American vs. Russian: Cuisine

I’ve recently started writing about my perspective on Russian culture, as an American, for another blog.  It’s a language blog to help Russians learn English and to provide insight into the cultural norms in English and Russian speaking cultures.  This is the third article I wrote for English in Russia, and I wanted to post it on my own blog as well.  Here is the link to the other blog sight, in case you want to follow any comments there or check out any other articles:

http://www.englishinrussia.ru/en/blog/culture/american-vs-russian-cuisine

without further ado…..

Russian vs American: Cuisine

Within the first few weeks of living in Russia, I lost about 10 pounds (4.5 Kilos). It did not take me long to gain all of it back (and then some), when I returned home…now I am on a diet (typical American cycle). No, this article is not going to talk about why Americans are so obese, but I merely wanted to use my scenario as an illustration for what I rediscovered about American food when I came home. It’s a contradictory statement, but American food is probably some of the best food in the world, as well as some of the worst food in the world. How can this be, you ask? Don’t worry, I will elaborate on this in full detail.

First of all, let me clear up one misconception about Americans and our cuisine.  We do not only eat food from McDonald’s and Burger King. In fact, the last time I was in a McDonald’s was in Russia, and only because it had a free public toilet. And I had never before seen a Carl’s Junior until I arrived in Saint-Petersburg. I hate to break it to you, but I think Russians like our fast food more than we do. After all, it’s because of Gorbachev that Russia has Pizza Hut! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9lvzzH0STw) Yes, we have a lot of fast food and chain restaurants to accommodate our busy lifestyles, but a lot of Americans (myself included), choose not to poison our bodies by eating at them on a regular basis. Fast food restaurants are one example of why American cuisine is some of the worst in the world, not only because they sell unhealthy food, but also because, here in the States, they are driven by the livestock and corn industries – powerful lobbies that are poisoning our foods and wreaking havoc on the environment (in my opinion).

You see, the biggest difference between American cuisine and Russian food can be summed up in one simple truth: we don’t make anything from scratch. Everything we eat or cook at home comes in packages, and they are loaded with ingredients whose names I cannot even pronounce. Fortunately, many Americans are beginning to catch on to the fact that the food industry and science have been poisoning our food for years and many of us are becoming vegetarian, eating organic and avoiding foods with GMO’s (such as myself). The market is finally beginning to shift to accommodate a healthier diet.

So then how is American food some of the best food in the world? It’s simple really. We are one of those countries that has been blessed with a diverse ethnic population and we get the benefit of adopting all of their cuisines. Russia also has this advantage, but there still remains a distinct “Russian” cuisine. Nothing we eat is truly “American” (okay, maybe hamburgers and Coca Cola). We’ve got every cuisine you could possibly imagine and we get to experiment with them all and see how they will taste with a new American twist – in fact, we’ve coined this cuisine American Nouveau.

We’ve also developed very strong regional cuisines. America is big and food varies as you travel from state to state. I grew up in Maine, a coastal state known for its lobster.  The southern states are known for having heavy, fattening foods that taste delicious.  Louisiana has a heritage of French and Creole cuisine that is out-of-this-world and loaded with flavor.  The New York tri-state area is a smorgasbord of ethnic and reinvented cuisines – it is the culinary capital of our country. Texans like barbeque and Tex-Mex, Chicago cuisine has a lot of Polish influence, and California is one of the largest economies in the world, in and of itself, and produces amazing wines, produce, seafood, etc. And we love wine and beer. Another secret: I’m going to be bold and say that we have the best beer in the world. Microbreweries have exploded in recent years, utilizing the same entrepreneurial spirit to experiment with beer recipes inherited from our European ancestors. When I came home, I couldn’t wait to have a “real” beer (sorry Baltika!). In a small nutshell, real American cuisine has strong regional and cultural ties and is always open to experimentation.

So what did I think of Russian cuisine? Let me sum up Russian cuisine with a few simple ingredients (keep in mind I’m a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish): cabbage, potatoes, dill, beets, cucumbers (pickled or plain), black bread, smoked salmon, caviar and of course, vodka. In my honest opinion, the best thing to happen to Russian cuisine was the ethnic Georgian population! What I wouldn’t give to have a Georgian restaurant over here, which reminds me – Caucasian cuisine might be the only cuisine I’ve never seen here in the States, although I think it’s been incorporated into the Russian menus on Brighton Beach (the “little” Russia of New York City). In America, you could say that Mexican is to the American cuisine what Georgian is to the Russian cuisine.

Despite my critique of the bland Russian cuisine, I confess I grew to love it. The soups are some of my favorite – borsch and shi especially. I love draniki and salat vinaigrette, although I’ve heard a few other countries claim draniki as their own. I’ve always been an avid fan of all things pickled and I am still searching for a recipe for vitamini salat. Lest we forget, on top of everything goes the dill (I’m actually planning to write an entire article about dill, so stay tuned!).

Occasionally I find myself popping into our local Russian produkti (yep, we’ve got one in my town), to buy sushki and enjoy the nostalgia. Speaking of which, does anybody know how to make grenki? Best beer snack ever! Oh yes, and Russians know how to take a potato and transform it into many different things – even flavored mashed potatoes in a cup! Just add hot water from the samovar on the train and you’ve got yourself a meal. And in summertime, enjoy potatoes sautéed with fresh mushrooms picked by the Russians themselves. But what I don’t understand is, what is it with the pasta and hot dogs, even at breakfast time! Furthermore, Russians love ice cream. My Babushka’s daughter told me they always had ice cream, even amidst the shortages of the Soviet times. I ate the Russian ice cream occasionally, but again I must confess, Americans also love ice cream and I think ours is better.

American cuisine vs. Russian cuisine…sorry, but I’m going to root for my own country on this one, mostly because we have a larger variety. Nevertheless, I will always have a place in my heart for Russian cuisine, as it was all a part of the cultural learning experience. And on a side note, mine and earlier generations of American children grew up being told to eat everything on their plates because there were starving children in China, no joke. Maybe that is why we are obese!

Above: Our “Russian” New Years Dinner included pickled cukes, mini blini, smoked salmon, caviar, cukes & tomatoes with dill, lavash, roasted vegetables, Russian champagne and vodka. Below: A Southern American dish of Shrimp and Grits.

37 thoughts on “American vs. Russian: Cuisine

  1. hahaha, any relationship w/ china ? i think in this article you also try to clarify that fast food and cuisine is diferent at all. Try to taste Indonesian cuisine sis, rendang and sate. 🙂

  2. Yum! I was once taught how to drink vodka ‘properly’ in a tiny bar called The Idiot in St. Petersburg. As far as I can remember, it involved eating a gherkin, breathing in, drinking a shot of vodka, breathing out, eating a blini, breathing in, drinking a shot of vodka, breathing out, eating a pickled herring, drinking a shot of vodka…you get the picture. I’m afraid to say it all got a bit idiotic after a while….

    • 🙂 Is The Idiot bar the same as the restaurant? I love the restaurant – one of my favorites in SPB. If you find yourself in Russia again, be sure to also try the Russian champagne – Sovietskoye was my favorite and it’s dirt cheap.

      • To be perfectly honest, after the second bottle of vodka it could have been a bar or a restaurant or a five star hotel, and I’m not sure if I’d have known the difference! In my defense, it was about 10 years ago though, so with the boom in Russia, it may well be a restaurant now…either way have a bottle of Sovietskoye for me next time you’re there – za vashe zdorovye!

  3. I make grenki at home and its really easy. I take a Russian rye/wheat loaf (it doesn’t look literally black like pumpernickel but is still called chorni’ helb) that is almost old, but it doesn’t have to be… just a good way to use almost old bread. Heat a fry pan – if you are NOT using non-stick then spray with some oil ahead of time. In a small bowl pour vegetable oil and dip an entire slice of bread into the oil to cover it. Cut the bread if it won’t fit to cover the entire piece. Place it in the hot fry pan and let it cook until its brown and crispy – then flip the slices over. While they are heating up I use fresh ground sea salt over them but if I want to go lighter on the salt I just grind over one side. Let the slices cool on a plate and you are done! Very unhealthy but very yummy (vkusno! 🙂 ).

  4. Thank you for the blog on Russia. I like to know how other places live and think. Funny part. Most places have the same desire. A job, a home/food and a good life. Thank you for the thoughts and photos.

  5. Hi, I just came across your blog and really love it! I’m studying Russian history and language in the UK, but am considering options for next year and thinking of spending a year in SPB – there’s just no way I’m going to be fluent otherwise!
    I adore your photos – what camera do you use?

    Looking forward to going through your older posts and reminiscing about my own (very short) trip to SPB! Kate:)

    • Thank you Kate 🙂 Glad you enjoy my blog! It needs an update – we were scheduled to be back in Russia for the holidays, but it did not work out. Hope to go back in the spring and summer time. I highly recommend the university I attended, if you want a program in English with Russian language lessons. They have a new Russian History and Arts curriculum now as well: http://www.eu.spb.ru/en/international-programs/marca
      Take care and I hope you are able to make it back to SPB, мой любимый город!

  6. Unfortunately, russian cuisine lost. If you read a book William Pokhlyobkin you can find true recipies or fussian food. so much different dishes! really russians forget national recipies ((( forget all…. fast food win….

  7. Hey! I myself am a vegetarian for the same reasons. Happy to follow your blog. We mostly write about the same interests. I hope you don’t mind if I reblog yours. Thanks again for sharing. Is mushroom stroganoff a Russian dish as well?

  8. Just to be fair – burgers are not American invention either. I enjoyed the article, although, if you could see bigger picture – Russia is very diverse ethnically and nationally as well as States. I personally believe that Americans and Russians have whole lot in common – you just need to explore Russian culture a bit deeper. Besides, I have been to both countries – both are amazing places. You just need to break through the stereotypes: no we don’t drink vodka like water 😀 anyway, enjoyed your writing, hope to see more.

    • Thank you for your comments! I agree – our countries are very much alike….. In fact, they are both so large that it will take me decades to get to know them both! I hope burgers are not an American invention – I haven’t eaten one in so long, I cannot remember. Don’t get me wrong – I think we have better food “options” here, but I would take living in Russia over my own country any day 🙂 In fact, I will arrive back there in one week’s time!

      • Where exactly in Russia you’re heading to? 🙂 As I believe you’ve spend most of the time in St.Peterburg; Moscow, for example is totally different.

      • I am going back to Saint Petersburg because I have friends there. I’ve been to Moscow a couple of times (although, I’ve not spent a lot of time there), but I prefer Piter for it’s backwardness. I will also be traveling to Estonia (where my husband and I hope to buy a home in the future), the Ukraine and then to Bryansk, Russia to visit an old friend. In the future, I hope to travel through Russia (and all the former USSR countries) extensively – to Siberia and all the obscure Russian cities which people do not normally visit (like Murmansk – which I visited during the winter in 2012). Hopefully my Russian will improve in time 🙂

  9. I’ve been all over the world and I also always say that America has the best food in the world and then I have to add “and I don’t mean ‘American’ food like hamburgers, what I mean is the Americanized version of x country’s native cuisine.” But seriously, I’ll take Americanized Mexican over any other food in any country any day!

  10. The author of this article is a clueless idiot who has no idea what she’s talking about. An American vegetarian tourist gives her judgement on Russian food? That’s fucking rich. Russian food is bland??? It’s not bland, it’s balanced. We don’t need to douse our food in tons of sugar, salt, BBQ sauce, Hot sauce, Alfredo sauce, Marinara sauce, Mayo, Ranch, Dressing, Ketchup, and all other sauces and spices because unlike tasteless, plastic, genetically modified American food, our food is tasty and well prepared as it is. American beer is real? Which one? Bud, Coors, Miller, or Pabst? American beer is watery crap despised by most normal people in the world. Furthermore Russian cuisine is far more diverse and interesting than American cuisine. “American cuisine” is basically Italian, Chinese, and Mexican bastardized beyond recognition to suit horrible American taste or lack of thereof.

    The nation that mass produces and mass consumes Wonder “bread” and Hershey’s “chocolate”, has no room to judge others. I suggest you shut up, dummy.

    • First of all, I would like to say that I’m only approving your comment because I am not a fascist blog writer (yeah, I’m the one who wrote this) that keeps people from expressing their opinions on my blog. Secondly, I wrote this article a long time ago and have since stopped being vegetarian for health reasons – I’ve done a lot of nutrition research in the past year after suffering health issues and decided it was no longer for me. That being said, I ate meat and other “real” Russian dishes when I was in traveling in Russia last June, not to mention, my first time to Russia in 1999 I stayed in a small village area in Seltso and we ate the chickens running around in my friend’s back yard. I ate the most traditional of Russian cuisines cooked then, so don’t tell me I know nothing about Russian cuisine. Of course it’s natural for me to prefer what I am used to in America. And you obviously know nothing about American cuisine because I don’t drink any of the beers you suggested – they may be the old iconic beers of America, but real beer drinkers here drink micro brews which defy the rules of all the other beer countries. that’s right – we can actually make a 15% alcohol beer if we want. And, I refuse to eat GMO foods still. I haven’t eaten any wonder bread in years, and I wouldn’t complain about Hershey’s chocolate because Russian chocolate isn’t anything special either. We can all agree that European countries make better chocolate and I prefer buying that in my own country.
      As I’ve said, your knowledge of American cuisine is apparently worse than mine of Russian. I’ve eaten real borsch and shashlik and draniki and sausage and vinegret salat, and they are all wonderful – in fact Russia has so many delicious dishes, I never meant to criticize Russian cuisine, just to say that I like food in my own country much better because we have other options (like the organic movement). And in case you’ve never been to a Russian produkti here in the US, you’d be horrified to know that they sell a ton of crappy packaged Russian foods that would make a babushka cringe in horror.
      Okay, I’ve said my peace.

      • Additionally, I was not a tourist, I actually lived in Russia for a year and we bought a dacha in a small Russian community in Estonia. I speak some Russian and love the country – read more of my articles and maybe you will change your opinion of me.

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