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Russia - Food and Drink

A big concern expats have is what the food and drink in Russia are like. The good news is that traditional foods may be more interesting than you expect, and you can quickly find Western food when you want it.

Traditional Russian Food

Much of the Russian environment isn’t hospitable to human life and agricultural endeavours. However, until modern times, most Russian people had to live on whatever food sources could be found, traded or cultivated nearby. This means that traditional Russian dishes contain the meat, vegetables and grains that kept communities going through bitterly cold winters. Today you’ll enjoy the hearty, filling dishes sourced from the Russian landscape, but you won’t have to wait for the ingredients to be in season.

Traditional Russian dishes include:

Borscht: A hearty red soup of beet, meat, potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots
Shchi: Cabbage soup with onions, potatoes, carrots and sometimes meat
Sour shchi: A sauerkraut version of schci soup
Solyanka: A thick soup of meat and vegetables served with chopped pickles and lemon
Ukha: Fish broth
Xolodets: Chipped beef and bone broth simmered, cooled and served as a savoury jelly
Piroshki: Puff pastries stuffed with potatoes, meat, cabbage or cheese
Golubsti: Cabbage rolls
Pelmeni: Pastry dumplings stuffed with minced meat, butter or cream topping
Vareniki: Ukrainian dumplings
Shashlyk: A kebab of cubed meat and vegetables on skewers
• Beef Stroganoff: Beef strips in a creamy sauce with mushrooms or tomatoes
• Chicken Kiev: This is mainly a tourist dish
Ikra: Caviar, usually served with dark bread or blini
Ikra Baklazhanaya: Aubergine caviar
Blini: A rolled wheat pancake with your choice of sweet or savoury filling
Vinegret: Beet and other boiled vegetables mixed as a salad
Olivier: Potato salad
Morozhenoe: Ice cream, usually served with a topping of nuts, fruit or chocolate
Pashka: Sweet cheesecake desert served as an Easter tradition
• Bread: Bread in Russia traditionally tends to be dark, such as rye bread

What Do Expats Think Of Traditional Russian Food?

Dan, a UK expat living in Moscow, told ExpatFocus: “Russian food is pretty good generally. A bit heavy on the carbs, but nice. Major dislike would be xolodets.”

The majority of expats enjoy Russian dishes. In winter they can be warm, comforting and filling. And there’s enough variety that you feel you have a genuine choice when confronted with a Russian menu.

Popular Soft Drinks In Russia

Don’t ask for ice in your soft drinks, and don’t accept it if offered. The tap water in Russia isn’t reliable and may give you a nasty bug. If you want to drink some water, buy a bottle of mineral water.

There are plenty of soft, non-alcoholic drinks to choose from in Russia. These include:

• Tea
• Bottled water
• Pepsi
• Coca-cola
• Fanta
Kvas: A lightly carbonated drink made from fermented dark bread
Mors: A traditional wild berry drink

Popular Alcoholic Drinks In Russia

Alcohol is a key part of Russian culture and you’ll find plenty of locations to buy it. Nightclubs charge high prices for their alcohol, so it’s common to drink a lot beforehand.

Popular alcohol choices in Russia include:

• Vodka: Brands include Russian standard gold, Mamont, Moskovskaya Osobaya, Kauffman, Beluga Noble
• Imported beer
• Domestic beer such as Baltika, Stary Melnik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tinkoff
• Imported liquors such as rum, gin and so on
• Soviet champagne - the dry (“sukhoe”) or brut is best
• Wines from Georgia and Moldova
• European wines – typically served sweet and room temperature

Eating Out In Russia

You have a huge range of choice when it comes to eating out in Russia, especially in large cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg.

Cafes serve full meals, light meals, snacks, sweet treats and drinks. Hot dishes are often prepared in advance but offer an affordable way to enjoy a big meal.

The more upmarket cafes cater to the cappuccino crowd. Freshly prepared quality coffee, rich cakes and pastries form the backbone of their sales. Some also serve alcohol to their customers. Free WiFi is standard in these venues.

Restaurants cook meals to order. Those aimed at the tourist market will have English language versions of their menus available. In cheap Russian restaurants, you will sometimes see pictures of the food, which are easy to point to. If you get stuck, use a translation app or dictionary on your mobile phone.

In Moscow and St Petersburg, you’ll be spoilt for choice with all the elegant and international restaurants available. Japanese restaurants are popular while Tibetan and Italian menus are readily found. While many restaurants in Moscow are expensive, you’ll be served top quality dishes.

You will find Western takeaways in big cities serving food that’s familiar. But don’t ignore the Russian options, as a cheap and filling meal can be easily found in a self-service cafeteria or roadside kiosk. Freshly warmed blinis or stuffed potatoes make a memorable quick meal when you’re hungry and in a hurry.

Vegetarians And Vegans: A Growing Trend In Russia

Official figures don’t exist, but it’s thought that around 3-5% of the Russian population are vegetarian or vegan. Most of these people live in Moscow and St Petersburg, where businesses are gearing up to accommodate their needs.

Many traditional Russian foods have vegetarian options as meat used to be expensive and not many families could afford to eat it every day. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church has fasting periods where worshippers are encouraged to abstain from meat, eggs and dairy products. Many Russian people see vegetarianism as a trendy fad which is difficult to follow, but it has closer connections to their national cuisine and culture than they recognise.

Vegetarian shops and restaurants have opened up in major cities, so everything from tofu to shoes made of vegetarian materials can now be found.

There are a few unexpected exceptions. As the Russian winter is so harsh, goose down coats are a popular choice to keep warm. Some manufacturers pluck the feathers from live geese, but this isn’t advertised on the garments.

There’s also the real problem that eating a vegetarian diet can be more expensive than eating meat, meaning meat options are therefore more readily available. Added to the relentless questioning vegetarians face from colleagues and friends, Russian life can make a meat-free diet hard to maintain. However, this lifestyle has grown significantly and shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

Tipping Customs In Russia

After a lovely meal in a restaurant, you’ll be presented with a written or printed bill. If there’s a service charge, it will be clearly itemised. However, that’s rare. Most restaurants will welcome gratuities left at your own discretion. Russian customers generally tip between five and 15% of their total bill, depending on how good the service was.

In a cafe with table service, a tip of around 10% is appreciated. However, if you order and collect your food and drinks from a counter, you don’t need to worry about tipping.

Where European people will notice a real difference is at a bar. Bartenders will talk to you while they serve your drinks, and keep the conversation going as long as possible. This is to encourage you to leave a tip, which makes up a substantial portion of their take-home pay. If you get known to the staff as someone who leaves decent tips, they’ll serve you first even when there’s a queue of customers.

Most city residents pay for their taxi journeys using an app, without adding a tip. However, anyone who pays in cash and wants to thank the driver for an efficient and safe journey will add a gratuity of up to 10% or just round up the cost to the nearest note.

If you’ve had beauty treatment in a salon or spa, a generous tip makes a real difference to the take-home pay of the staff, who often earn low salaries. However, with tour guides, in any location where you’ve paid an entrance fee, it’s a different matter. These people might get into trouble with their superiors for accepting tips, so always ask before pressing money into their hand.

Russia’s Drink Driving Limit Is... Zero

The majority of countries in the world allow drivers to enjoy a glass of alcohol and then legally drive home. However, changes to Russian law mean you have to leave the car behind unless you’re enjoying an alcohol-free night out.

Russia used to have a serious problem with drink drivers and the accidents they cause. In 2009, an estimated 2,000 people lost their lives and a further 18,000 were injured in accidents where a driver had been drinking alcohol. The government tried a temporary zero tolerance policy which became permanent in 2013. Now, you cannot legally drive a car until 12 hours have passed since your last sip of alcohol.

The police actively enforce the law. If you have an accident, you will have a breath test or a blood test, or maybe both. You may also be asked to take a test even where no incident has happened, either because the police are carrying out random checks or because there is something about your behaviour which concerns them.

You will be confirmed as a drunk driver if you exhale 0.16 mg or more of alcohol per litre of air, or have at least 0.3 grams of alcohol per litre of blood in your system. If this happens, you will be prosecuted. The fine for drink driving is 30,000 rubles. In addition, the court may remove your driving license for up to two years.

Don’t Take Drugs On A Night Out In Russia

Russian society is increasingly plagued by the problem of illegal drug use. However, while you may be offered a range of recreational drugs by people you know or meet, don’t take the risk. Both the Russian government and the conservative society at large strongly disapprove of this behaviour.

If you are found with a very small quantity of a soft drug, you may be lucky to get away with a fine. However, renewing your work visa will be a problem. Larger quantities or a harder drug will incur a hefty prison term followed by immediate deportation.

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