups and meat pies are excellent.
It is best not to drink tap water or use ice in drinks in Russia. However, bottled water, kvass, lemonade and Coca-Cola are available wherever food is served.
Elegant cafés are springing up all over St Petersburg and Moscow, serving cappuccino, espresso, toasted sandwiches, rich cakes and pastries. Some also serve as wine bars, others double as internet cafés.
Unlike in the US, cafés in Russia (кафе) serve not only drinks but also a whole range of meals (which are usually cooked in advance – unlike restaurants, where part or all of the cooking cycle takes place after the order is placed).
Tipping in restaurants
Restaurant staff in Russia do not rely on tips as much as in the US, but tips are still encouraged, even if they are not common among locals. A tip of 10% of the total bill, usually paid by rounding up, would be appropriately generous. Do not tip in cafeteria-style establishments where you walk around the counter with a tray and pay at the cash register. For baristas, throw a few 10-ruble coins (or the oldest notes) into the tip jar. It is not possible to leave a tip on your credit card, so keep enough small notes in your wallet to give to the staff.
Drinks in Russia
Vodka, imported liquors (rum, gin, etc.), international soft drinks (Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Fanta, etc.), local soft drinks (Tarhun, Buratino, Baikal, etc.), distilled water, Kvas (naturally carbonated sweet and sour drink made from fermented brown bread) and Bors (traditional drink made from forest berries).
Beer (пиво) is cheap in Russia and there are countless varieties of Russian and international brands. You can buy it from any (hot) street vendor or from a (variable) stall in the centre of any city, and it costs (double and triple the price the closer you are to the centre) from about 17 roubles (about 0.50 USD) to 130 roubles for a 0.5 L bottle or can. ‘Small’ bottles and cans (0.33 L and above) are also very common, and there are also plastic bottles of 1, 1.5, 2 or even more litres, similar to those in which soft drinks are usually sold – many cheaper beers are sold this way, and as their large volume makes them even cheaper, they are quite popular, although some people say they can taste ‘plasticy’. There are also convenience stores and cafés that sell beer on tap (highly recommended), but you should look for them. The highest prices (especially in bars and restaurants) are traditionally charged in Moscow; St Petersburg, on the other hand, is known for its cheaper and often better beers. Smaller cities tend to have similar prices when bought in shops, but much lower prices in bars and street cafés. The most popular local beer brands are Baltika, Stary Mel’nik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tin’koff and many others. Beers of international brands such as Holsten, Carlsberg, etc. are also widely available, but their quality does not differ much from that of local beers. Soft drinks usually start at 20-30 roubles (yes, this is the same or even more expensive than an average local beer in the same shop) and can cost up to 60 roubles or more for a 0.5-litre plastic bottle or a 0.33-litre can in central Moscow.
Cheap beer (less than 50 roubles per 0.5 litre) may not contain any natural ingredients at all and may cause an allergic reaction.
Street vendors usually work in areas with a high volume of tourists and locals, and many of them (especially those walking around without stalls) work without a licence, usually paying some kind of bribe to the local police. However, their beer is usually good because it has just been bought from a nearby shop. In places that are less frequented on weekends, you can find big stands (“lar’ki” or “palatki”, singular: “laryok” (“stand”) or “palatka” (literally: “tent”)), especially near metro and bus stations. They sell soft drinks, beer and “cocktails” (basically a cheap soft drink mixed with alcohol, a bad hangover is guaranteed with the cheapest ones. Many of these alcoholic cocktails contain taurine and high doses of caffeine and are popular with night owls) and their prices, while not yet high, are often 20-40% higher than those in supermarkets. Supermarket chains (with the exception of some “elite” supermarkets) and shopping malls (especially in the outskirts of big cities) are usually the cheapest options for buying drinks (for food, local markets in small towns, but not in Moscow, are often cheaper). The staff in all these establishments (except perhaps in some supermarkets if you are lucky) do not speak English, or at best very basic English, even in Moscow. Moreover, the staff in many markets in Moscow and other big cities speak only very basic Russian (mainly migrants from Central Asia).
Alcoholic mixed drinks and beers in nightclubs and bars are extremely expensive and served without ice, with the mixture (e.g. cola) and alcohol charged separately. Bringing your own drinks is neither encouraged nor allowed, and some venues (mostly youth-oriented nightclubs) in Moscow even take certain measures to prevent customers from drinking outside (e.g. a face check that can deny entry upon return, or the need to pay the entrance fee again after leaving the venue), or even drinking tap water instead of expensive soft drinks, with only hot water available in the toilets. The best way to avoid using illegal drugs is to talk to people who are not familiar with the country – in practice, law enforcement aims to collect more bribes from those who buy and take drugs rather than arrest drug dealers; people who sell illegal drugs in clubs are too often associated with (or supervised by) the police; Plainclothes police officers often know and visit places where drugs are popular, and you’re likely to get into a lot of trouble with Russian police officers who are notoriously corrupt and likely to pay bribes of several thousand dollars (or worse) to get out if you get caught. It’s really not worth the risk.
Wines (вино) from Georgia, Crimea and Moldova are quite popular (although all products from Georgia are illegal in 2005). In Moscow and St. Petersburg, most restaurants offer a selection of European wines – usually at a high price. Please note that Russians prefer sweet wines to dry wines. French Chablis is widely available in restaurants and is of good quality. Chablis costs about 240 roubles per glass. All white wines are served at room temperature, unless you are in an international hotel that welcomes Westerners.
Soviet champagne (Советское Шампанское, Sovetskoye Shampanskoye) or, more precisely, sparkling wine (Игристые вина, Igristie vina) is also served throughout the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price. The quality can be quite good, but too syrupy for Western tastes. By far the most common variety is polusladkoye (semi-sweet), similar to Asti Spumanti, but the best brands also come in polusukhoe (semi-dry) and sukhoe (dry). Cru also exists, but it is rare. The original producer was Abrau-Dyurso, but Ukrainian brands like Odessa and Krymskoe are also popular. Among the Russian quality brands, the best come from the southern regions where grapes are grown on a large scale. One of the Russian quality brands is the historic Abrau-Dyurso (RUB200-700 for a bottle in the supermarket, depending on the variety); Tsimlyanskoe (RUB150-250) is also popular. The quality of the cheapest brands (from RUB85 to RUB120, depending on where you buy) varies, with some local brands from Moscow and St Petersburg (made from grapes from Crimea and southern Russia) being quite good. You can buy it if you want to try it and not pay much, but it’s wiser to stick to something better.
A good authentic kvass (квас) is hard to find in the cities, only in rural areas are there a few chances – but even there only on recommendation. Everything sold in supermarkets in the form of kvass is only an imitation and far from being a genuine product. Genuine kvass is characterised above all by its limited shelf life (usually one week), its alcohol content (0.7-2.6% vol.) and storage in the refrigerator. Authentic kvass can be bought in 0.2-litre cups, which can be a good idea to try before buying it in quantities.
In the hot season, you can buy real kvas in huge metal barrels on trailers (bochkas). Originally a symbol of the Soviet summer, bochkas became rare after 1991. Soviet nostalgia and the good functionality of these trailers have given them new life in recent years. There are also modern, stationary, barrel-shaped dispensers made of plastic, but they don’t necessarily sell the genuine article. Towards the end of a particularly hot day, avoid the authentic kvass of the kochkas, as it may have become acrid.
Medovukha (медовуха) aka mead, the ancient drink brewed by most Europeans a century ago, was widely consumed by ancient Russians. It has a semi-sweet taste based on fermented honey and contains 10 to 16% alcohol. In fast food restaurants and shops you see it sold in bottles or poured into cups.
Tea (чай) is commonly consumed in Russia. Most Russians drink black tea with sugar, lemon, honey or jam.