With an air of disgust, Valery Delinskaya recalls 1990, the year before the Soviet collapse, when frozen seaweed was the only food the then-psychology student could find in empty stores around Moscow.
“No matter how you cooked it, it was still horrible,” says the 42-year-old political consultant. Today she lives in a pricey, spacious apartment in western Moscow that overlooks a snow-covered forest and distant skyscrapers.
Now she keeps a stash of frozen and canned foods, buckwheat and pearled barley—something that gives her “a feeling of security, safety,” she says.
The early ’90s marked Russia’s painful transition from communism to a free market. Tens of millions faced food shortages. President George H.W. Bush sent massive deliveries of frozen chicken legs; they are still remembered here as “Bush’s legs.”
More than 25 years later, Valery and her husband are far from starvation. She travels for business and pleasure, tries local foods, brings home spices and recipes. “We don’t lose a chance to expand our worldview by trying different foods.”
Valery’s husband, Maxim Kiselyov, who has a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale, is an equally experienced traveler and cook. He painstakingly recreates complicated recipes. But on this frosty Saturday, the foods epitomize Russia’s expanse, where poor soil and short summers make farming labor-intensive, and where forests are rich with mushrooms, berries and herbs.
Some dishes reflect the blend of a nation that borders China and the U.S., but whose residents identify as European. There is borscht with beef and beets, and a “royal” version of what some Americans know as Russian salad. (Russians call it Olivier salad, after the chef who created it more than 150 years ago.)
“This is what we grew up on, what we imbibed with mother’s milk,” Valery says.
A feast for five begins with chilled vodka shots. The vodka is Khortitsya, named after a river island in Ukraine. Despite the current hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, the brand is a telling reminder of historic and gastronomic ties.
“It’s always clean,” Valery says of the vodka, referring to countless poisonings from counterfeit rotgut—a spiraling problem as Russia enters a fourth year of recession.
Vodka is followed by salted milk mushrooms in sour cream, a combination lovingly described by Russian novelists, yet tasted by few Russians.
Maxim bought the milk mushrooms (so named for their gray-white color) from a “trusted woman” at a nearby market. Mushroom-picking remains a favorite Russian pastime. They fry, boil, dry and pickle them and, of course, use them as after-vodka snacks.
An array of pickles follows: pale-green bear garlic; tomatoes and cucumbers in vinegar brine; sliced peppers in oil; cabbage with carrots; pickled herring with shallot, onions and dill.
The iconic Russian salad is a centerpiece. Belgian chef Lucien Olivier created it in Moscow in the 1860s by combining chopped boiled grouse, capers, olives, catfish tails, potatoes, mayonnaise and a mystery ingredient he took to his grave.
Attempts to recreate it spawned many versions. During the Soviet era, the most expensive and exquisite items were replaced with sausages, chickpeas, carrots and sour cream. The salad became an obligatory part of birthdays and festive dinners.
Maxim recreates a pre-Bolshevik version with crayfish tails. The bespectacled 57-year-old grew up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in a “communal apartment with 5-meter ceilings filled with antiquities,” fragments of a family fortune from before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
Pelmeni—boiled ravioli stuffed with beef and onions—finishes the dinner. Versions with fish, venison, chicken, even bear are common in northern and Siberian parts of Russia.
These days, many Russians buy frozen pelmenis at the grocery store, a mostly fast food consumed by bachelors and busy parents. The change reflects a tectonic shift in the attitude of many Russians toward their culinary heritage. Traditional Russian cuisine can pale by comparison to spicier, faster foods from around the world. Frankly, it simply struggles to compete.
“I don’t have a feeling that Russian cuisine is fashionable,” Valery says over tea and cabbage pie. “There was a wave of [pseudo-Russian] kitsch in the 1990s, but it went away.”