How to Taste and Enjoy Common Russian Foods and Where to Find Them

One of my favorite tours when abroad is a tour of a local supermarket.  

In Rome, I buy a bit of pancetta, some mozzarella di bufala, and some amaretti biscuits, and of course a bottle of Frascati wine from Lazio. 

In Paris, I would go for baguette, saucisson, and comte cheese with a bottle of Saint-Emilion wine.

If you are like me and you wonder about which Russian foods to taste when in Russia, this article is for you.

Russians have a tradition of cooking at home and many dishes are made from scratch. Groceries are called produkty (Продукты) and this is the name commonly used for small grocery shops in town, as well as Универсам and Супермаркет.   The farmer’s market is called rynok (Рынок).

Many of these shops are open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

Come in and experience new foods and maybe try to cook some if your AirBnb has a kitchen.  

Here is the shopping list.  The photo credits go to my mom who opened her fridge and pantry to illustrate the items. 

1. Smoked Fish (Копченая рыба)

Mackerel, trout, salmon and herring.  The Russian Far East is particularly known for high-quality fish. 

In my family, smoked fish accompanies boiled potatoes with a touch of butter or goes on an open fish sandwich with dark rye bread.

You can buy smoked fish at supermarkets or at farmers’ markets (рынок).  It has to be carefully deboned.

2. Pickles (Соленья)

My mom’s homemade pickles.

Russians like to pickle everything – cornichons, tomatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, apples, pears, and even watermelons.  Housewives still fill jars with pickles of all sorts to stock for wintertime.

Pickles are used as appetizers.  They go nicely with ice-cold vodka at the start of a meal.  

Try  everything pickled at a Russian cuisine restaurant in St Petersburg.  You can also find these goodies at markets (рынок).  Supermarkets sell everything pickled in glass jars.

3. Pelmeni (Пельмени)

Frozen pelmeni at St Petersburg supermarket

Pelmeni are Russian-style dumplings.  Pelmeni are filled with ground meat and onion.  

Put pelmeni into a pot of salted boiling water.  Stir with a spoon to avoid sticking of pelmeni to the bottom of the pan.  In a few minutes, pelmeni will emerge to the top of the pot.  At this point, boil them for 5 minutes and drain.  

You can add butter to hot pelmeni and add sour cream on top.  My family’s pelmeni sauce recipe – a bit of butter, a touch of soy sauce, and a lot of ground black pepper. 

My mom always said that real pelmeni must be tiny, the size of a hand nail.  Of course, the best pelmeni are homemade, but you can find them at the frozen section at supermarkets or taste at Russian restaurants. 

Unfortunately, you cannot bring pelmeni home, but you can join a pelmeni cooking class in St Petersburg and recreate at home.

4. Vareniki (Вареники)

Varenki are cousins of pelmeni.  What is the difference between vareniki and pelmeni?

  1. Vareniki are usually made half-moon-shaped resembling Chinese dumplings and are slightly bigger than pelmeni.
  2. The filling of vareniki is vegetarian – potatoes, curd cheese tvorog, or cherries.

Vareniki are also sold at frozen section at any Продукты or Универсам.  

Follow the same cooking instructions as pelmeni above.  Eat vareniki with sour cream. 

5. Canned Saury Fish (Сайра)

Russians don’t have sardines but do a lot of saury (сайра) in a can.   Saury can be canned with vegetable oil or au naturel.

This is a must-try, IMHO. I can’t explain the taste, but a little fatty layer under saury’s skin makes fish moist and the whole saury experience fantastic.  

Toast a piece of dark rye or any other bread.  Place saury all over the bread and sprinkle with some chopped dill.  The snack can be enjoyed with white wine or beer.  

6. Caviar (Икра)

Alaskan Pollock caviar. 

Beluga and salmon caviar is pricey and a luxury for most Russians.  

If you are looking to buy good noble caviar, try to go for a specialized store where you can taste what you buy. At a supermarket, you will find some cans and jars with red salmon caviar. Tip: buy the most expensive one.  The very cheap one (under 400 rubles) are likely low quality or artificial. 

Cod (треска) and Alaskan pollock (минтай) caviars are delicious and affordable.  They cost around $1 per can. Spread them over buttered rye bread toast and enjoy with a glass of Riesling wine or a shot of vodka.  

I like to bring canned caviar as a gift to my friends abroad.  I have found a caviar tasting class in St Petersburg.

7. Herring (Селедка)

There is an abundance of all types of herring in Russian supermarkets.  From smoked to salted or pickled.  

The most traditional way of making herring in a salty brine.  

If you buy a whole herring, it is a hassle to debone it.  It might be easier to buy fillets.

You can have herring by itself accompanied by young potatoes, make an open sandwich, or eat it as part of a beetroot salad, which is known as “herring under a fur coat” salad.  This salad is worth all the million calories in it.  Russians cannot imagine a New Year’s Eve meal without this salad.

Another tip from a local: a herring sandwich somehow makes a lot of sense with a cup of hot sweetened black tea. 

8. Salo (Cало)

Known as a traditional Ukrainian food, salo is common in Russia.  

Salo is cured pork fat.  Although it seems gross to eat pure fat, salo appears to have its health benefits, as it delivers necessary fatty acids and vitamins.

Keep salo in a freezer.  Cut a very thin slice and put it on a piece of bread.  Spread horseradish or mustard over salo.  This is unforgettable with a shot vodka on a cold winter day. 

9. Sour cream (Сметана)

My mom’s preferred St Petersburg smetana brand Piskarevskaya.

Russians cannot imagine life without sour cream.  It is used in cooking but also is used as a condiment.  

Vareniki, pelmeni, syrniki, blini (crepes), and even borscht are always served with sour cream called smetana.   

Smetana can contain 10%, 15%, or 20% of fat.  My Russian family does not believe in a low-fat diet and always goes for the one with the highest fat content.

You may ask me whether Russian sour cream is any different from the American one. Yes. Compared to sour cream from WholeFoods or Kroger, Russian smetana seems to have more nuances of acidity and sweetness, which may be entirely my personal perception.  

10. Kolbasa (Колбаса)

My mom’s preferred St Petersburg kolbasa sausage brand.  It is the Kremlin-style by Nevskaya Trapeza.

Russians are obsessed with sausage called kolbasa. The choice of sausage is immense from boiled mortadella-styles to cold-smoked ones. 

Russians eat kolbasa thickly sliced on a piece of bread.  This is a common breakfast food as well as a quick snack.  Kolbasa is always a part of a Russian charcuterie plate and no celebration is possible without it.

You need to know the best kolbasa brands.  If you are new to selecting the best kolbasa, chose the most expensive one as a guarantee of quality. 

11. Horseradish (Хрен)

Horseradish is a Russian spicy thing.  

Russians avoid spices in general except horseradish which is used as a condiment for sausage (kolbasa),  pork fat (salo), and holodets (jelly). 

Horseradish is typically sold in glass jars, grated and mixed with some vinegar.

12. Tvorog (Творог)

Tvorog is a type of curd cheese.  Tvorog can be enjoyed by itself, or with jam, smetana and just iced with sugar.  Similar to smetana, tvorog comes with a various fat content from 0% to 20%.

Tvorog is mainly used in Russia to make syrniki, the round pan-fried curd cheese patties that also contain egg, flour, raisins, and nuts.  Add some sour cream or sweet condensed milk (sguschenka) to syrniki.  Enjoy them warm and fresh.  What a treat with a morning coffee!

I highly recommended  trying syrniki.  As always, homemade are the best, but many cafes in St Petersburg make nice syrniki too.

Tvorog is also often used as a filling for vareniki.

13. Kefir (Кефир)

Kefir is a fermented milk drink that has been introduced to the rest of the world relatively recently.  Being a traditional drink, kefir is very cheap in Russia.  1 liter costs about 70 rubles ($1). 

Russian kefir is best enjoyed cold just out of the fridge.  In my opinion, it goes well with Russian sweet cookies or with pryaniki (gingerbread).

There are myriads of kefir brands. Their products will differ by consistency and the level of sourness.  You’ve got to find your own kefir brand in Russia.  We  always buy the Prostokvashino brand 2.5% or 3.2% kefir with the white and blue stripes and a cat on it. 

14. Sweet condensed milk (Сгущенка)

Sweet condensed milk is widely available in North America.  In Russia, it is also very popular under the name sgushenka.  

Many producers have adopted a white and blue design known from the Soviet Union times. The one with the yellow label is used for caramelized milk cans.

Condensed milk is used as a condiment for blini and syrniki, added in coffee, and used when baking cakes.

15. Pryaniki (Пряники)

Pryaniki are honey spiced cookies covered with a sugar glaze. A Russian equivalent of gingerbread, except that there is typically no ginger in the recipe.

They are best when fresh, but can be stored for a while.  Enjoy them with coffee, tea, or kefir.

Some are carefully crafted with decoration (Тульский пряник).  Pryaniki from Tula make great gifts.

16. Boxed Chocolate and Konfety (Шоколадные конфеты)

Another gift idea – Russian boxed chocolates.  Boxes are often decorated with traditional Russian art.  

Konfety is what is found inside the boxes, or sold in bulk. Covered with chocolate on the outside, they are filled with jam, waffles, and marzipan.

Tip:  buy many different types of bulk konfety.  This way you will find your favourite type.

When buying boxed konfety, pay attention to date stamp on a box and avoid buying anything older than 6 months.

Russians eat konfety as a small dessert with tea or coffee.