What to eat and drink in Russia
Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural expanse of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate, with a combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, buckwheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Flavorful soups and stews centered on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. This wholly native food remained the staples for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century. Lying on the northern reaches of the ancient Silk Road, as well as Russia’s proximity to the Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire has provided an inescapable Eastern character to its cooking methods (not so much in European Russia but distinguishable in the North Caucasus). Russia’s renowned caviar is easily obtained, however prices can exceed the expenses of your entire trip.
Russian specialties include:
- Ice Cream Plombir, in a wafer edible cup.
- Pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings, especially popular in Ural and Siberian regions)
- Chebureki (similar to the one above, filled with meat, but fried and usually larger in size)
- Ryazhenka a variety of drinking yogurt which is made from baked fermented milk
- Blini (pancakes, crepes)
- Black bread rye bread, somewhat similar to one used by North American delis and not as dense as German variety
- Piroshki small pies or buns with sweet or savory filling
- Sushki and baranki hard bread rolls, another traditional kind of Russian bakery, part and parcel of Russian tea culture
- Pryaniki sweet baked goods made of flour and honey
- Golubtsy Cabbage rolls
- Ikra Baklazhanaya aubergine spread
- Okroshka (Cold soups based on kvass or sour milk)
- Schi (cabbage soup) and Green schi (sorrel soup, may be served cold)
- Borsch beet and garlic soup
- Vinegret salad of boiled beets, potato, carrots and other vegetables with vinegar
Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow offer sophisticated, world class dining and a wide variety of cuisines including Japanese, Tibetan and Italian. They are also excellent cities to sample some of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Georgian and Uzbek). It is also possible to eat well and cheaply there without resorting to the many western fast food chains that have opened up. Russians have their own versions of fast food restaurants which range from cafeteria style serving comfort foods to street side kiosks cooking up blinis or stuffed potatoes. Although their menus may not be in English, it is fairly easy to point to what is wanted or at a picture of it, not unlike at western fast food restaurants. A small Russian dictionary will be useful at non touristy restaurants offering table service where staff members will not speak English and the menus will be entirely in Cyrillic, but prices are very reasonable. Russian meat soups and meat pies are often excellent.
Stylish cafes serving cappuccino, espresso, toasted sandwiches, rich cakes and pastries are popping up all over Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Some do double duty as wine bars, others are also internet cafes.
It is better not to drink the tap water in Russia and to avoid using ice in drinks, however bottled water and also Kvass are available everywhere food is served.
Unlike Europe, cafes in Russia (кафе) do not serve only drinks, but also a full range of meals (typically cooked in advance—unlike restaurants where part or whole cooking cycle is performed after you make an order).
Tipping in restaurants, like in most of continental Europe, is completely voluntary, but will be appreciated. Usual tip value is 10% of total bill amount. If you pay the bill by bank card, you may tip separately in cash by inserting money into the bill cover.
You can drink Vodka, imported liquors (rum, gin, etc), international soft-drinks (Pepsi, Coca- Cola, Fanta, etc), local soft drinks (Tarhun, Buratino, Baikal, etc.), distilled water, kvass (sour-sweet non-alcoholic naturally carbonized drink made from fermented dark bread) and mors (traditional wild berry drink).
Drinking alcohol (including beer) in public places is prohibited by law and punishable by a fine.
Street vending of any alcohol (including beer), as well as selling it in small booths, is illegal in Russia. Therefore, it should only be found in shops and markets not smaller than 50 square meters, malls, and all kinds of catering establishments if they are not located too close to a children’s, educational or sports establishment. The chain supermarkets (excluding some “elite” ones) some of which are intended specially for alcohol sale (e.g., “Krasnoye i beloye” federal chain store system) and malls (mostly on bigger cities’ outskirts) are usually the cheapest option for buying drinks. Staff of all of these (maybe except in some supermarkets, if you’re lucky) does not speak or, at the best, speaks very Basic English even in Moscow.
Mixed alcoholic beverages as well as beers at nightclubs and bars are extremely expensive and are served without ice, with the mix (for example, coke) and alcohol charged for separately. Bringing your own is neither encouraged nor allowed, and some places in Moscow even can take some measures to prevent customers from drinking outside, or even from drinking the tap water instead of overpriced soft drinks by leaving only hot water available in the lavatories. Any illegal drugs, even marijuana, are best avoided: Russian anti-drug laws are extremely tough, the Federal Drug Control Service is well-trained, and it really is not worth the risk.
When entering a local store, you might goggle at the amount of vodka on display. Drinking vodka in Russia is a different custom than in North America or Europe. To drink vodka in the right way, you need to have zakusky (Russian for the meal you eat with alcohol – mainly vodka). This can consist of anything from simple loaves of bread to full spreads of delicious appetizers. The most common are sour or fresh cucumbers, herring, soup, and meat. If you are dining with locals who are serving soup or herring or potatoes be prepared for a generous amount of vodka to be provided. The convention is to say a toast, za zdoroviye (“for good health”) is the most common, drink the shot (or half) and follow with a bite of the food. Zakusk), will be something salty, dried, or fatty. This is so that the vodka is either absorbed by the food or repelled by the fat.
Be careful when opening a good vodka bottle: once you open it you must drink it all since a good vodka bottle doesn’t have a cap that can be replaced. If you are drinking with locals it’s no problem to skip a round. They will just pour you a symbolic drop.
Beer in Russia is cheap and the varieties, of both Russian and international brands, are endless. It’s found for sale at grocery stores in any city. Prices depend on the beer sort and production place: imported (not produced under the same brand in Russia under license) beer is usually far more expensive than local one. Imported ales and stouts, such as Guinness, are the most expensive, on the other hand, local lager beers are the cheapest.
“Small” bottles and cans (0.33L and around) are also widely sold, and there are also plastic bottles of 1 and 1.5 litres (greater volumes have been banned by the recent law), similar to those in which soft carbonated drinks are usually sold. Many cheaper beers are sold that way and, being even cheaper due to large volume, are quite popular, despite some people saying it can have a “plastic” taste.
The highest prices (especially in the bars and restaurants) are traditionally in Moscow; Saint-Petersburg, on the other hand, is known for the cheaper and often better beers, including craft ones. Smaller cities and towns generally have similar prices if bought in the shop, but significantly lower ones in the bars and street cafes.
Popular local brands of beer are Baltika, Stary Mel’nik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tin’koff and many others. Locally made (mainly except some Czech and possibly some other European beers — you won’t miss these, the price of a “local” Czech beer from the same shelf will be quite different) international trademarks like Holsten, Carlsberg, etc. are also widely available, but their quality doesn’t differ so much from local beers.
There is also local beer on draught which is produced not far from where it is sold by relatively small beer factories or microbreweries and sold mostly in specialized shops where it is bottled from a keg right in your presence. This can be either filtered or unfiltered with yeast deposits, and almost always unpasteurized. This is the freshest beer variant, completely unsuitable for taking home because of its extremely short storage time, but ideal for consumption right on the purchase day.
Wines from Georgia (regaining popularity slowly but surely since their return to the Russian market in 2013), Moldova, and Russia itself are quite popular. But the assortment is not limited by these countries only. Federal and international chain stores offer a wide choice of wines, varying from ordinary new to vintage ones, from all over the world.
In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, most restaurants have a selection of European wines—generally at a high price. Please note that most Russians (with the exception of wine gourmets who are not so common) prefer sweet or semi-sweet wine as opposed to dry. French Chablis, Bordeaux, and other world-renowned wine sorts are widely available at restaurants and are of good quality. All white wines are served at room temperature unless you are at an international hotel that caters to Westerners.
Russian vineyard area is relatively small but grows good grape of many sorts, both internationally grown (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.) and autochthonous (Krasnostop, Tsimlyansky Black). Wine production is based mostly in southern regions of the country, the most notable of which are Krasnodar Krai and Crimea located close to the 45th parallel, just like the famous Bordeaux vineyards. Certainly worth trying are dry wines produced by the Fanagoria and Inkerman wineries. Strong sweet wines similar to Port and produced in Crimea most notably by Massandra winery are also widely available and worth tasting for those who like this wine type.
Soviet champagne is also served everywhere in the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price. The quality is generally on the level of cheap European sparkling wines and by far the most common variety is polusladkoye (semi-sweet), a misnomer for what most Westerners find syrupy-sweet, but the better brands also come in polusukhoe (semi-dry) and sukhoe or brjut (dry) varieties and can hold their own with the best that France and Nelson, New Zealand can offer. The original producer and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye trademark holder is Latvijas Balzams in Latvia, but Ukrainian brands like Odessa or Krymskoe are also very popular. Among Russian brands, the best brands seem to originate from the southern regions where grapes are widely grown. One quality Russian brand is Abrau-Dyurso, and Tsimlyanskoe is also popular. The quality of the cheapest ones varies, you can buy if you do want to have a try while not paying too much, but, for export to your home, it’s wiser to stick to something better.
Having wine production, Russia does also produce brandies (on local market, which, considering the Cyrillic alphabet, is allowed, unlike the protected Cognac appellation), most notably in Dagestan. Kizlyar brandy factory and its “Bagration” label are well-known. Armenian brandies are also very popular and sold widely, so if you are not going to visit Armenia on your way, in Russia you have a good chance to try them for a reasonable price.
Genuine kvass is rather hard but still possible to find in the cities. What is mostly sold in supermarkets as kvass is pretty far from original Russian recipes and contains too much sugar. A nice exception from this rule is Vyatsky kvass from Kirov which is extremely popular all over Russia. Also you can find several bottles of good kvass produced by a small local farming enterprise. What makes genuine kvass different includes: limited lifetime (normally 1 week), small alcohol content (0.7% to 2.6% vol) and an obligatory requirement to be stored in a fridge. A really good place to buy genuine local kvass is one of extremely widespread draught beer shops, which almost always have one or more kvass taps. They usually allow to try kvass in 0.2L cups, which may be a good idea to sample it before buying in quantity.
In warm periods, genuine kvass can be bought from huge metal barrels on trailers. Originally a symbol of soviet summertime, trailers became rare after 1991. Soviet nostalgia and these trailers’ no-nonsense good functionality have given them a revival in recent years. There are also modern, plastic, stationary, upright barrel-like dispensers but these may not sell the genuine article. Towards the end of an especially hot day, avoid genuine kvass from trailers because it may have soured.
Despite some alcoholic content, kvass is officially considered a non-alcoholic drink and may be freely consumed in the street.
Medovukha, also known as mead, is the ancient drink brewed from many a century ago by Europeans is also wide-spread among Russians. It has a semi-sweet taste based on fermented honey and contains 5-16% of alcohol. You may see it sold in bottles or poured in cups in fast-food outlets and shops. One of the most famous mead breweries is located in Suzdal where many locals also extensively brew this drink to their own recipes.