Ever wondered what Russian food is really like? I’ve had dozens of versions of borscht, but do any of them actually resemble the real thing in Russia? Is a piroshky in Russia the same as the ones I get from the Pirosky, Pirosky shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market? Is Russian vodka really the best in the world?
I knew I had to plan our short time in St. Petersburg wisely in order to get all of my food questions answered in just two days. Impossible, you say?
Since we were there on a Northern Europe cruise, we were able to get cruise-specific visas to visit the city, without the usual expense and tedium of securing our own visa, but the special visa required us to stay with a guide during our entire stay. That wasn’t a problem, as I prefer to have a guide along to show us the things we wouldn’t find on our own and to help with translation, but it did mean that in order to do a food-centric tour, we needed to break from the traditional shore excursions that find a company who would help us customize our trip to include popular Russian food and drink.
I was afraid that would involve spending even more than the already exorbitant tour prices. A typical 2-day excursion on a group trip with at least 15 other tourists aboard a big tour bus costs on average $300 per person. A private tour was obviously going to cost way more than that, right?
Luckily, while wading through the wrong tours, I came upon St. Petersburg Essential Guide. Essential Guide is run by an Italian expat, Davide Castellucci and partner Anastasia, who saw an opportunity to provide personalized tours with experienced local guides, including off-the-beaten-path options like the gastronomic tour I happened across on their website. Instead of spending two days being shuffled along with dozens of others to the “essential” museums, palaces and cathedrals, we were able to completely customize our tour, down to the very last detail.
Of course we threw in most of the traditional St. Petersburg stops too, like St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood, Peter & Paul Fortress, and a canal tour.
With Davide’s help, we planned a two-day itinerary that included a visit to two of the city’s farmer’s markets, lunch at a top Russian restaurant, a vodka tasting and museum tour, lunch at an Uzbek restaurant and a tour of the popular Eliseevskiy Food Hall.
We ate a lot during our two days in St. Petersburg, but I did get answers to my Russian food questions, so it was a huge success. See what we found out:
Borscht & Beef Stroganoff
Our first food stop was at a Russian restaurant called Masha & the Bear (Masha I Medved). This restaurant served all the traditional dishes we were dying to try. We ordered borscht, croquettes, beef stroganoff, Russian beer and even some wine from Crimea.
We’ve all had a bowl of borscht at one time in our lives, right? The last one I had was at a food event in Seattle where a local restaurant was serving it cold with sour cream on top. The soup itself was a bright pink, beet-flavored puree. Thinking back, I believe every version of borscht I’ve ever had was pureed. Apparently this is the way Americans think it’s served, but alas, it’s not.
Borscht is not a thick puree with overwhelming beet flavor. It’s actually more like cabbage and onions swimming around in a light beet broth. It has a slight, but not overwhelming beet flavor. I was never a big fan of borscht before, but now that I’ve tried the authentic Russian version, I’ve changed my mind. It’s delicious.
The beef stroganoff was also incredibly delicious. It was a thick casserole with noodles, beef, onions, mushrooms and creamy sauce all mixed happily together. Very similar to what I’ve had at home but slightly thicker and more flavorful. I could have eaten heaps of it.
Pelmeni VS Piroshky
What’s a pelmeni? What’s the difference between a pierogi and a piroshky? This was the hardest question to get answered in St. Petersburg. I’m not sure anyone knows the answers for sure. There are too many versions and variations of each to keep them all straight!
I hadn’t heard the name pelmeni before, but I believe it’s the Russian form of a pierogi. A pelmeni is a dumpling or dough filled with potato or ground meat and then boiled and served with melted butter or another topping like fried onions. The only difference I can see between these and a pierogi is the shape of the dough. Pelmeni are often in a circular form, more like tortelloni.
Piroshky are a hand-held meat pie filled with a variety of different meats, vegetables or sweet filling and then baked or fried. Some are very similar to an empanada. But then there are larger meat pies, like the ones we had at Stolle. They can be called Stolles, but I think they’re really just a larger version of Piroshky. Or are they large pierogis? I still don’t know. The meat filling – fish, beef or chicken is stuffed into the center of the pastry and then sliced to the size you order. We had one stuffed with salmon and one stuffed with rabbit and raisins.
After trying a few of these and seeing them everywhere, we quickly figured out that it’s one of the most popular Russian foods.
Russian Beer & Wine
Masha & the Bear had a pretty good wine list, but most of the wine was from outside Russia. On the suggestion of the server, we ordered a red wine that is made in Crimea from Inkerman Winery. It was good – full body and slight fruitiness that paired very well with our food. Nick also tried the beer they had on tap to see how it compared with the world-class Northwest beer we’re so used to. Over the two days, he tried two different beers and liked them both. They were lacking the strong hoppiness that is ubiquitous with the Northwest, but I’ve never thought that was a bad thing. I can’t type out the names of the beer (since I don’t have a Russian keyboard), so I’ll just post pictures of them both.
I’ve tried many Russian vodkas, some of them probably much lesser quality than I care to admit, so I wasn’t sure if I would know what a good Russian vodka would be like and/or if I could tell a difference between it and other vodkas I’m accustomed to like Grey Goose. We visited the Vodka Room for a tasting and a guided tour through the vodka museum.
We tried four different vodkas along with a traditional Russian snack. This was the first time we encountered the rye bread with fish open-faced sandwich, but we quickly learned that this “snack” is served all over Northern Europe – Scandinavia and the Baltics. I’m not too fond of it, unfortunately, and every time it showed up on a food tour during our trip I became less and less willing to eat it. But when in Russia! The vodka was all very smooth and each had different slight nuances like honey and vanilla that we picked up on. I’m not sure I can say that it’s different or better than what I’m used to, but it was definitely the highest-quality Russian vodka I’ve tasted.
We were also booked at the Vodka Museum Restaurant for dinner, but were unable to eat anymore by so early in the evening, but I’ve been told that the restaurant there is very good (if touristy).
Eliseevskiy Food Hall
Along Nevsky Prospekt is an elaborate foodie dream store, called Eliseevskiy Food Hall, which was opened in 1902 by the Elisseeff Brothers and restored to its original glory in 2012. The food hall has 7 departments – a bakery, cheese counter, charcuterie, caviar, wine and tea, plus all manner of sweets – chocolates, candies, marzipan and macaroons. You could get lost in there for hours looking at all the delicious treats. We also discovered that there are two restaurants in the shop. Downstairs is a casual, traditional restaurant, while upstairs is fine dining.
Russian Food Markets
Our gastronomic tour continued with a visit to two of the city’s top food markets. These type of markets were set up in the Soviet Era and have continued today as an easy way for locals to buy and sell produce and goods. They are housed in large, non-descript buildings with very little fanfare. There are dozens of vendors at each selling all types of produce, meats, spices and dried fruits. Although the markets were not as busy this time of year, it was an interesting way to see local life in St. Petersburg. While many cities are turning to large food markets as a way to enhance the community and entice tourists, these markets were genuine local markets where tourists don’t typically appear.
For lunch on the second day, Davide suggested an Uzbek restaurant as it is a popular cuisine in Russia. We ordered a couple of traditional dishes, like Plov, which is a rice dish with carrots, chickpeas, raisins and roasted lamb, and a traditional Uzbek dumpling called Manti. Lamb and mutton are two of the preferred proteins in Uzbek food, so we also had skewers of meat, that are served with a few different fruit sauces. The restaurant was a great place to stop for lunch – delicious food and a great atmosphere.
All said and done, I think we did a pretty good job trying all the traditional Russian foods we could. There was so much more to eat, but in two days, we ate a lot and enjoyed it all.
What is your favorite Russian dish? Have you ever cooked traditional Russian recipes at home? We’d love to hear about your experiences with Russian food in the comments.
Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.