Borscht and Beyond

Russian cuisine ceased to exist in Soviet times due to the lack of ingredients, when survival became the priority in the face of régime-induced shortages. It was then that presentation took precedence over flavor as housewives struggled to disguise the lack of substance. To what degree a national cuisine—as opposed to an imitation French one—existed before the 1917 revolution is a matter of dispute. Certainly a few simple peasant dishes had established themselves as national favorites, and they still survive in the form of hors d'oeuvres, for which Russia is justly renowned. However, very few entrées, including the much-abused beef Stroganoff, can make any real claim to fame. What flourishes on a large scale in today's Russia is the cuisine of its former colo­nial empire, thanks to the thousands of Ukrainian, Georgian, Azer­baijani, and Uzbek restaurants serving colorful dishes like pumpkin pancakes, suckling pig, and rice pilaf. In sophisticated centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, you are much more likely to find good Italian or Japa­nese menus than ones listing decent Russian food. All that's well and good, but let's face it: Borscht, vodka, and caviar remain the fantasy Russian diet.

Ukrainian Borscht

What it is Traditionally a peasant dish from Ukraine, borscht is broth mixed with beetroot, which gives the soup its dis- tinctive red color. When sour cream is added, it flushes pink. Other ingredients can be carrots, onions, potatoes, cabbage, and parsley (never dill). In "green" borscht, sorrel is substituted for beetroot, and in northern parts of Russia, plain old cabbage is used. Where to Get it Served widely throughout Russia, it's best eaten in Ukrainian restaurants, where they add garlic and tomatoes to the mix. Russians tend to add lemon, making the broth more sour. How to Enjoy it The summer variant is cold beetroot soup made with grated young red beet and leaves, no meat. But all borscht should be savored with pampushki, tiny puff rolls of unsalted dough brushed with garlic, salt, and melted lard at the table just after they're baked.

Siberian Vodka

What it is Russia's national drink is a transparent spirit distilled from grain mash, either wheat or rye. The more grain that's used, the smoother the drink. Countries to the west, such as Poland, often use potatoes as the main ingredient. Where to Get it Since grain and water determine quality, it's important to choose vodka from regions with pure springs, such as Siberia, Kaluga, and Tula. Beluga, Beloe Zoloto, and Baik are good Siberian brands; Russian Standard and Sinopskaya are distilled in St. Petersburg, which on the whole produces better vodka than Moscow. How to Enjoy it Vodka should always be served ice-cold. Testing quality is key, however, since counterfeit brands abound. The most effective taste test: Drink the spirit at room temperature. The best simply warms the throat and slightly dilates the nostrils.

Caspian Caviar

What it is Roe harvested from sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea. Black roe usually comes from the Russian side, while the light gray, golden-tinged variety—considered the best—is found in Iranian waters. Where to Get it To combat overfishing, Russia and other countries have imposed restrictions on exports. So the only caviar you can take out of the country comes in officially packed red, yellow, and blue tins sold openly alongside poachers' caviar, which goes for $500 a pound. How to Enjoy it With a shot of perfectly iced vodka free of added flavorings. Some new Russians serve caviar with Champagne, though this is definitely frowned upon by traditionalists. The gourmand's favorite is pressed caviar. A by-product of the canning process, it has the consistency of congealed paste but is loaded with flavor.