An insider's guide to Russian Cuisine

An insider's guide to Russian Cuisine Eloise in a Ukrainian restaurant

This article was written by Eloise Penman, published on 6th July 2012 and has been read 3591 times.

My name is Eloise Penman and I’m studying Russian at University College London. I will be in Saint Petersburg, Russia for the duration of the University Year from September 2012. I’m one of triplets and have a mother who has her own catering (specifically Sugarcraft) business. Naturally, this small army of offspring was drafted into our mother’s business from an early age. My choice was either to reject such a pursuit or love it and fully immerse myself in it. Luckily, I knew what was best for my continuing existence and accepted my role as ‘Private Penman’.
This is the origin of my love for food and cooking.

Through I would like to give an informal crash-course in Russian cuisine, specifically that in Saint-Petersburg. I’d like to show my journey of discovery of how Russian this cuisine actually is, and how much of it reflects the ‘European-centred’ outlook so typical of Saint Petersburg. I’ll use my own pictures and experiences to show how Russian cuisine is nowadays, whence English stereotypes of Russian cuisine originate and where they are mistaken. Ultimately, by the end of my journey, I hope to show how the best and only place to dine Russian-style is in Saint Petersburg.

For those who know nothing about the city, Saint Petersburg was officially founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and became a ‘Window onto Europe’. Architects and engineers from all over Europe were commissioned in the building of the city, and it became the vision for the rest of Russia; a modern, European ‘Empress’. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that many a Russian has slated the cuisine of this modern metropolis as not being a true reflection of the Russian ‘dusha’; soul.

Such a ‘soul’ has been difficult to define due to the vastness of Russia (its time zones, though recently reduced in number, still stand at 9), and corresponding varied influences from both East and West.

In Saint Petersburg the main foreign influences were German, Dutch, Swedish and French. French influence soon dominated all other foreign stimuli and was characterized by a refinement in technique of existing Russian dishes. (‘Russian dishes – refined?!’ I hear you scoff. Yes, indeed.)

Before going too deep into my research into Russian cuisine I wanted to write about my present opinion and experiences thereof so that I can compare my attitude before-and-after my Year Abroad. Currently I have been twice to stay with Russian friends in Ukraine and once to a hotel in Moscow. If I had to sum up Russian cuisine I would say that it is:

1. Fattening (deep-fried/drowned in sour cream or mayonnaise, not Heinz Extra Light either!)
2. Meat-based
3. Stodgy
4. Always natural and homemade (pre-packed and preserved food is not food. ‘You wouldn’t eat your ‘shapka’; hat, so don’t eat this.’ I do believe I got told!)

My family, being rather staunchly English, has only ever received the Eloise-vetted version of Russian cuisine (I felt layered salads, fruit-filled ‘ravioli’ and cottage-cheese pancakes might prompt them to question my validity as a member of the ‘Penman people’.)

However, whilst I wait patiently for my family to ready themselves for the wonders of Russian cuisine, I will invest my time in writing about it. I will show how fascinating the history of the cuisine is, how varied it is nowadays and I shall inspire you, through my own trial and error, to try it for yourselves. So, put away that Ketchup, put on some Russian Red Army Choir and follow me on my culinary journey through Saint Petersburg!

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