We’ve recently returned from our trip to Moscow and Minsk — and what a vacation it was! We saw the Kremlin, partied on the 60th floor of Moscow’s tallest building, shot guns at the ranch, walked around old Minsk, and spent some quality time with my family, and with college friends. Of course we tried many Russian culinary delights.
Over the course of two weeks I tasted all the Soviet dishes that I remembered from childhood, the ones I get into a nostalgic mood about while shopping at the local supermarket. Most of the dishes that were so familiar to me were new to Ben, but he seemed to like Russian cuisine. The only exception was samogon (“moonshine” in English) that he was served to celebrate our arrival to Belarus. I do not blame him: this flammable mixture smelled so bad that I couldn’t even think of tasting it!
There are certain winners among all the delicacies that we tasted over the trip to Russia and Belarus. Thus, I decided to put together a list of the dishes that I enjoyed the most.
#1: Chocolate Sponge Cake Balls “Kartoshka”
This is my absolutely favorite Russian dessert of all time. Even though it is impossible to find “Kartoshka” (means “potato” in Russian) in New York, I still remember exactly how it should taste. Ben was laughing at me while I searched to find the “perfect Kartoshka.” In my defense, it was not as simple as you might assume: there are many variations of the dish, and some of them I simply cannot stand (for instance, those that are cooked with cognac).
The only acceptable version of “Kartoshka” for me is the one that you can only find in the cheapest government-owned cafes and cafeterias. Perhaps what makes it so good is the recipe that has remained the same since the USSR era. Such cake balls haven’t changed their look either: covered with white roses made from whipped cream and butter, “real Kartoshkas” come in a oblongated form and always taste so wonderful.
My first attempt to find “Kartoshka” from my childhood didn’t turn out well — the one that we tried in a small cafeteria at Stary Arbat had the proper form and decorations but turned out to be cooked with cognac — I couldn’t even finish half of it. Fortunately, the next one that we tried at the Minsk-based gastronom (“supermarket” in Russian) was perfect: moist and chocolaty, it was the exact taste of my childhood. I was so happy!
When I was a child, “Kartoshkas” were sold in small supermarket across the street. The old ladies working there always urged me to try something else, understanding that I always selected the cheapest dessert on the menu, but I was unpersuadable and faithful to my “Kartoshkas.” I actually still am, and if some adventurous entrepreneur decides one day to introduce “Kartoshkas” to the American mass-market, please let me know — I would be the first to burst the doors of that pastry shop.
I’ve found a couple of recipes online for this delicious dessert, created by American and European cooks. They use flour, cacao, chocolate, eggs and many other ingredients to bake Kartoshkas. But the original recipe is not that complicated and actually rather simple: all you need to cook “Kartoshka” is crushed cookies, cocoa powder, butter, and condensed milk. Moreover, you don’t even need to bake your pastry: just mix all the ingredients together, put cake balls into the fridge, and your yummy “Kartoshkas” are ready to eat!
#2: Syrniki and zapekanka
I ate these traditional Russian farmer cheese pancakes almost every day while in Russia. And that is not even an exaggeration! On those days that I was not able to find syrniki I ate zapekanka, which is farmer cheese cake that tastes similar to syrniki. While enjoying my breakfast (or lunch or dinner) delight, I was blaming myself for not cooking these delicious dishes at home. I regularly cook protein pancakes with banana, protein powder, and eggs, but farmer cheese with eggs and cream of wheat is also a pretty healthy combination (of course, only if you are not lactose and/or gluten intolerant). In my opinion, American syrniki will not turn out as good as Russian because the quality of milk is different in the U.S., but it is totally worth trying!
We were travelling for almost two weeks, and I tried many variations of this traditional Russian dish. I figured out that the best syrniki are those that are made from a very condensed farmer’s cheese with a minimum of flour and maximum of raisins. In other words, I simply love the recipe that my mom uses: her zapekanka are unbelievable delicious and addictive.
While in Belarus, I ate it both for breakfast and lunch, without limiting myself to only one piece of this delicacy. Honestly, I was even afraid to ask my mom for a recipe because I was not sure that I can stop myself from cooking it daily. But I cannot just keep this recipe a secret anymore: here is my mom’s best-kept recipe for a perfect zapekanka.
If you are planning to taste syrniki or zapekanka in Russia, I recommend trying them at the cafeteria of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. This small cafe is one of these uninviting places with the dishware from Lenin’s times that surprises its visitors with incredible, USSR-style dishes that taste so good. Fresh sour cream, moist raisins, and a perfectly golden crust.
To hunt for syrniki, I recommend visiting a cafe called Varenichnaya #1 on Arbat (29 Arbat Street, Moscow). They cook farmer cheese pancakes that contain less flour than in other places we visited; the dish comes with sour cream and jam. However, I recommend eating those delish pancakes with a combination of sour cream and honey — such a mix adds some unique flavors and makes the dish super-yummy.
It was very hot in Moscow and Minsk while we were there, and the cold Russian soup svekolnik worked perfectly well. Healthy (made from veggies and eggs) and refreshing (served cold), this soup was very tasty in all restaurants where I tried it. Unfortunately, Ben doesn’t understand my passion for svekolnik because he generally doesn’t like beets. Also, for him a soup without meat is not a soup, thus he opted for borsch and shavel (Russian soup made with sorrel) that is served hot. I remember how once I cooked a vegetarian borsch for Ben and he resisted eating it too — it was such an epic fail! I ended up finishing the entire pot by myself — it took almost a week, but I made it through.
As I found out over conversation with my Belarusian friends, there are a lot of ways to cook svekolnik: some people cook it with kefir, others use leftovers of the beet broth, and the rest are incorporating kvas. Over my Russian vacation, I tried all variations and decided that I like the one based with kvas the best. There are not many stores in New York that sell bottled kvas, and even fewer in the rest of America, but I did some research you can easily make kvas at home and then use it for cooking a refreshing svekolnik. Please take a look at this recipe for bread kvas by food blogger Natasha.
I know, it seems like tons of work, but by cooking homemade kvas you are killing two birds with one stone: you can use kvas to cook svekolnik and also drink it as a refreshing lemonade. I personally think that kvas is a great drink and really make an effort not to finish the entire bottle so I have some to cook svekolnik with.
My passion for food is inherited from my parents. They also enjoy trying new dishes, visiting restaurants all over the world, and cooking at home. Knowing that Ben and I were coming to Belarus, mom and dad planned to visit the best restaurants in Minsk with us. They were very surprised to hear that we were not interested in eating at the Italian and French restaurants, not even sushi. Ben and I argued that we eat Italian and French all the time in New York, where some of the best family restaurants have served the public for many generations.
What we were interested in was an authentic Belarusian cuisine and dishes from the former USSR countries. To make a long story short, instead of eating dinner every day in a new restaurant, we ended up going to one particular Uzbek café, Manti-Ponti (41 Surganova St., Minsk) twice. The reason is very simple (and delicious) — plov!
This classic dish is cooked from poultry or meat with white rice and spices. The process of cooking takes many hours; that is why the dish comes out very buttery and heavy. It is absolutely not a diet dish but rather a perfect cheat day treat. I would like to warn you that after eating plov you should drink a cup of hot tea, otherwise you may have a stomachache. Some people say that a shot of vodka works well too, but I don’t drink and thus cannot recommend this method. The point is, do not drink cold water after eating plov — it is a very bad idea.
Of course, such drastic limitations on allowed drinks are only relevant to a real Uzbek plov. But there are some lighter versions that you can cook at home. For instance, you can substitute white rice with wild rice or even quinoa and use chicken breast as opposed to beef and pork. Also, you don’t need to spend hours to cook plov — it will take about 45 minutes from the beginning to the end to finish your delicious plov if you follow the recipe below.
Ask me if I like beets and you will understand how Russian am I. I add beets to everything: salads, omelets, roasted veggies, and soups. I don’t even need goat cheese or anything on top — I eat my boiled beets with a pinch of salt and a bit of olive oil. Knowing my passion for beets, it should not be a surprise that I love traditional Russian beet salad vinegret.
This dish might seem a bit heavy for Americans that consider vinegret a main dish, while for Russians this salad is a must-have at the holiday table, especially for New Years and on International Women’s Day. As opposed to other popular Russian salads such as olivier or seledka pod shuboi that are based on mayonnaise, the dressing for vinegret is sunflower or olive oil. It takes about an hour to cook this salad because all the vegetables used in the recipe should be boiled, chilled, and only after that cut in cubes. The good thing is that if you cook too much of this salad it can stay in the fridge for a long period of time.
Vinegret is one of my mom’s favorite salads, and she cooks it all the time. However, being a child I was not a fan of vinegret. Something changed when I moved to the U.S. – the taste of vinegret reminded me some of the best family celebrations that I missed so much being away from my mom, dad, sister, and dog. There is an okay vinegret salad served in the New York based restaurant Mari Ivanna that is served with a piece of Russian black bread, but a better option is to cook your vinegret at home; it takes time to cook it, but you can feed a huge crowd of people with it.
Thanks for reading about my favorite Russian dishes. I wonder if any of you have tried Russian cuisine and if so, which dish did you like the most?