Food in Russia: what's hot in a cold country
First thing first: Russians aren’t big on celebrating Christmas (neither Orthodox, nor Catholic one), and the biggest celebrations falls on New Year Eve (31st December). A traditional Russian celebration would include a table with enormous amount of food, waiting till 12 a.m. to open a champagne bottle, listening to the president speech (and possibly watching other “typical New Year” TV show and movies) and exchanging gifts. Also, it’s always good to go outside and light some firecrackers, especially if there is snow there (like it should be on a proper New Year).
Ok, we got that covered. Let’s talk specifically about the New Year table and what food is absolutely necessary for the celebration.
That’s right. You might think, how a fruit can be associated with the New Year? Yet for some reasons, it’s true. People are buying them in bulk and you’ll probably see them on every New Year table.
But why tangerines? There is a theory that in Soviet times there weren’t any other fruits in the shops to eat at New Year, because there wasn’t many imports from “capitalistic” countries. But there were tangerines imported from Georgia and Abkhazia, and they came in season exactly on New Year celebrations.
In many countries winter is a season for citrus fruit, and they are added in cakes, teas, fruit salads etc. Plus tangerines are very easy to peel and eat without things getting messy as may happen with oranges.
2. Olivier Salad
That’s a very famous salad, and many people think it isn’t a proper New Year celebration if The Salad isn’t on the table (or is prepared wrongly, e.g. without some ingredients).
The most traditional Olivier salad consists of potatoes, carrots, onion, pickled cucumber, canned peas, eggs, chopped bologna (or possibly other types of meat or cold cuts) and a very generous helping of mayo. It’s usually prepared in a very big quantities, so that the guests get some leftovers, and people will eat it on the next day’s late (hangover) breakfast. No, I’m not kidding.
What you should know about Olivier salad is that it tastes better than it looks (as is the case with many Russian foods, according to one of my non-Russian friends).
3. Shuba Salad (Russian Beet and Herring Salad)
Another Soviet classics, but as Buzzfeed established, not necessarily as tasty for non-Russian palate as Olivier salad. You will recognize it immediately as a very festive-looking, magenta dish in a bowl.
In shuba recipe, there are potatoes, carrots, beet, onion, herring and, of course, mayo (mayo is used for most Russian salads). So may be skip it if you don’t like beet. Or salted herring.
Funny fact: “shuba” means a fur coat in Russian.
4. Open face sandwiches with cured red fish and/or red caviar
That’s one of my favorite foods not only on New Year table, but of all the time.
The sandwiches are very simple: good white bread (soft, baguette would be perfect), butter and fish (or caviar). The fish is cured, meaning it was pickled (usually with salt, sugar and some alcohol), so it’s uncooked and super tender. All I can say, once you go cured, you’ll never go cooked.
5. Holodets/Studen’ (Meat Jello)
Again, with the help of Buzzfeed, we know that people not used to this may not like this dish – not because it tastes bad, but because of the texture.
Actually, I think studen’ can be one of the Russian superfoods. I imagine it must be great for your joints because it contains a lot of natural gelatin. See, the proper studen’ is made without adding any gelatin – it just that you use a lot of bones and gelatinous meat for your stock so it sets. It also requires very long and somewhat complicated preparation. Different types of meat can be used – beef, pork and sometimes even chicken – but mostly it’s a combination.
It’s crucial to eat your studen’ with a good horseradish sauce.
To open it while Kremlin clock is chiming and possibly make a wish.
Other things deserving to be mentioned:
Main course: likely a meat dish, poultry or pork being the most popular choices.
Pickles: home-pickled vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, mushrooms, lecho (bell peppers in tomato juice) and sauerkraut among many others.
Salads: salad with crab sticks (fake crab meat), mimoza salad (salad with fish), simple garden salad (tomatoes, cucumbers and sour cream). Can get very, ahem, creative with mayo.
Other appetizers: cheese, salami, cold cuts, Russian Juliennes (chicken or mushrooms in cheesy sauce), roasted pork (buzhenina)… From my experience, during celebrations like that people are very big on appetizers, but then they get full quickly (these salads are quite filling) and move to main dish, so when the time of the dessert comes, people are not very enthusiastic. That’s why the main emphasis is always on salads and appetizers.
Fruit (other than tangerines): bananas, apples, kiwis, grapes etc.
Alcohol (other than champagne): whatever they have and vodka (duh).
Dessert: something not very fancy. Can be storebought treats, can be simple homemade cake. Everybody is uncomfortably full anyway.
Now you know what you’ll find on a Russian New Year table and what food you’ll probably want to skip. Enjoy, and don’t forget to ask for some leftover Olivier takeaway.