Many Russian regions treat local traditional cuisine as something exotic. For example, it’s easier to find pizza, hamburgers, sushi and kebabs in Yekaterinburg than the traditional Ural pelmeni.
Yakutia: Raw Meat
The most popular dish in the Sakha Republic (also known as Yakutia) is stroganina: thinly sliced, frozen raw white fish, such as nelma (a salmon-like fish). It is customary to dip stroganina in makalovo, a special dipping mixture made of salt and ground black pepper.
Yakuts have another traditional dish they’re quite fond of: zherebyatina, raw horse meat (literally translated as foal meat). The locals mince it with salt, pepper, onions, then shape the resulting mass in small balls and freeze them. The resulting “horsemeatballs” are served raw – you’re supposed to gnaw on them while they’re frozen. Another delicacy we should mention is thinly sliced beef liver, which is also served chilled.
The traditional Yakut dessert is the kerchekh. While the recipes differ from one family to another, generally speaking kerchekh is whipped cream (or sour cream with milk), mixed with sugar and strawberry (or any other fruit, according to taste) varenye (a traditional whole-fruit preserve, similar to jam).
The Transbaikalia (Transbaikal region, literally “beyond Baikal,” mountainous area to the east of Lake Baikal) is covered with cedars, so it’s not surprise that cedar nuts, full of nutrients, vitamins and minerals, such as copper, zinc or iodine, are a popular snack there. The nuts and seeds are sold in markets and stores in many forms: edible snacks, infusions, oil... you name it! Many tourists buy these products before leaving for home.
Buuz (also known as buuzy or pozy, plural) is another local dish. It’s the Buryatian version of manti, a type of relatively large dumpling. The difference between buuz and manti is that the former has a hole at the top of the dough pocket. As well as minced meat, buuz are filled with broth, which is traditionally sipped through the hole. After the broth is drunk, the buuz themselves are eaten – usually with mayonnaise or chilli sauce. Buryats prefer the term buuzy, whereas the dish is better known as pozy across Russia.
Siberian manti are so popular that the Transbaikalian, Buryatian and Irkutsk regions are littered with cafes specialising in this traditional dish. The poznaya cafes are especially common along federal highways. Apart from buuz, they serve chiburekki (deep-fried dough pockets with a minced meat filling), blini (thin pancakes) and bukhuler (hearty meat broth, another staple of Buryatian cuisine).
Altai Chegen Drink and Ferns from Kemerovo
Natives of the Altai Mountains, like other nomadic peoples, eat primarily meat and dairy products. One of the most popular traditional dishes is chegen, a sour milk drink. It’s fermented from boiled already-fermented milk (old chegen). The drink is made in a 30-40 litre barrel with a tightly sealed lid.
Prior to the fermentation the keg is washed, scalded and fumigated for 2-2.5 hours. The fermentation process generally takes 8 to 10 hours. Those who tried it say that proper chegen is smooth, with no lumps, and has a pleasantly refreshing taste.
As far as desserts are concerned, the locals prefer tok-chok, a sweet paste made from cedar nuts and barley. It’s relatively easy to prepare tok-chok: fry the cedar nuts, remove the shells, and grind it together with milled barley grain in a bowl. Honey is added to the mix and the resulting mass is shaped into whatever the cook wants; animal motifs are always popular.
Buckwheat has a special place in the hearts of Altai residents. Buckwheat porridge with meat and/or mushrooms is often made in pots or the kazan, a large cooking cauldron.
Supermarkets found in Kemerovo Oblast (southwestern Siberia) often carry brined orlyak (literally “eagle fern”). It’s minced, fried and made into a garnish which somewhat resembles mushrooms. You can also eat it straight out of the jar with boiled eggs and onions.
Urals: Uzvar and the Land of Mayonnaise
The “Urals pelmeni” brand, once representative of the love that people from the Ural Mountains have for Russian dumplings, has since lost its grounding in reality. It’s still possible to find pelmeni with venison or even bear meat fillings in small towns, but residents of larger urban areas have abandoned their culinary roots and switched to pizza, sushi and hamburgers. Of course, there are restaurants which offer rowan berry and pike pelmeni or shangi (small potato-filled open-topped pies). However, they’re not frequented by locals and mostly cater for the occasional tourist.
And yet Ural cuisine still retains its regional flavor. For example, kompot (fruit stew), often served in mess halls of western Russia, is called uzvar (coming from the word zavarivat’, or infuse/brew). The process starts off the same: water with dried fruit is heated until it begins to boil. However, unlike kompot, uzvar is then not stewed, but infused. Sometimes there is no boiling involved whatsoever.
Another regional peculiarity, mostly confined to Yekaterinburg, is overindulgence in mayonnaise. The locals jokingly say that Yekaterinburg has made it to the Guinness Book of Records as the city with the highest mayonnaise consumption per capita. Even if there isn’t an entry like that in the record books, perhaps there should be. The ubiquitous condiment is used everywhere: hot soups (including fish soup), roasted meat and fish, fresh salads, okroshka (Russian cold soup made from mostly raw vegetables, boiled eggs and cooked meat).
There’s even a cake mayonnaise – called nezhnost’ (tenderness), it consists of mixed egg yolks, flour, vanilla and a rich layer of mayo. Andrey Bilzho, a renowned Russian cartoonist, who suggested that there should be a monument to mayonnaise in Yekaterinburg, is especially fond of sushi rolls with the condiment.
Nogais: Noodles, Noodles Everywhere
The Nogais (a Turkic ethnic group, who live in southern European Russia, such as the North Caucasus region, Crimea and other regions) have a wide variety of national dishes. Here are some of the staples: besbarmaq, nogai shai (a drink) and yipatak (a dessert).
Besbarmaq (from Tatar word meaning five fingers, due to nomads eating with their hands) consists of finely-chopped boiled meat (beef, duck, goose, etc) with homemade noodles. The mix is usually served in a large dish and preferably eaten with your hands as is traditional.
Nogai shai (tea of Nogais) is made from pressed steppe herbs. The herbs are brewed first, then the infusion is strained and stirred 40 times with a ladle from bottom to top to oxygenate the drink. Cream, butter and black pepper are added to the drink, and it's then served in small tea bowls.
Arkhangelsk: Kozuli Cookies
Arkhangelsk region has one local dish that is especially popular: kozuli (a coast-dweller word for curls). Kozuli are baked figurines adorned with edible decorations. Historically, kozyuli was the national dessert of pomors, settlers and their descendants living on the White Sea coasts. Kozuli were essentially gingerbread cookies baked for Christmas. Today kozuli are found anywhere from its traditional homeland, to the Murmansk Oblast, and even in the Urals.
Kaliningrad: Klopse Meatballs
There’s a particularly popular dish in Kaliningrad Oblast: the German klopse, meatballs in a white sauce with capers. Some restaurants of Kaliningrad (previously known as Königsberg) offer klopse as their specialty dish. They’re traditionally made with minced beef or veal, but chicken can be used as well.
There’s also the kluski milk soup. Milk is boiled with salt, while an egg is churned with flour and the mix is slowly, drop by drop, added to water in order to form clumps of dough (which are called kluski). The resulting mass is added to the boiling water and thoroughly stirred. Afterwards the soup receives a few dashes of salt and sugar, before being served with butter.
Crimea: Tatar Street Food and Soviet Lemonade
Just as in Moscow, in Crimea, street food is the domain of national ethnic groups. Moscow's roadside cafes and stalls are mostly ran by locals from the Caucasus region, whereas in Crimea the entrepreneurial initiative is taken by Tatars.
It’s not uncommon to see a man with a huge cauldron (kazan), selling plov (also known as pilaf, broth-cooked rice with anything from meat and fish to dried fruits) on the streets or beaches. Roadside cafes offer chiburekki, samsa (small meat pies) and yantyki (essentially chiburekki which aren’t deep-fried). Pakhlava baked dessert is everywhere, albeit with a local twist. Unlike the Turkish pakhlava, which is well known globally, the Crimean version usually doesn’t have nuts and comes in shapes and sizes which differ from the small Turkish servings. Here it’s called kiyik, or “sugar hankies”. Even though you mostly likely won’t be able to properly pronounce it, local vendors will know what you mean. There’s also pakhlava which looks, tastes and sounds like the pakhlava that you already know.
One of the most popular local drinks, especially during the beach season, is the lemonade with an apt name “Crimea”. The tourists refer to it as that “simple, yellow drink, you know, like the Soviet lemonade”. It’s been in production at its namesake's factory since 1983. The lemonade is available in stores in plastic or glass bottles, offered in restaurants and sold on beaches.
Sakhalin: Korean Cuisine and Fish from St. Petersburg
Sakhalin is abundant with Korean restaurants. Those who move to mainland Russia soon miss burdocks and small conches served in hot sauce, often sold on the streets in plastic bags.
Despite Japan’s claims to the region, Sakhalin has a distinctly Korean flavour. This culinary situation is explained by Japan’s history. While it was once part of the country, bearing the name Karafuto, at the time it had a large Korean population, mainly consisting of indentured servants (practically slaves). Following WWII, when the island became part of the USSR, the Japanese moved back to their country, but Koreans couldn’t leave. They had strong traditions and heritage values, and Korean cuisine was no exception. So to this day Sakhalin grocery and catering establishments offer a wide variety of traditional Korean dishes (like brined ferns, spicy mushrooms, conches, kimchi) and chopsticks are as popular as forks and knives.
It’s no surprise that Sakhalin has great seafood. Given the local population's lower wages and the fact that prices on mainland groceries are on par with Moscow supermarkets, local flora and fauna has secured its place on store shelves and kitchens. Seasonal delicacies include sea urchin caviar and smelt. Local drinks include lemonades made from lingonberry and klopovka – a berry from the Vaccinium genus, a relative of cranberry, blueberry or huckleberry.
Yugra: Venison Tushonka
Deer farming is one of the primary occupations of the native peoples who live in Russia’s northern territories. This includes the Altai Krai and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, also known as Yugra. Although the area has essentially the same foodstuffs as the rest of Russia, its recipes have a crucial difference – beef and poultry is replaced with venison. Here it’s often referred to as maralyatina, named after the Caspian red deer (called noble deer or maral by Russians). Venison is sold in grocery stores as sliced deli, frozen meat, tushonka (canned stewed meat) and soup.
Back in the Soviet era, there were plans to make regular shipments of venison to the European part of Russia. However, it turned out that it was cheaper to ship venison to Paris than to Moscow. The transport infrastructure situation has changed, but not significantly. So for now venison, whilst a delicacy for tourists, remains a mundane grocery product for the locals.