Traditional Russian food is (in my humble opinion) absolutely delicious. From healthy dinners to rich desserts, you can eat amazing food for the duration of your trip (and at home, since Russian food contains quite simple ingredients). However, there are a few Russian foods that routinely scare away my non-Russian friends. Nonetheless, I am relentless in trying to get them to at least give these foods a shot. If you’re feeling adventurous I highly recommend trying one or more of these foods on your next trip to Russia.
Salo (Russian: сало)
Why it’s scary: Salo is a distant cousin of bacon. It consists of cured slabs of fat with or without skin. It is usually salted and seasoned with black pepper. Salo is normally kept in the fridge and eaten raw. Describing its taste is tricky – essentially, you are literally eating pure fat. It’s salty and has a very subtle yet somehow rich flavor. The combination of thin chilled salo slices, pieces of rye bread and ice cold vodka is unbeatable. Many people also use salo when they fry potato wedges or make Borsch.
Why you should try it: First of all, salo is an important dish to try because it’s vodka’s best friend (and I don’t doubt that you will end up trying some Russian vodka during your trip). Secondly, it’s definitely the kind of food that you will think is horrifying until you try it and realize it’s not actually that bad. The small serving sizes also make it a perfect dish for stepping out of your culinary comfort zone.
Caviar (Russian: икра)
Why it’s scary: Salt-cured fish eggs a.k.a. caviar is a Russian delicacy, synonymous with a luxury lifestyle and for some reason very popular with Russians of all walks of life. It is sold in small tin cans or by weight from a huge barrel set up right in the store. Red caviar has an unusual texture, a very pronounced salty taste (some people find it fishy too) and is oily which makes it a perfect spread. Russians eat it with fresh white bread (and often butter) or homemade pancakes (bliny) served with fresh thick sour cream (smetana).
Why you should try it: Let’s face it – caviar is a dish everyone associates with crème de la crème cocktail dinners and luxury dinners. Not trying it in Russia would be a huge mistake -- it’s dirt cheap and actually delicious! Even though it’s much cheaper in Russia than anywhere else in the world, it’s still not accessible to the average Russian on a daily basis, so caviar is a very festive dish and is served on big occasions or offered to very special guests. So – where there is caviar there is a Russian party (and you want to be there)!
Okroshka (Russian: Окрошка)
Why it’s scary: Okroshka is a soup and soups are a staple of Russian cuisine. But of course this is Russia, after all, so this soup is nothing like the soups you are probably accustomed to. It is a cold kvas soup with vegetables and cooked meat. Its taste is quite difficult to describe, so perhaps its best to capture it with a description of the cooking process:
Kvas is a traditional Russian mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented rye bread, yeast or berries. On a hot summer day, you take some kvas and pour it into a bowl filled with chopped cucumbers, radish, boiled potatoes and eggs, cooked meat and sausage, sprinkled with dill. To make this devil’s brew even more devilish you add some sour cream serve immediately. It will taste very refreshing because of the kvas, and very light because it is essentially nothing more than a vegetable salad.
Why you should try it: Russians eat okroshka when it is very hot outside. It is their smart way of eating all their favorite and healthy ingredients when cooking is a hassle. You will be surprised you can have a square meal in ridiculously hot weather and feel refreshed and energized, not stuffed and heavy.
Kholodec (Russian: Холодец)
Why it’s scary: Kholodec is a dish made with meat stock, pieces of meat and gelatin. It is very similar to aspic jelly or any jelly really. It might look very unappealing but its health properties and exceptional taste make it one of the most popular Russian winter dishes.
Russian kholodec is meaty but not very savory on its own, so it is normally served chilled with mustard or vinegar. It is usually made of beef or pork and makes a very hearty dinner. Imagine what eating a jelly with fruit chunks and pulp might feel like - kholodec has a similar texture but a totally different taste. It can be described as thick frozen meat broth.
Why you should try it: Kholodec is an unusual dish even for many Russians but it’s definitely worth giving its homemade version a try because those who like it know how to prepare it very well! It is a traditional winter food associated with the winter holidays and big family gatherings. And of course… it’s often accompanied by ice cold vodka!