Because Russia is such a vast country, the cuisine is influenced by a wide range of cultures. There are delicious, authentic Asian restaurants. Chinese and Japanese restaurants are numerous, and we even ventured to a North Korean restaurant to try traditional foods from that country. Being Europe’s largest city, Moscow has also taken on western culinary influences. American chains can be spotted throughout the city, especially in areas more often frequented by tourists. McDonalds, Sbarro, KFC, Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme are among the familiar logos transliterated into Cyrillic that I have noticed on my walks through the city. European and international cuisine is very popular, with many restaurants catering to specific styles of cooking (more or less accurately).
Food from Russia’s Caucus region neighbors has also crept into everyday cuisine. Shawarma is particularly popular among young Russians and there are 24 hour Shawarma kiosks all across the city. Shawarma is a middle-eastern burrito-like food. It consists of spit-grilled meat and pickled vegetables served in a pita wrap and is delicious. One notable point of cultural distinction between Moscow and St. Petersburg is their spelling of “shawarma”. In Moscow, it is spelled thus. St. Petersburg, however, has adopted a different spelling, “Shwurma”, and this has become a point of pride for residents of both cities.
Another culturally significant food in Russia is cake. Beautifully decorated cakes can be found in the refrigerator section of even the smallest grocery store. The obsession with cakes stems from the shortage of such foods during the Soviet era. In those times, it was difficult to find a cake in the store, especially the most popular varieties so people baked at home. Older Russians still have multitudes of cake recipes, but this is becoming less popular as cakes have become more and more accessible. Left over from those times is the tradition of inviting guests over and serving cake after dinner. With such a high demand for sweets, the selection is excellent. Pictured, is a typical honey cake at a Russian café.
There are traditional Slavic-influenced dishes that one typically considers “Russian”. Among these are bliny, pirogi, and vareniki. This style of cuisine involves a lot of starches and can be prepared as savory or sweet dishes. Grocery stores typically stock a wide selection of these in the frozen food section, so even the busiest Russians can have a taste of comfort food. We have relied on these frozen dinners in the past when preparing group dinners on our floor, as they require no more culinary prowess than the ability to boil a pot of water. There is no major taste difference between these frozen dinners and those served in restaurants, simply because the recipe is so simple. Bliny, and pirogi are necessarily better fresh because they are prepared by pan frying and baking, respectively. Vareniki, however, taste the same whether they were hand rolled by a chef or boiled at home. Quality of ingredients in integral to a successful dish, and there is a notable difference in flavor of these traditional foods in Russia and elsewhere.
Several members of our program have noted to me how delicious the food is. There is a small grocery store across the street from our campus where most students get their groceries. The selection is significantly smaller than in an American grocery store, but the quality of ingredients is significantly higher. The produce is more flavorful and the milk tastes more like milk from a cow than like water. I know that I will miss the “Green Store” (as we affectionately call our local grocery) when I return to America.