St. Petersburg: food

August 5, 2011 • 5:10 am

Since I was in St. Petersburg for only about ten days, and five of those were at a scientific meeting, I can’t say that I’m deeply acquainted with Russian food.  What I did have I enjoyed very much, but what I’m presenting is just an eclectic selection of pictures of what I ate, or what I saw.

First, two places I did not eat, but which you’ll want to see anyway:

The menu (in Soviet Russia, the cheeseburger noms you):

The plush chicken was advertising some chicken restaurant next door:

The St. Petersburg equivalent of McDonald’s is “Teremok,” a chain that specializes in blini, or Russian crepes.  They also have kasha, or buckwheat porridge, and kvass, a lightly alcoholic drink I’ve mentioned before, which is made from fermented rye bread.  The food at Teremok is very good, and I ate there several times during my perambulations. Here’s a five-dollar lunch of a cabbage and egg blini, a bowl of pea soup (Russians seem to have soup as a fixture of lunch and dinner), and a big cold glass of kvass, which I like very much:

Breakfast at our hotel, the Oktiabrskaya off the Nevsky Prospekt, was awesome.  It was a huge buffet with about five steam tables, a juice station, a fruit station (often with a huge bowl of fresh cherries) and a separate room with pastries, tea, and coffee. The Russians seem to favor cold meat, cheese, and vegetables for breakfast:

Also little pancake-y thingies, which I often ate with eggs, though I don’t know what they are:

And the pastry table:

During the conference, the organizers fed us very well. We had a four course meal for both lunch and dinner at good restaurants. Here are some of the dishes.  Lunch and dinner would begin with a salad, usually made of chopped ingredients.  Here’s a lovely one with beef and vegetables.

Then a soup, often borscht, which can be made out of vegetables other than beets. It invariably comes with a dollop of sour cream:

Main courses include cabbage stuffed with meat and rice (I love this dish, as my mother often made it when I was a kid):

or stuffed grape leaves (dolmades in Greek); I didn’t know this was a Russian dish as well but I always love it:

Codfish with stewed eggplant:

Chicken cutlet with beet sauce. I confess that this was the only dish I didn’t like, as the beet sauce was not only too sweet, but didn’t complement the flavor of the chicken:

Dessert and lunch and dinner was usually forgettable, and I know little about Russian desserts. I was told that they’re not a huge feature of the national cuisine.

I haven’t been on dinner cruises on boats (they’re a staple of Parisian tourist life), but my impression was that the food on such junkets was always dire.  But that wasn’t true of our cruise down the Neva, kindly provided by the organizers of our conference.  The food was fantastic, beginning, as usual in Russia, with a huge and tempting array of salads:

One can easily make a meal from the salads (which include tongue and smoked fish), for they’re often better than the main courses:

And what is a festive meal without many shots of cold vodka? Truth be told, I was scared of the stuff, as I’m not used to downing shots of hard stuff. But I found it surprisingly smooth, and it complemented the food well. In fact, I drank more than my share, so I had a bit of a buzz.  Cruising down the Neva and viewing the royal palaces is an absolute delight when seen through a slight vodka-induced fog:

When I was on my own, I got an email from Eric Michael Johnson, who runs the website The Primate Diaries.  Eric was in Russia doing his thesis research on the concept of cooperation in evolution, and invited me to lunch at a place called Tolstiy Fraer (The Fat Friar).  Here’s Eric:

We had a lovely lunch, and I’d recommend that place for traditional Russian food at reasonable prices.  I had blini with mushrooms and sour cream:

Followed by chicken Kiev with potatoes and vegetables (a stent on a plate):

One of my favorite hobbies in foreign countries is visiting both the markets and supermarkets, for there you can get a good idea of what the people eat.  I went to one supermarket, called Lend. It was very expensive and carried a lot of foreign goods. But the deli counters were traditionally Russian. Here’s the “salad” bar:

I also checked out the cat food, which I always do in foreign supermarkets. I’ll show some Russian cat food when I post on St. Petersburg cats tomorrow.

I had only once chance to go to a market, and it was on a Sunday, so it was quiet.  This is the indoor Kuznechny Market, which I stumbled upon after visiting Dostoyevsky’s house:

The honey vendors had a huge selection:

The honey was sold in combs, jars, and these lovely jugs:

Dried mushrooms:

Russians seem very big on mild white cheese; it was popular at our hotel breakfast. The market carried a huge selection:

I rarely visit a place as far away as Russia without staying for several weeks, so I was sad to leave after only about ten days.  I clearly had only scratched the surface of the national cuisine.  My main impression: I love blinis!

31 thoughts on “St. Petersburg: food

  1. Yum!

    As a very seldom vodka drinker, something I’ve always wondered about–is vodka just vodka, especially when it’s being toasted left and right, or are there discerning drinkers, as I’m guessing there are, who do care about the taste and the quality of the drink? If so, what were/are your impressions of different vodkas?

    1. Vodka is not just vodka. I’ve been to Warszaw a few times, and I was introduced to several very smooth, brown, delicious vodkas. I can’t for the life of me remember the names of these vodkas, but I realised that vodkas are as diverse as our own snaps here in Scandinavia. And it’s not a bad thing 🙂

    2. The first night I was in St. Pete, the four of us (two guests, two hosts) sat in their apartment, talking all night – drinking *homemade* vodka (made by the wife’s brother in the Ukraine). It was probably 55% alcohol (110 proof, but this was an estimation based on past batches). The four of us put a huge dent in the liter bottle (as in, practically finished it off) while we ate caviar and other Ukrainian specialties. I never knew vodka could be so good. And this was homemade hootch.

      We went to sleep by 5am, and all of us were awake again by 9am and went off to see the Hermitage by 10am. None of us felt woozy or hung over, either. Never experienced anything like that before or since.

  2. Grandpa grew up in a small town south of Kiev, so, of course, at least some of those foods are not only familiar to me but some of my favorites. Most seasons, Mom plants beets, which turn into borscht (with sour cream, of course). Blinis are always a hit, too. One of the mayor’s sons discovered he likes them, so a year or so ago Dad made him (a teenage boy, mind you) a meal of as many blinis as he could eat.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention piroshki, though. Or maybe that’s too Ukrainian for St. Petersburg…?

    Regardless, I envy you your chance to sample all these at the original source.



  3. St. Petersburg is awesome, your pictures bring back some cool memories. When my wife and I went, it was quite a culture shock for us especially since we’ve never been overseas, or even in such a densely populated city before then. (It’s also REALLY surprising how quickly one learns to read the Cyrillic alphabet when it’s necessary to get around.)

    Also we got to try borscht for the first time too. There’s nothing like it! Too much to really describe in a comment, but all in all a really cool place to visit.

    Look forward to more.

  4. I presume by the stuffed cabbages your mother made you mean ‘holishkes’ as they are called in Yiddish. Ah, like the good old days..

  5. Jerry, if you ever get bored with evolutionary biology, you could always take up food photography. I could almost eat those pictures (maybe it’s time for a snack…)

  6. I love posts like this, because they remind me of the photos I get from my older relatives. Nothing but pictures of food.

  7. Cruising down the Neva and viewing the royal palaces is an absolute delight when seen through a slight vodka-induced fog:

    Work is better too; welcome to my world. (just kidding) I prefer wine with meals, but when relaxing with friends, I drink hard liquor straight; whisky in winter, chilled vodka in summer. Will need to explore the Russian vodkas more.

    I grew up enjoying cabbage rolls. Polish heritage from my maternal grandfather. I loved visiting him, he always had a nice ham in the fridge to make sandwiches with.

    Fast food Blinis. Yum. Thanks as always for letting us live vicariously through you.

    1. Looking up Russian restaurants in town. Of the top 10: 2 are way out in the NW burbs, 4 otherwise promising neighborhood types are closed, 2 are fairly low-end buffets with only mediocre reviews, leaving Dr Zhivago in Skokie, or Russian Tea Time across from the Art Institute.

  8. Blini:

    A few years ago, I got interested in making blini and started investigating. Checking a number of cookbooks, I found recipes for blini ranging from simple (“just use ordinary crepes”, The Gold Cook Book by Louis P. Degouy) to excruciatingly complex (the Time-Life “Food of Russia” in their Foods of the World series).

    It’s not at all clear whether “proper” blini are made with wheat flour, buckwheat flour, or a mixture of the two. My guess is that all these are okay, but in the good old days the wealthy ate wheat as a status symbol, the poor ate buckwheat because they were poor, blends if they could afford it. Buckwheat seems to be almost a must-ingredient in blini. But then, buckwheat pancakes are widely considered a delicacy in the US too.


    “Borscht” is most definitely NOT restricted to just beet soup. I have a Soviet-era Ukrainian cookbook that includes something like 30 different versions of borscht. The common thread is that it is a vegetable soup.

    After reading about the dire food markets in the old USSR, with endless lines, poor quality, and scanty stock, it’s good to see that Russia is enjoying better food these days – though I suspect that a lot of people can’t afford the delights you depict.

    1. There are lot of recipes for blini (BTW, ‘blini’ is already plural, singular is ‘blin’) but the simplest ones are often just as good as fiendishly complex ones.

      I generally use this recipe:
      1) Get 500ml of milk and let it go sour (leave overnight on kitchen table, for example).
      2) Take 750ml of flour and 2 eggs.
      3) Mix everything.

      You’re done! Just pour the mix on the hot frying pan. It’s easy and quick to prepare.

      1. Oh, sorry.

        You’ll also need to add some baking powder (calcium hydrocarbonate), about a teaspoon. If you don’t do it, the resulting blinis will be a bit clumpy.

  9. Nothing beets borscht, especially on a hot summer day.

    Also, I wonder if they’ve erected a statue in honor of the inventor of “Salad Olivier”. They should.

  10. This was a most enjoyable read. My only experience with Russian food was a meal at the Russian Tea Room in NYC. I had borscht and blini.

    The blini was topped with caviar and sour cream (and made with buckwheat, the only type of pancake I was served as a child on Long Island….I thought regular pancakes were tasteless).

    Thanks for showing this American who will never get to Russia, what would be the best part of the trip…the cuisine!

  11. Really funny to see many of the same sights (the McDonalds and the indoor market, especially).

    When asked what kind of food we’d like to sample (on our 2nd or 3rd day there), we happened to be passing that McDonalds – and I made pouty faces and pointed to the McD’s like a spoiled child. Much laughter ensued.

  12. I lived in Petersburg in 2005-06 and again in 2008-09. You’ve captured the cuisine beautifully and made me quite nostalgic!

    Slightly tangential but still interesting: the names of everything at McDonalds are just the English names transliterated into Cyrillic, so unless a Russian patron knows English, he doesn’t even know what “Big Tasty” means.

    The other thing that is transliterated from English into Russian? The names of aerobics classes at the gyms. I joined a gym my second year in Petersburg and spent my weekends going to classes with names like “Upper Body” and “Step Plus.” More than once non-English speaking gymgoers had to ask what the class posted on the board was going to be.

    Anyway, I just find it interesting that two very typically American yet contrasting ideas, fast food and gyms for the non-Olympic athlete, are both being embraced, but only transliterated, not translated.

  13. “The plush chicken was advertising some chicken restaurant next door:”

    The sign in the picture below (with the person in the chicken suit) is a rough transliteration of “Subway” (“Sabvei”) with, I believe, a sign similar to the English version.

  14. Wow. Those pictures of food (figuratively) blew me away. It looked a lot different in 1982. When I was there, I liked the food fine, except for two things. One was some kind of pea salad in aspic, which I can’t abide. The other was a “candy” that was chocolate covered (wait for it) bean curd. Blech.

  15. Very interesting stuff !

    JAC quote from above pics “Also little pancake-y thingies, which I often ate with eggs, though I don’t know what they are”

    I think they might be Syrniki which is like a pancake mixture into which you thoroughly mix sweetened cottage cheese to make a fairly firm dough. Split the dough up into balls. Flour them. Flatten into discs. Fry both sides on a hot skillet as quick as you can with a tiny amount of veg oil. Serve with jam, sour cream, Greek yoghurt ~ whatever

    HERE is one recipe & photographs

    ** American cottage cheese is too runny – drain it or use a firmer alternative
    ** In the Ukraine (& Russia?) it’s usually for breakfast
    ** No one agrees how to make it. I don’t use the sugar & the zest of lemon can be replaced with orange or grated carrot
    ** I like to serve with sour cream on a HOT plate with sugar for those who like sweetness

    It is beautiful & any lummox can create these & feel proud 🙂

  16. I love these posts; I love to cook and eat new things. My first blini was with caviar too, and just drenched in butter. You’d eat one, then wash it down with a shot of ice-cold vodka. Wonderful experience, and thanks for the recipe, Michael Fisher. I will be trying that.

  17. Reminds me of the local cuisine when I was in Romania in ’07. It can be best described as comfort food–good for your soul, but probably not your cholesterol. Still, the cabbage rolls were awesome. Makes me wonder if the “comfort food cuisine” is common throughout eastern Europe/Russia.

  18. Just returned from Moscow where I became addicted to the cabbage/egg blinis at Teremok. Left Russia with loose pants – although I didn’t diet, the food was inherently much better for my waistline than traditional American fast food. Thanks for letting me re-live my Russia food / market experiences.

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