From Russia with lunch: the 8 essential Russian foods everyone should know
Sure, the Americans are stuck wearing those horrible Cosby sweater uniforms for their Olympics run in Sochi, but that doesn't mean they'll be subjected to horrible cooking. Russian food is rich in history and poor in PR… it's often stereotyped as nothing but boiled cabbage and meat. With eyes on Sochi, we consulted Portland, OR's Chef Vitaly Paley -- a James Beard winner who was born behind the Iron Curtain and went on to dominate Jose Garces on "Iron Chef" -- to come up with this beginner's guide to Mother Russia's cuisine.
What they are: Small dumplings filled with meat, mushrooms, and/or other fillings wrapped in a thin, flour-based dough. Variations exist throughout Russia.
What's the deal: Pelmeni are kind of like a cross between Chinese jiaozi and Polish pierogies, are extremely common, and were initially popular because they stayed preserved when frozen and, well, everything in Russia is kind of frozen for a good part of the year. They're also super easy to cook… just boil the frozen ones, and they plump right up. So yeah, this is kind of like the proto frozen food. Totino's owes them a debt of gratitude.
What it is: A hugely popular traditional beet soup that is served both hot and cold.
What's the deal: Like Grandmaster Flash, Russia's got beets for days. Well, centuries really, and no Russian menu is complete without this signature beet soup, which can be eaten at any temperature and can be modified with the addition of potatoes, cabbage, dill, or Melle Mel. It's also the reason that white carpets are a dangerous prospect throughout Mother Russia.
What they are: Thin, wheat-based pancakes, frequently rolled up into a crepe-like dessert.
What's the deal: Russian food has a definite French influence (just look at how quickly Gérard Depardieu's naturalization papers went through!), and it's no more evident than in the blini. A thicker version of crepes, the pancakes are often rolled up and filled with cream, but can veer savory too. On special occasions ("DEPARDIEU DAY 2015!!"), they come with caviar, making for perhaps the most baller version of a dainty French food ever.
What it is: A fish pie often made with salmon, but traditionally with sturgeon spine.
What's the deal: Yeah, that's right. Sturgeon spine. Kulebyaka refers to a wide variety of pies ranging from cake-sized to hand-held. Basically, it's the midway point between a pot pie and a big-ass puff pastry. It's filled up with veggies, rice, and the fish of choice, which better be sturgeon spine or you're just a big pansy.
What it is: A cabbage burrito filled with meatballs that are more like meatloaf, then frequently topped with tomato sauce.
What's the deal: One of the most common dishes in the Russian cookbook, cabbage rolls -- not to be confused with the "cabbage patch", which has yet to make its way to Moscow nightclubs -- exist throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They're the ultimate use of the plentiful cabbage that's indigenous to the region, which is boiled then used to encase a brick of seasoned ground beef.
What it is: A small chicken, butterflied, pounded out, and pan-fried underneath a brick.
What's the deal: Bringing the hammer and sickle into the kitchen, tabaka -- a Soviet favorite that, like Hootie and the Blowfish, is HUGE in Georgia -- is prepared by splitting the chicken down the sternum to butterfly it, then pounding the flattened foul into submission with a mallet. Then the sucker's tossed into a pan and fried with a brick on top to keep it from becoming three-dimensional. The result is a tender, pulverized chicken with a crisp skin.
What they are: Hand-held, bready pockets of dough stuffed with sweet or savory fillings, then baked or fried.
What's the deal: Occupying an awesome, ethereal space between pasties, donuts, and Hot Pockets, pirozhki come in an endless array of flavors. Some are stuffed with beef. Some with fruits. No two are the same. But regardless of what's going on inside, they're the ultimate to-go cuisine, and when they're fried, they manage to pack in enough rich flavor and greasy goodness to pad you for the winter.
What it is: A cold salad made with potatoes, eggs, diced meat, and veggies, all coated in mayo.
What's the deal: Salat Olivier shows up on pretty much every Russian menu around the world and is commonly served at celebrations year-round (because nothing says "Happy Sweet 16" like cold potatoes and mayo!). Despite its embrace at the Russian table, it's actually the invention of a 19th century Belgian dude who worked at a Moscow restaurant, which marked the beginning of a Belgian/Russian admiration that still probably exists in Putin's huge collection of Universal Soldier VHS tapes.