Someone asked me what Russian Cuisine was like and I had to answer that, as I have been eating on a budget and food has not been my priority, I probably can’t really say! In hindsight I might have splashed out on a restaurant meal every now and then as this tells as much about the culture and place as, say, a museum entry. Still, that was not the way I was travelling.
I didn’t live entirely on bread alone however, with cheese, luncheon sausage, tomato and cucumber although these were my supermarket staples, along with bottled water. I also loved the classic Russian canteens – “Stolovaya”.
Stolovaya are basic, utilitarian, canteen-style restaurants that started in Soviet Russia. Although some more upmarket restaurants now call themselves Stolovaya, real ones are basic point-and-choose type restaurants and cheap!
The food ranges from basic, fairly bland, stodge to some quite delicious surprises. Often for around 100 roubles (NZD$4) you can get a set lunch of soup (say Borsch – a tomato and/or beetroot based soup – or Okroshka –chopped cucumber, potatoes, eggs, meat (luncheon) and herbs in a yogurt base), starch (macaroni, rice or mashed potato), protein (most likely a meat pattie of some kind), a small salad and a cup of tea. Russians would usually also add a few slices of bread on the side. This warmed the cockles nicely on a cold day.
I would also supplement by diet with my favourite salads from the salad bar in supermarkets. My all time favourite was “Selyodka pod Shuboi”, literally “Herring in fur coats” or “Herring with surprise” as one Russian friend called it. This has slices of herring, beetroot and pickles in a creamy sauce. The other classic salad is “Salat Olivye” – chopped meat (usually luncheon again – “Kolbaca” pops up everywhere in Russian Cuisine), potatoes, eggs, peas etc in mayonnaise.
I would occasionally splash out to try other staples like breakfast pancakes, cottage-cheese fritters and porridge. Each region also has its own traditional food to explore and deep fried oily meat, cheese or cabbage pasties were cheap quick and warming fodder at bus or train stations.
Finally, Russians love tea. The choices of tea in supermarkets is truly impressive. Despite all of the rumours about vodka, I hardly came across it although you would often see groups sharing a few shots from a small vodka bottle together over lunch. Usually on the trains, you were pressed to share “tea” with your fellow passengers at regular intervals. Anyone that showed signs of excessive drunkenness were dealt to by the wagon attendants!