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Russia

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Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the enormous and multi-cultural area of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural inhabitants in an often harsh climate, with a combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, barley and millet provided the ingredients for the plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer and vodka. Flavourful soups and stews are cantered on seasonal or storable produce, fish and meats. This wholly native food remained the staple for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century.

Russia's vast expansions of territory, influence and interest through the 16th-18th centuries brought more refined foods and cookery techniques. It had been throughout this period that smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, chocolate, ice cream, wines and liquor were imported from abroad. At least for the urban aristocracy and provincial gentry, this opened the doors for the creative integration of these new foodstuffs with traditional Russian dishes. The result is very wide-ranging in technique, seasoning and combination.

From the time of Catherine the Great, every family of influence imported both the products and personnel-mainly German, Austrian and French to bring the finest, rarest and most creative foods to their table. That is nowhere more evident than in the exciting, elegant, highly nuanced and decadent repertoire of the Franco-Russian chef. Many of the foods which are considered in the West to be traditionally Russian actually came from the Franco-Russian cuisine of the 18th and 19th centuries and include such widespread dishes as Veal Orloff, Beef Stroganoff and Chicken Kiev.

Only a few dishes of Russian cuisine have received international renown, but the inclusion of both hearty and finesse foods in Moscow equally serve the needs of comfort and gourmet dining. When temperatures can drop to -30°C (-22°F) during Moscow's winter, it's no surprise that Russian food is typically hearty, with potatoes, bread, pastry and sour cream featuring as common ingredients. Yet delicate smoked fishes, thin papery crêpes and red and black caviar are equal contenders in Russian cuisine. You may feel French influences show through in several dishes, although the Russian versions stand on their own merit and creation. Restaurants are not cheap in Moscow, however, classic Russian dishes are just as good from streets stalls and fast-food eateries as they are from high-end restaurants, although the latter do provide exquisite variations.

Borscht - This beet and cabbage red soup is a delicious belly warmer on Moscow's colder days, served with or without meat, potato, herbs (usually dill) and a dollop of smetana, Russian sour cream. Accompanied with a piece of rye bread or garlic bread topped with melted cheese, this dish is hearty enough to serve as a meal, although it is usually eaten as a starter. A staple of Russia cuisine, it would be an offense to leave Moscow without trying this soup at least once, although its surprisingly tasty flavour will certainly leave you wishing you had tried more local variations. Other common Russian soups to try are ukha, a seasoned fish and vegetable broth and schi, a cabbage-based broth.

Russian pancakes - Blini are Russia's version of the thin French crêpe and a staple on most Moscovian menus, typically made with buckwheat for savoury fillings or white flour for sweet toppings. You'll see accompaniments of smoked salmon, creamy mushrooms, sour cream, jams and condensed milk to name a few, but the high-end, revered combination is a spoonful of red salmon or black sturgeon caviar. Another tasty Russian pancake is the cottage cheese version called syrniki, a denser form of ricotta-pancakes, which are eaten for breakfast or dessert. They're best served with homemade jams made from Russia's large array of berries, although condensed milk, honey and sour cream are also served as condiments.

Russian salad - This hardly needs mentioning seeing as ‘Russian salad' is one such dish that has spread internationally, and chances are you've tried a version in your home country. However, the Russian version is fresher and crispier with a light smattering of mayonnaise, quite the opposite to the ratio of the soft-boiled, mayonnaise-heavy international versions. This could be due to the use of fresh cucumber or crunchy Russian pickles, although the base of diced potato, peas, egg and mayonnaise/sour cream remains ubiquitous. In Moscow, however, it's known as Olivier salad, named after the chef Lucien Olivier who created the ‘secret' recipe there around the mid 1800s, although the original ingredients have been swapped for cheaper, more available foods. You'll also find a variation of similar cold Russian salads that will equally vie for your attention.

Smoked salmon or salted herring - Smoked, salted and marinated river and saltwater fish feature widely in Russian cuisine, and are expertly prepared to have a delicate and fresh flavour. On menus you'll typically find marinated or smoked salmon served alone as a dish or with pancakes, and salted herring served in salads, a typical one colloquially named ‘herring under a fur coat' or shuba, which covers salted herring with layers of grated boiled vegetables, beets, onions and mayonnaise. Tartareis is also commonly found on menus in Moscow. Other common fish served in Moscow include trout, carp, zander, sturgeon and sterlet, also known as the Tsar fish.

Shashlik /Shashlyik - If semi-raw marinated fish doesn't suit your tastes, these roasted meats and fish on skewers are hard not to like. As the name suggests, this dish is a form of shish kebab, although the Russian version is served with chunkier portions of lamb, beef, chicken or salmon, and served with an unleavened bread, Russian pickles and a sometimes spicy tomato sauce. If your travels take you to Moscow's Izmailovsky flea market (and it's certainly a top 10 thing to see), you'll find a range of market stalls serving shashlik sticks right off the grill.

Russian dumplings - What's different about Russian dumplings (pelmeni) are the tasty herbs added to the packed meat fillings of lamb, pork or beef and the thinness of the dough. You can also find fish (typically salmon) or creamy mushrooms as common fillers. When ordering them, you'll be asked if you want to eat them solo (boiled) or served in a broth.

Mini-pies - Russia's mini pies (pirozhki) use similar fillings and herbs to dumplings, except they are encased in pastry and either pan-fried or oven-baked. Besides the typical meat or salmon fillings, however, you also get the additional choice of cabbage, potato, egg, cheese and even sweet fillings. Pirozhki make a great appetizer at a restaurant, as well as a quick bite from a street stall or bakery.

Honeycake - The intricate-looking cake medovik involves alternating ultra-thin layers of honey sponge cake with sweetened (sour) cream. The thin layers are built-up to form the cake, from anywhere between 5 and 15 layers, topped off with a sprinkling of crushed sponge or nuts and left overnight to soften and absorb the cream. Fluffy and light to eat, but full-on in flavour and sweetness.

Stroganoff - Another Russian dish that is served on dinner tables worldwide, eating stroganoff from its Russian source is everything you would expect tastier, smoother and creamier than you've ever had at home. The credit goes in part to Russian sour cream, but Russia is also home to some of the best and widest variation of mushrooms. Coupled with interesting variations of hunting/game meats, you'll definitely want to try this dish (again).

Mushroom julienne - With a similar taste to stroganoff, but without meat, this creamy mushroom dish is found on almost every menu as a hot appetizer. Combining some of Russia's ubiquitous ingredients and a hint of French obsession, it's made with thinly sliced mushrooms, cheese, sour cream and cream and broiled/grilled for a crusty top, served in a dainty metal dish or bread crust. While this rich, small-serving dish may not impress foreigners with its basic ingredients, it's a special dish in Russian cuisine. Indeed, mushrooms in any form are a must-try in Russia, where mushroom hunting could almost be considered a national pastime. When you're fully creamed-out, try an assortment of pickled mushrooms instead.

To drink - Besides sipping vodka from a shot glass, you'll also find an interesting range of teas and alcoholic warm drinks worth trying. Tea, surprisingly, is a very popular drink in Russia, drunk traditionally from a samovar, which you might still find in some Russian speciality restaurants. There are traditional drinks such as sbiten, a spicy hot drink flavoured with wine or honey or ormors, which is made of berry juice and birch tree juice, but you might not find these readily available on menus. More commonly found are medovukha, a sweet drink made with fermented-honey and kvass, a drink usually made from black rye or rye bread, both with a low-alcoholic kick.