Traditional Russian dishes are not spicy. Why we do not use pepper? And why do we use mayo, sour cream and dill in way too many dishes?
There are two main reasons:
a) We live in a cold country. Spicy foods are more typical for tropical countries than for cold northern countries, where there is no need to use antimicrobial properties of spices.
b) Another reason Russian food is not spicy is that Russia does not grow most spices on its territory, so they always had to be imported. Russia was mainly an agricultural country, peasants did not have access to imported spices and their food was quite simple.
Food preferences are shaped in the childhood. Here is the amazing article on that topic, which shows that it is possible to prep your babies for liking a variety of food even before they are born and certainly when they are still toddlers.
Since most Russians do not like spicy food, most ethnic restaurants in Moscow go light on spices or the waiter will ask you, how spicy you want your dishes to be. I usually opt for spicy, since I like spicy food, but it will still never be too hot. From my personal example – I think that tolerance to spices is something you acquire in your childhood. Food in our house was not spicy when I grew up, but when I was a kid, we lived in Kenya where there was a big Indian population and, as a result, I could enjoy spicy samosas etc. Since I had been exposed to spicy Indian food, now I can eat (and enjoy) even a very spicy Indian dishes, but have lower tolerance to spicy Mexican food .
Traditional way of cooking food in ancient Russia was to cook dishes in clay oven (which usually was the center of the house and served as a heater). Food was cooked in gorshki (clay pots), main food was a soup (most typical – schi – made of meat and cabbage and grains or potatoes. Pies were also very popular and baked in the oven. Even now, oven-cooking is central for the majority of dishes.
The most popular condiments used for making food less bland in Russia are salt and black pepper (always used in moderation). Salt is also widely used for conserving food for winter – mushrooms, cucumbers, tomatoes etc. Almost any Russian kitchen will have bay leaf, no soup goes without it. Russians like to use a lot of herbs, most popular one is dill. Dill is part of the salads, dill is on top of boiled potatoes, dill is added to the soups. We love dill and add it to so many dishes, it drives foreigners mad. We also use parsley and cilantro, but not as much.
Our food is rich on onions and garlic. However, we do not have any traditional recipes, where onion or garlic would be a main ingredient (like French onion soup or Czech garlic soup). Onions are typically minced and fried and added to dishes and garlic is used either diced and raw as part of salads or to enhance a flavor of meat or vegetable stews.
Sour cream was used in Russia since ancient times. Sour cream is a product, made from cream. It is high on fat, but is quite healthy despite that and is easily digested even for lactose intolerant people. Why do we need to add more fats to our dishes? Again, living in a cold country calls for more nutritious food. Sour cream is definitely more healthy than butter. Sour cream is typically used as a sauce for salads, it makes all traditional soups (schi, borsch, okroshka, mushroom soup etc.) taste better, it tastes great with boiled potatoes and million other dishes.
When it comes to Mayo – things get more complicated. Mayonnaise is a sauce that came to Russia from French cuisine. It all makes sense. Our most “Russian” salad was designed by the French Chef Olivier. Fresh mayonnaise is made from olive oil and yolks, it is very high on fat content, but in the French cuisine it was not meant to be eaten in large quantities.
Here is where things get scary. Russians use mayo in industrial quantities. Usually this sauce is not prepared at home, people use store-brands. Most typical variety is Mayonnaise Provençal, 67% fat content. Mayo used to be expensive long time ago, then it was part of deficit products during Soviet times, now it is really cheap and widely available.
People add mayo to most salads, a lot of people use mayo as sauce for all main courses and instead of sour cream for soups.
But the most scary use is dishes baked under the coat of mayo. Meat, fish, chicken, veggies – all gets more tasty under the thick coat of mayo (even if the ingredients are of sub-par quality). One of the most popular main courses of the 90s is “Meat French style” – meat, baked under the coat of mayo AND cheese.
There are several hugely popular food blogs, devoted to cooking with mayo. Any ingredient that you could think of is represented there. And presentation of the dishes is often very elaborate.
But the apotheosis of mayo-related cuisine is… fried mayo! Yes, you can fry that stuff! Just freeze it, make a ball, using ice-cream spoon, coat with breadcrumbs and deep-fry in heated oil!
Which kind of brings us to the question – How do Russians stay in shape?
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.