James W. Meng

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Units: Foreword 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4


Russian Cuisine
22.1. Traditional Russian Cuisine

The complete oeuvre of Russian cuisine accumulated over many centuries, yet the first written cookbooks - compilations of traditional recipes - were only compiled in the middle of the 19th century, at which point quite many more quickly began to appear. Representing all social classes - peasants, merchants, nobility - and all regions of the Russian Empire, these books offered a full, historical view into the wide spectrum of Russian cuisine.

Russian cuisine underwent a long history of development through what we now recognize as several identifiable stages, with each stage leaving a distinct trace. We identify these stages not only in terms of the dishes themselves and their ingredients and preparation, but also in terms of the technologies used in their preparation, which varied greatly over many centuries.

The first stage, roughly from the 10th through the 15th centuries, was characterized by the composition of dishes on strict rules of preparation. Foundations of cuisine during this period were primarily bread, other flour products, and grain-based dishes. Already by the 9th century the familiar sour, black rye bread well-known as a Russian national staple had appeared. Slightly later developments of the period included pirogi (filled pastries) with fillings of meat, fish, mushrooms, vegetables, berries, and fruit, as well as a dish of variable, boiled grain composition: kash. By the middle of the 10th century the vast majority of well-known Russian national drinks had also appeared: kvas, beer, and mead (a drink produced using similar methods to wine, but resulting in a product closer to cognac.)

Also during this period the Russian 'table' became strictly divided into lighter and heavier fare, with the former constituted of dishes of fish, vegetables, and mushrooms while the latter consisted of milk, cheese, and meat dishes. This division arose as a result of religious requirements connected with the adoption of Orthodox Christianity and held enormous influnce over all further developments in Russian cuisine. Attempts to diversify the lighter fare were slightly complicated by the requirement that every type of vegetable, mushroom, or fish be prepared independently and separately. Vegetables were eaten raw, steamed, baked, boiled, and pickled. Dishes in which vegetables were prepared separately and later mixed, such as the traditional salads, were not unusual. Honey and berries in early Russian cuisine were not only delicacies by themselves, but also a natural base on which syrups and jellies were produced. They were also - when mixed with ground meal and oil, or with ground meal and eggs - used in the making of gingerbread.

22.2. Cuisine of the Moscow State

The second stage in the development of Russian cuisine is generally thought to be the cuisine specific to the Moscow region during its early years. Its particularity lay in the fact that the table of the Muscovite Tsar and boyars was closed to the general populace, but the richness of its cuisine nevertheless impacted Muscovite cuisine in a more general sense. In Moscow, all foods could be purchased freely on the open market without restrictions regardless of their rarity, and therefore, the term 'Muscovite cuisine' came to define the predominant culinary principles of Moscow and its regional surroundings. It was not an accident that this term remained in usage, and especially in the central, Moscow river region, through the beginning of the 20th century.

Over time, the cuisine of the general population became simpler and less rich, while that of the boyars, nobles, and other elites became more complex and exquisite. Also notable was the typical number of dishes available at a boyar or Tsar's table: it was not uncommon to see an almost extreme variety of dishes. A boyar's typical table might consist of up to fifty dishes, while that of a Tsar might consist of as much as 150-200. These dishes were typically large in size, and consisted of the highest quality goose, turkey, swan, sturgeon, or beluga, sometimes even requiring as many as three or four people to present at table.

22.3. Cuisine of the 18th and 19th Centuries

The third stage in the development of Russian cuisine is generally associated with the period of Peter the Great (Peter I) and its associated, widespread re-education and Europeanization in virtually all spheres of life. During this time, Russian aristocrats and nobility began to take up Western European culinary customs. Many, when visiting Western Europe, would bring back with them a foreign cook. Before long, these immigrant cooks had supplanted Russian staff in many great houses. It was at this early stage of Europeanization that many dishes from ground meat began to appear: croquettes, spreads and pastes, and roasted meat rolls. The custom of offering appetizer dishes independently also arose, as did more widespread adoption of breakfast as a meal with distinct dishes: German open-faced sandwiches as well as French and Dutch cheeses became more common in place of traditional Russian dishes like cured meats, jellied meats, salted pork, ham, caviar, and red fish.

The next and fourth step is generally thought to be that associated with the heyday of Petersburg, then the new capital of the Russian Empire. From the 1790s and onward, a number of French and German recipe books began to be published in the Russian language as translations from the original. This period was generally characterized by the absorption of Western European cuisine into Russian daily practices and its gradual adaptation to Russian conditions. More specifically, if we say that during the period of Peter I the grand nobles adopted new, foreign cuisine, then soon thereafter those same nobles brought to that cuisine a genuine Russian colour and taste. Thereafter these changes found their way from the Tsar's table to that of the nobles and highest governors of the capital, and then to the provinces, to the landed gentry, and then further afield. Only after the 1812 invasion of Russia by the French (as a part of the Napoleonic Wars) did interest in traditional Russian cuisine experience a resurgence.

For the better part of the 19th century, following the Patriotic War of 1812, Russian traditional cuisine experienced a major resurgence. In the provinces, this process occurred haphazardly for the most part - carried out by anonymous, uncelebrated but nevertheless highly talented serf cooks on the distant estates of the landed gentry.

Finally, in connection with the development of railroads throughout the 19th century, the far reaches of the Russian Empire became effectively much closer to the center. This facilitated widespread discovery of the traditional regional cuisines of the remote regions of Russia, of which many quickly became national dishes and not strictly regional delicacies. Some examples include the pelmeni (dumplings) of the Ural and Siberian regions, pirogi (pastries) of the Don region, and dishes made from the large birds of the steppe, as well as the humpback salmon and its red caviar.

22.4. Soviet and Contemporary Cuisine

Finally we arrive at the Soviet period, generally viewed as the fifth stage in the development of Russian cuisine. During this period a variety of provincial culinary norms were integrated into the broader spectrum of Russian cuisine, bringing groundbreaking changes and additions to its depth and breadth. From Siberia and the Urals came pelmeni (dumplings) and shanezhki (open-top filled pastries) while from Belarus and Ukraine came salo (salted, cured pork fat). From Novorossiya (the territory roughly between present-day Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa, now located on the territory of Ukraine) came the custom to prepare chicken soups with long noodles; from the restaurants of Odessa came recipes for beef Stroganoff, which gradually became a national dish. Petersburg-style croquettes, which by some unknown route found their way to Ukraine, where they became known as "Croquettes Kiev" (kotlety po-Kievski) and likewise became a national dish. From the Baltics came syrniki, fried cheese pastries, as well as other milk-based dishes; and from Ukraine, once again, came varenniki and borscht, the latter of which rapidly superseded Russian shi.

It is worth noting that Soviet cuisine in many cases quickly superseded Russian cuisine in a general sense. This was, however, primarily associated with the country's goals to improve national health and to reduce womens' daily kitchen workloads. Partially associated with this, in turn, was the active development of common culinary venues: cafeterias, cafes, and restaurants - and this, too, left a mark on national cuisine.

To briefly chartacterize the current state of contemporary cuisine and its goals in comparison to those of the previous period, one generally observes a greater sense of internationalism, a greater value placed upon the culinary traditions of all regions of Russia as well as those of other countries, and a desire to reconstruct and preserve the culinary traditions of earlier periods where possible. Today there are, for example, many restaurants which maintain traditional, period interiors; use traditional, period dishes and silver; and maintain menus of Russian national dishes based on the recipes of past centuries. Also, in Moscow a wide range of casual eateries have opened under the traditional name of "traktirov" (diners or taverns). One of these that has received considerable notoriety is a chain playfully named Yolki-Palki. For people looking for a quick bite to eat in the city, the American chain "MacDonalds" successfully competes alongside a wide range of "Russian Bistros" offering up traditional appetizers, pastries, kvas, and beer. And there are also now an equally large selection of restaurants offering international cuisines: Italian, Chinese, Mexican, etc. - all of which also exert considerable influence on the new directions for development of contemporary Russian cuisine.