The days of food shortages and bread queues are a distant memory for just the older generation of Muscovites. Today, the choice runs from cabbage pies heated in a microwave in a street underpass kiosk to haute cuisine in opulent luxury with liveried doormen, attentive waiters and a French chef.
Food shopping is a 24/7 experience in Moscow. Practically all districts have 24-hour western-style supermarkets, or at least one all-night corner grocery store. Most supermarkets nowadays are self-serve, which means you walk through the aisles and select your own purchases. Security here is higher, though, than you may be used to from your hometown – bags and backpacks must always be left in small lockers outside the main shopping area, and you may be asked to show your bag to a security guard if you are digging deeply through a larger purse while in the store.
You will also notice, if shopping in town, that most Russians purchase less items at a time than westerners – especially Americans – are used to. It is typical to stop by the store every day or every few days after work to pick up what you need and can carry home, as opposed to making a big weekly or monthly trip by car. Of course, this doesn’t have to stop you from doing it differently!
Smaller corner stores or shops may still be set up in the traditional Russian way, which means that all products are behind a counter, and you request each item from the salesperson. The larger of such stores may have separate counters; for example, you would first buy all dairy products and pay the person behind the dairy counter, and then move over to the canned good counter, select those foods, and pay a different person. Even if you don’t speak Russian, some pointing and gesticulating is generally enough for a quick evening milk run.
Note also that in small shops and kiosks, and in some larger grocery stores, shopping bags must either be purchased or are not available at all – it’s a good idea to keep an extra plastic bag handy, just in case.
Food is very important in Russian culture. If you are invited to visit, regardless of the time of day, you will inevitably be served a meal fit for company – soup, one or more meat entrees and sides, and a few Russian salads. Vegetarians are few and far between in Russia, and if you say you are a vegetarian, people may assume that you still eat poultry or fish. Make sure to clarify if you are invited to visit, to avoid embarrassment for you and your host.
The meal is followed by mandatory chaepitie or tea-drinking. Tea must always be accompanied by something k chaju – for the tea. This ranges from a biscuit to a few spoonfuls of marmalade to cakes and luxurious pastries.
Typical Russian snacks include hearty little pies or piroshki, which can be filled with anything from cabbage to cheese to meat. These are often sold by street vendors. Many Muscovites would advise you to avoid purchasing products containing meat from any street vendor, however, because of suspicions as to the exact origin of the meat.
It is also inadvisable to buy produce, especially mushrooms in the autumn, from street vendors with ad hoc displays near metro stations and pedestrian underpasses, because of the risk of food poisoning. Produce and meat products sold at established open markets, however, are generally considered safe.
Foreign restaurants are easy to find across Moscow, with everything ranging from Chinese to Italian to Indian. Ingredients for at-home cooking of foreign cuisine can be a bit harder to locate, though. For example, your corner supermarket probably won’t carry curry in the spices section, or lasagna noodles. Your best bet is to try one of the hypermarkets on the MKAD, visit a gourmet specialty store, or check to see if the local embassy has a small shop of its home cuisine.
Traditional Russian cuisine is fairly bland, with a lot of emphasis on bread and potatoes. The most popular seasoning, beyond salt, is garlic. However, to the westerner, popular Russian dishes can be very adventurous nonetheless. Particularly Americans – who typically have rarely tasted beets or herring – will discover new horizons with the two combined in a delicious layered salad with mayonnaise and garlic known as seledka pod shuboi – herring under a fur coat.
A full meal always consists of a first course of soup – to the Russian mind, this is necessary to ensure proper digestion and ward off stomach problems – followed by a second course of entrée and side.
Soup in Russia is almost always broth-based, as opposed to cream-based, although some restaurants offer creamy soups as well. The most traditional Russian soup is borshh, a delicious red soup made of beets, cabbage, and potatoes, typically with beef but sometimes with pork. It is usually served with a big dollop of sour cream in the middle. Another typical Russian soup worth trying is shhi – similar to borshh, but without the beets. You will notice that these two soups have a special status in Russian cuisine and are never referred to as sup, but only by their actual name.
A meat entrée is a must to the Russian – pork or beef are the most traditional, but chicken is also very popular. Fish is typically served on holidays or for special occasions only, as it is quite expensive in Moscow.
The typical side consists of potatoes, or occasionally rice or pasta (without any elaborate sauces). Salads are also very popular in Russia, and numerous salads will typically be served at holidays. A Russian salad will contain vegetables and usually potatoes or meat of some sort; a heavy proportion of mayonnaise or sour cream are typical. Russian salads provide a delicious and unique venture into Russian cuisine. Vinegret – a distinctly red salad made of beets, pickles, and potatoes cut into the tiny cubes typical of a Russian salad – and olivye (also known as zimniy salat) – a rich potato salad with meat, pickles, and peas – are especially worth trying, as is the afore-mentioned Herring under a Fur Coat.
Other special Russian dishes worth a try are kholodets – a dish of homemade gelatin extracted directly from meaty bones, filled with onion, garlic, and bits of meat. It is best enjoyed with a healthy dose of horseradish or mustard. Then, also, there are the popular pelmeni – little dumplings filled with ground meat (pork, beef, or a combination), frozen, and then boiled. They can be served with or without broth and are best enjoyed with sour cream. There are also larger variations called vareniki, which can be filled with meat or even fruit preserves, but more commonly with cabbage or potatoes.