When night is almost done,
And sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the spaces,
It ‘s time to smooth the hair
And get the dimples ready,
And wonder we could care
For that old faded midnight
That frightened but an hour.
At the heart of Russian hospitality is a table laden with generous portions of homemade dishes like piroshki, borscht, picked herring, pelmeni, and syrniki along with full-to-the-brim shot glasses of tummy-warming vodka. Perhaps my favourite meal of all is a blinchik (crepe batter swirled in a skillet until it’s a paper-thin round) that is lined with spoonfuls of red caviar, dollops of sour cream, and a sprinkle of chopped dill. Rolled-up, this indulgence is perfectly accompanied by a glass a Russian bubbly or champagne.
Celebrating the New Year in Russia often means feasting on a family-style buffet of gastronomic delights; the chilly outside temperatures making carb-and-cream-rich foods, smoked fish, and pickled side dishes all the more palatable (and desirable). Historically, Moscovites subsisted on a diet of locally sourced foods though overseas influences led Moscow to earn the reputation as a “city of gourmands”:
“Sumptuous banquets had a legendary status in the annals of Moscow. It was not unusual for 200 separate dishes to be presented at a meal. (Yet) sumptuous eating of this sort was a relatively new phenomenon. The food of 17th century Muscovy had been plain and simple – the entire repertory consisting of fish, boiled meats, pancakes, bread and pies, garlic, onion, cucumbers and radishes, cabbages and beetroot… It was not until the 18th century that more interesting foods and culinary techniques were imported from abroad: butter, cheese and sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, tea and coffee, chocolates, ice cream, wines, and liqueurs. Although seen as the most Russian part of any meal (caviar, sturgeon, vodka), the classic zakuski (hors-d’oeuvres), such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early 19th century.”*
Note: such a standard for eating was not only reserved for courtiers; provincial families also enjoyed a healthy intake, and the gentry households could spend a whole day in a ‘chain of meals’, as described by the Russian poet, Pushkin.
TIPS FOR TRAVELERS
For the Moscow-bound traveler, consuming Russia’s passion for food brings a different dimension to experiencing the cosmopolitan city: it delves deeper into the cultural; it makes one ponder food’s historical significance; it offers a greater understanding of the locals’ way of life. Stopping at a food kiosk and sitting down to a traditional Russian restaurant meal are, in my opinion, absolute musts when visiting this fascinating city and country.
For the non-Russian speaking tourist, seeking out traditional foods is a little daunting given Cyrillic is one of the hardest languages to read, let alone comprehend and speak. I can understand why a traveler would stop to eat at one of the many sushi spots (there’s even a Nobu Moscow), or at (the growing number of) American food outlets like Shake Shack, Papa Beard’s, Subway, Le Pain Quotidien, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Johnny Rockets… even Cinnabon— their food options are familiar, served in the safety net of a recognisable interior.
The truth is that many Russian restaurants do cater to the English speaker, and asking for a translated menu is the first step to overcoming the fear of not being able to converse in the local language. The result of making this effort is dining on a closer-to-authentic meal that satisfies that sense of curiousity for the new and different — one of the very reasons we travel in the first place.
I was fascinated with Russian food during my time in Moscow, especially while browsing the well-stocked shelves of local foodstuffs. Some of my favourite times were spent in supermarkets, or gastronoms, lusting over freshly baked breads and pastry treats, rows of fresh and tinned fish, reams of boxed chocolates, and mouth-watering arrays of cold cuts and cheeses.
Below is a rough guide to foodie recommendations and a bite of what you could expect on a trip to Moscow. A helpful hint: do a little research prior to your trip and learn the names of key Russian dishes. Choose to dine in a Russian restaurant and, in the absence of a translated menu, gather up all your courage and request a few of those dishes that intrigued you in that pre-trip research. Place any worries aside: You aren’t the first traveler daunted by the Russian language … nor the last!
Na Zdorovie! — “to your health”, and S Novim Godom! – “Happy New Year!”
May you indulge in gastronomic delights and delicacies as you see in a prosperous 2014!
Zakuski, or starters
Smoked fish like trout, and herring pickled in a mix of vinegar, peppercorns, and sliced raw onions are essential zakuski.
Cheese, cold cuts, and black bread are served at breakfast; also as appetizers.
Beef Stroganoff: dating back to the Imperial years, this dish was prepared for tsars and gained its name from either Baron Alexander Stroganov in the early 1800s or Count Pavel Stroganov.
Pelmeni – these are boiled minced meat dumplings and very tasty when dipped in a mixture of smetana (sour cream) and khren (horseradish).
Piroshki — pie-like buns that, when bitten, reveal savoury fillings such as meat, or cabbage, or fish, or mashed potato with mushroom. A snack that I fully indulged in during Moscow’s wintry days.
Blinchiki are pancakes/crepes and tastiest when filled with the luxury that is black sturgeon caviar — Ossetra, Beluga or Sevruga — or red salmon caviar, along with sour cream. Roll the crepe up and enjoy to the pops of salt mixed with creamy-sour goodness.
Soups, Salads, and Sides
Pickled sides can include mushrooms, cabbage, cucumbers, and/or tomatoes.
Borscht — a soup painted red for its chopped beetroot; made with shredded cabbage, carrots, chopped potatoes, and even meat. The soup below contained lingon and/or cranberries giving it a slightly sour-tart taste.
Hailing from France is the popular Salat Olivier, a mayonnaise-based concoction of diced ham or chicken, eggs, carrots, potatoes, and pickles. It’s best enjoyed with a few slices of black bread. (I didn’t try it on this trip).
Desserts and baked goods
Croissants and cappuccinos — the French and Italian influence is alive and well. Mum and I couldn’t resist dining at this outpost of Le Pain, located on the old Arbat.
Syrniki — these fluffy fried cheese pancakes are made of cottage cheese and egg; topped with sour cream, jam, and/or honey.
Vatrushka — pastry marked with a middle of hearty baked cottage cheese (sometimes includes raisins).
Sochnik — pastry folded around cottage cheese.
Moscow dining and foodie recommendations:
Bochka restaurant — for traditional Russian food. Also owners of the oft-reviewed Café Pushkin. http://www.vbochke.ru
Acapella Restaurant, Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel — an excellent Russian set menu. http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/moscow/dining
Shokoladnitsa — seems to be modeled after Max Brenner, it’s easy for travelers to select from a menu of salads, pancakes, desserts and coffee. http://www.shoko.ru
Azbuka Vkusa – translated as “Alphabet of Taste”, this is chain of gourmet, pricey supermarkets located across Moscow. Open 24 hours.
Smolensky Gastronom – a well-stocked gourmet supermarket located on the Old Arbat, close to the entrance of the Smolensky metro.
Produkti Cafe and Bar — translated as “Products”, a name usually reserved for grocery stores, this is a hip dining spot on the island that housed the former site of Krasny Oktyabr’ (Red October Chocolate Factory).
*Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figues
–Many restaurants in Russia cater to smokers so ask for the non-smoking section if this is your preference.
–Tipping is at the diner’s discretion though it’s advisable to leave around a 10% tip as gratuities make up the bulk of the waitstaff’s wages.
–Lent takes place during March and April and this may mean some places serve fish instead of meat, and no dairy, eggs, milk and cheese. But in Western hotels and restaurants, this shouldn’t be an issue.
Merry Christmas to you, dear readers. Sharing a bit of holiday cheer with scenes from my recent trip to Moscow and Dubai. With Russia in New Year-celebration mode (the country celebrates Orthodox Christmas on the 7th January), and UAE’s Dubai catering to a large expat population, the Christmas tree, decorative baubles, and snow (!) were a common theme throughout my December journey.
Wishing you as much light and joy as it brings me when looking over my photos. And a shout out to my guide from afar, my papa, and traveling companion, my mama, who was determined to navigate Moscow’s underground and ice-slicked streets despite my all-over-the-metro-map itinerary. Much love to you both in scorching Sydney on this Christmas Day, Australia time!
Light Show in Moscow’s Gorky Park
The GUM-Yarmarka markets and ice skating rink within the Red Square.
Outside our home-away-from-home, Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel, Moscow (which is amazing by the way. More info to come on that property).
Flurries: I used the camera’s flash and unexpectedly, this is the effect I got.
The festive facade of an Italian cafe/restaurant in a lovely neighbourhood near the centre of Moscow.
Ded Moroz, or Father Frost, is Russia’s Santa Claus. Ded Moroz is said to bring presents to children, however, unlike the secretive Santa Claus, the gifts are often delivered “in person”, at New Year’s Eve parties and other New Year celebrations.*
A “Snoopy” decorated Christmas tree in a main hall of the Bolshoi Theatre.
Christmas in a Matryoshka doll.
Through the looking glass — at the indoor ski field in 25C+ Dubai.
A snowman, and a snow machine
More shops; a couple more Christmas trees.
And decorations at the most expensive, and largest, mall of them all – the Dubai Mall.
Dear bloggers, dear readers,
In less than a week I am Moscow-bound. I’m off to meet my mama in the motherland. It’s been over a decade between visits; a time when mum and I travelled to experience hot White Nights rather than freezing snow-white days.
I recently read in a travel magazine that “in Moscow, inaccessibility equals exclusivity… But the effort you have to invest usually pays off…” Given its subzero temperatures, I am hoping to lessen the effort a tad, so I’m hungry for your travel tips. What is inaccessible? What is exclusive? I want to find the best cafes — any ideas? Where can I eat the most delicious borscht? What are the new must-see galleries? Do you have a favourite Metro station? Is there a Christmas market?
The way back to LA will be via Dubai for a few days — would love your advice too because it’s been, well, a decade between trips to the UAE…
Below is a recent image of Moscow… I’m gearing up to brave the freeze…
Header image credit: http://transfurniture.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/matryoshka1.jpg
Retreating into a dreamscape of extravagance, beauty, and sensory delights – this, for me, is Cirque du Soleil.
I’ve been to a few of these magnificent shows and by far my favourite is Totem. I saw it recently in Irvine, located an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. That evening, the Grand Chapiteau beckoned with its welcome burst of colour in a field of darkness; magic was brewing inside the yellow-and-blue-striped tent.
Sitting ringside to witness the “evolution of mankind” is a surreal experience in itself; adding dazzling acrobatics and dizzying props creates a journey most fantastical. An artistic alchemy stirs in the space between science and myth, a place where imagination seems to have no bounds: Amerindian artists dance through hoops, a catch-me-if-you-can trapeze act rouses romance, a contortionist backbends and arm balances to show strength in the face of struggle, Crystal Ladies juggle glittery squares of material with out-of-this-world hand-and-foot coordination, a sensual roller-skating duo spins with controlled passion, unicycles and rings add a traditional circus element; there are flamenco beats, African drums, and the tunes of Bollywood; visual effects turn a blank canvas into an otherworldly space coloured with the intricate yet bold costumes inspired by amphibians, lost civilizations of South America, and Aborigines (all designed by Australian Kym Barrett, known for her work on Romeo+Juliet and Matrix movies). The show is a sure-fire way to awaken the anthropologist in all of us.
Forty-seven artists from 15 countries, and 73 support staff from 9 countries, make up the cast of Totem. Away from the desk, away from the demands of work, away from the news and all that goes with it, performances like these unite us and simply request that we be present to delight in a marvellous experience; to leave (most assuredly!) in a state of wonderment, and with the feeling that there’s a lot to celebrate in the world.
Autumn has fallen. Los Angeles is covered in pops of reds and yellows. And, while the temperatures have slightly dropped, we’re all still walking around in summer T’s.