Being an Estonian of a Russian heritage, I am used to the mix of cuisines and sometimes can’t even tell what is what. But what my mom mostly cooked when I was a kid was Russian food. Therefore, some things that might seem strange for many visitors, are completely normal to me. Here I will try to come up with a list of food you should try while visiting Russia. Note, Russia is huuuuuuuuuge! Many regions have their own specific cultures and cuisines, traditional costumes and typical dishes. In this article we will concentrate on those dishes that are more or less spread all over the country. So, here is my list of local food to try in Russia. I’m including Russian spelling, in case you find yourself in trouble in one of the restaurants.
P.S. I am terrible at taking pictures of my food, so I included some photos which are not made by me – pretty unusual for Bearly Here. In future I will add some more photos, when I get my hands on any Russian dishes from this list.
Porridge in Russia is eaten mainly for breakfast. For some reason the word Kasha is used in English to refer to buckwheat, which can also be made into porridge, but is mostly served as a side dish – popular substitute for potatoes and rice. While buckwheat is definitely another important food to try, this is not what a Russian person would think when you say “kasha”. In Russia, kasha simply refers to any kind of porridge (or to a mess inside one’s head), made by boiling grains in water or milk. Most popular grains to make porridge from are oats, semolina, rice, pearl barley, millet, cornmeal, rye and buckwheat. Porridge is often served with butter or jam and considered to be a healthy breakfast, especially for kids. One of my personal favorites is millet porridge with pumpkin.
Next on our list of food to try in Russia are… bliny! Basically they’re just thin pancakes. There’s a wide variety of preparation methods and ways to serve them. Bliny can be served flat with jam, sour cream or caviar. Or they can be rolled around the filling like meat, quark, eggs and more. There is also another variety called oladyi (оладьи), which are thick small pancakes, for which people use kefir, yogurt or some type of sour milk .
I think every Russian remembers zapekanka from their childhood and kindergartens. It is a dish made in the oven and served as dessert or breakfast, often with jam or sour cream. Main ingredient is tvorog, which is a dairy product similar to quark. It’s mixed with semolina, eggs, sugar and whatever else chef would like to add – berries, dried fruits. Zapekanka is then baked in the oven. It is often compared to a cheesecake, but the ingredients are different.
Another dish made of tvorog, syrniki is one of my personal favorites. These are small quark based pancakes with eggs, flour and sugar. Served with jam, honey or sour cream.
Curd snacks (Творожные сырки, сырочки)
I love curd snacks. At least this is what some people call them in English. In Russian you would call then “syrki”, in Estonian – “kohuke”. Curd snacks are made in many countries and often consist of quark covered with chocolate. There are so many varieties of curd snacks, that I won’t even start – go and pick your favorite. They can be eaten as breakfast, dessert, snack or just because.
Although it’s widely cooked in Russia, borscht is originally believed to be a Ukrainian dish. In fact, sometimes eateries add “Ukrainian” to its name just so it sounds more delicious (these two kinda go together). It is thought to add more authenticity, but I’m unaware if it really does refer to a specific type of borscht. Main ingredients in this soup are cabbage and beetroots, hence the red color. Besides that, classical version includes carrots, potatoes, meat (normally pork or beef), onions and herbs like parsley and dill. In other versions people add mushrooms or beans, sometimes even fish. There is also a vegetarian option with no meat.
Borscht is traditionally served with sour cream and bread, also lard. It can be hot or cold. My mom spent some years in Ukraine when she was young, and she says that proper borscht should be so thick that “a spoon would stand in it”. But don’t take it literally – that just means it’s gotta have plenty of veggies inside. If there is space for only one soup on your list of food to try in Russia – that would be my recommendation.
I love borscht, but solyanka definitely has a special place in my heart. It’s thick, has lots of meat and a very special taste. Soup is based on broth that contains pickled cucumbers. Meat solyanka often consists of different types of cuts like beef, ham, sausages, often all together; there is also fish solyanka and mushroom solyanka. Soup can include potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables. It’s quite thick and is served with, of course, sour cream and bread. It’s delicious – one of my favorite Russian soups. Actually, the word “solyanka” became sort of a saying because of the variety of ingredients. When Russians speak about the mix of different things, they say “sbornaya solyanka”, referring to how heterogeneous the blend is.
Another soup with tons of cabbage – Shchi. You can find other spellings like, for example, Schtschi. It’s normally sour as main ingredients are cabbage or sauerkraut and brine. Similar to borscht and solyanka, it can be either with meat or vegetarian and ingredients vary from family to family. It is, however, a clear soup. I’m not a huge fan of it, but if you like cabbage and sour soups – that’s your go-to.
Ukha is a clear fish soup. It’s pretty simple yet delicious. Fish plus potatoes, carrots, onions and spices – these are main ingredients of ukha. With this soup it’s not the ingredients that are the most important, but the technology of making it. I’ve never cooked ukha myself, so can’t reveal you any secrets, but I’m sure that pescatarians and fish lovers among us would appreciate it.
That’s one of the weirdest ones. It took me many years to like it, but now I love it. It’s more of a summer soup since it’s a cold soup and is quite refreshing. The base and the liquid are prepared separately. For the base you cut things like sausage/ham, eggs, vegetables such as cucumbers, radish, potatoes, spring onions, and herbs. For the liquid you use.. wait for it.. either kvass (fermented bread-based drink) or kefir (yikes). I do strongly prefer kvass, and that’s what I recommend! When people decide which dishes to try in Russia, okroshka rarely makes it to the priority list. Nonetheless, I’d say – go for it! You’ll probably either love it or hate it.
This is by far the most famous salad on Russian tables. It’s a must-have for New Year’s Eve, for birthdays and other celebrations; it’s definitely a must food to try in Russia. But when I say “salad”, I don’t mean the healthy green bowl of goodness. Russian salads are not like that, unless you consider mayonnaise a vegetable. So, Olivier is a “salad” consisting of cubed potatoes, sausage, cucumbers, eggs, green peas, onions and carrots. They say that originally other type of meat was used (grouse or duck), but during Soviet times boiled sausage was cheaper to get, that’s why it became more traditional. However, today people substitute it with more healthy alternatives like chicken. You can add dill, olives and even apple. But don’t forget mayo.
This one, surprisingly, doesn’t include mayo. But it also doesn’t include things like lettuce or tomatoes. Main ingredients are beetroots, potatoes (yet another traditional salad ingredient), onions, carrots and green peas, sometimes sauerkraut. Now that I wrote it, I realized how weird it might sound. Served with oil, but not the Gasprom one. Generally sunflower oil is used, but today many substitute for healthier olive oil.
Dressed herring (Селёдка под шубой)
Another mayo salad, “шуба” is translated as “fur coat”. Full name is “herring under a fur coat”. This dish is built in layers, which are pickled herrings, onions, potatoes, carrots, eggs and beetroots, with mayo in between. After being assembled, “fur coat” has to stand in a fridge for a while, so all the layers can soak with mayo…
Beef Stroganoff (Бефстроганов)
Sauteed beef with sour cream served with mashed potatoes or any other side.
Pieces of meat marinated and barbecued on long skewers. It is widely cooked in summer, when people are spending more time outdoors.
Cabbage rolls (Голубцы)
Cabbage rolls are basically wraps, where instead of flatbread there’s boiled cabbage leaves. Meat with carrots and rice are used for the filling. Served in sauce.
Pilaf has many different varieties, but in Russia the most beloved one is Uzbek pilaf. It’s kind of similar to Ukranian borscht – Uzbek pilaf somehow sounds more delicious than just pilaf. Pilaf is a rice-based dish, often made with lamb, vegetables and specific spices and berberis.
Russian pelmeni are dumplings made of thin dough with meat filling. It’s definitely a popular food to try in Russia! Different types of dumplings are served all over the world, and everywhere they are unique. Russia is no difference. Pelmeni can be boiled or fried, often served with sour cream, butter and pepper or nowadays even ketchup. For drinking – cold vodka is a great accompaniment.
While vareniki are also type of dumplings, they are made differently and are of Ukranian origin. They also can have sweet filling like cherries and quark, or alternative like mashed potatoes or mushrooms.
Pirozhki are small versions of pirog, which is a pie with a filling. Not to be confused with pierogi – Polish dumplings! Pirozhki are baked or, sometimes, fried buns that can have both sweet and savory fillings. For a savory filling one can use different types of meat and vegetables such as beef, mashed potatoes, onions and eggs, carrots, cabbage and even fish. Sweet buns contain jams, stewed apples and cherries, quark or whatever else comes to baker’s mind.
Honey cake (Медовик)
One of Anders’ favorite cakes in the world! It’s a layered cake, where typically dough contains honey and cream between the layers is made either out of sour cream, butter or whipping cream. When recommending which food to try in Russia, this dessert is almost always on our list. But you can also find it in other countries, Estonia included.
Napoleon cake (Наполеон)
By appearance, Napoleon might remind one of a honey cake, yet the taste is absolutely different. This cake is also composed of layers and cream, but both prepared using different methods. Napoleon is somewhat similar to mille-feuille, and is traditionally covered by a pastry crumble.
Chocolate “sausage” (Шоколадная колбаса)
Don’t fret, this dessert does not contain any meat and the only thing reminding a sausage is its looks. The most basic chocolate sausage is made by crushing biscuits, mixing them with a chocolate sauce made of cacao powder, butter, sugar, sometimes milk or condensed milk and nuts. It is then left in the fridge to stiffen and is cut into slices before serving.
This French pastry became popular in Russia during the Soviet era, and today you can find it in many bakeries, restaurants and supermarkets.
Kissel is kind of a half-liquid dessert, which is made of berries or fruits and is thickened with starch. Can be served with quark.
Pryaniki are somewhat similar to gingerbread cookies, yet not exactly the same. They come in different varieties, but most often are made from flour and honey. Traditionally, they are covered by sugar glaze and can contain different ingredients such as spices, cherries, jams, dried fruit, nuts and raisins.
Fermented rye bread based drink, kvass is traditionally made in many households. Today you can also buy it in the supermarket, carbonated or non-carbonated, or order it at the restaurant. It’s a very popular non-alcoholic drink in Russia, especially during summer months.
Mors and kompot (Морс и компот)
Mors is like a non-carbonated berry juice. Lingonberry mors is one of the most traditional ones. Kompot can be both cold and warm, and is made of berries and fruits. While mors should be drank right away, kompot can be something that you conserve for the winter.
I’m sure that for most people vodka would be the drink most associated with Russia. This alcoholic beverage is widely produced and loved in the country, and is a must-have for any celebration. Many Russians even believe that Russian scientist Mendeleev “invented” vodka, but that was shown to be just a myth. Nevertheless, you can find plenty of good quality vodka all over the country. You don’t have to buy a whole bottle and drink it all at once, you can just taste it in the restaurant or as a visitor in someone’s home. It’s great with pelmeni, herring, caviar, Olivier or other Russian food. Drink it as shot, ice-cold and don’t mix it. After a shot of vodka pickled cucumber tastes especially great.
Fireweed tea (Иван-чай)
This drink can be found under different names in English like fireweed tea, Ivan tea or Ivan-chai. This herbal tea is made of the plant with the same name, Ivan-chai or fireweed. It is believed to have many benefits such as mood balancing, promoting longevity and even possessing anti-flammatory properties.
Sea buckthorn tea (Облепиховый чай)
Sea buckthorn is yet another berry that is widely used in traditional medicine in Russia. But besides being used for various health benefits, it’s also a delicious infusion that can be found in many Russian cafes. The orange color comes from the berry, not any added chemicals; if you can, find a place where you can drink this tea without added sugar.
To be honest, I first found out about that drink in 2018, when we visited Russia. I’ve never heard of it before and after I tried it, I can say it’s not my favorite. But that’s because I don’t like my coffee and tea sweet. Those of you who like to add both sugar and milk should definitely try this Russian version of a world’s famous drink. The original recipe includes an espresso shot, cream and sugar (plain and/or vanilla) steamed in a mug. Today cafes and bars all over Russia are getting creative with Raf, adding syrups, herbs and other ingredients.
Today kefir, the fermented goodness, is something popular and fashionable, together with other products like kombucha and kimchi. In Russia though it’s a drink that everyone knows from childhood, accessible to everyone and sold everywhere. It’s not something made at home by ultra health-conscious people that care about their gut bacteria, but widely spread, everyday drink known for many generations. Just stop by any grocery store and buy some Russian kefir. Together with kefir, you will find other fermented milk products like ryazhenka and prostokvasha.
Other types of food to try in Russia
This one is pretty obvious – in many movies featuring Russian characters you can find them eating bliny with caviar and vodka. There are plenty of varieties, both cheap and expensive, so it’s worth to find out which one to aim for. It used to be a dish showing status, but today it’s more affordable, especially low-cost options. Many Russian families put it on their tables during celebrations. They eat caviar on white bread and butter, with pancakes, on eggs or in many other ways.
Black bread with garlic (Гренки/сухарики с чесноком)
This snack has many different names and versions, and you can also find it with many post-Soviet countries. In my opinion, it’s one of the best snacks you can have with beer! It’s basically dark bread fried with garlic, served with sour cream as a dip – simple yet delicious. Today it’s also available in stores as small snack packs and comes in different variations like onion, herbs, cheese and more. You can think of it as Russian version of croutons that was made for snacking!
Meat jelly/Kholodets (Холодец)
I’m not sure what possesses me when once every 10 years I really enjoy eating meat jelly – normally it’s not my type of dish. To be honest my dad, as well as many people in the world, enjoys eating it every year. It’s usually made during the winter and contains meat (mostly pork) with carrots, onions and garlic packed in broth jelly. Served with horseradish and mustard. Please, please try it and let us know if you liked it!
Sushki, baranki, bubliki (Сушки, баранки, бублики)
These three are similar yet not the same. They all have circular shape and are more or less bread rings or bread rolls, similar to donuts by shape but different in size. Sushki are small and thin ones, also more dry – great for dipping into tea. Bubliki are thicker and bigger than baranki, but also softer. Baranka, which has more shape variations, seems to be a type of bublik though – but you will only know if you try!
Tvorog, or quark, is one of the largely used food items in Russia. You can eat it with pancakes, use it baking and desserts, syrniki and dumplings, or just as it is. It has many variations and is definitely an interesting type of food to try in Russia.
Choosing which food to try in Russia
Most of us don’t travel for many months in one go, and you might find yourself wondering: which dishes to try if I have only limited amount of time? Here’s a few suggestions.
- For breakfast choose syrniki or porridge, and have it with some buckthorn tea.
- Lunch is traditional soup time in Russia, and borscht is an incredible option! If you’re traveling in summer and feeling adventurous, go for okroshka – this way you’ll also taste some kvass.
- While walking around the city, stop by a supermarket and get some curd snacks! Also, get pirozhki in the bakery or grab a beer with garlic bread snacks.
- For dinner enjoy olivier, shashlyk or pelmeni. Have Napoleon or honey cake for dessert!
- To celebrate your last evening in Russia, indulge yourself with some pancakes with caviar and vodka.
- For more adventurous food lovers, meat jelly could definitely be a special experience
- Have a sweet tooth? Try Raf-coffee, eclairs and chocolate sausage.
Just by writing all of this, I’m already dreaming of what my next Russian dish would be. I don’t cook Russian food too often lately, since as you might have noticed a lot of it contains mayo, sugar and other not-so-healthy ingredients. Those of you who aren’t planning on visiting Russia soon can consider popping by a Russian restaurant and order at least 3 things on this list. Of course, there is so much more to try – local sweets and chocolates, regional dishes etc, but this list is a good start. Let us know which dishes are your favorites and which ones you wouldn’t go for again!
We don’t write about food often, but when we do: