Russia’s Gastronomic Revolution?

Following the precedent I set with Alex Mercouris – why should I write a post on something myself, when one of the commentators has already done something better? – I present this article on Russia’s recent gastronomic revolution by Ivan Golov:

I can assure you that Russia has been going through a mass gastronomic and retail revolution in the last 5 years, and of course I am not just talking about Moscow, but even cities which one might call isolated and remote. Your expectations seem somewhat unrealistic, because you cannot develop an advanced consumer and food-quality sentitive culture over a short time period and especially in a society that is still recovering from the soviet restrictions in this regard. It is more than evident that Russia is very quickly learning to appreciate good food and service at an affordable price.

Just a quick note – I am a repatriated Russian living in Izhevsk (not my home city, and not the first choice for most who come back to Russia seeking a place to settle). I have watched the impressive transformation of the local retail and food landscape during my frequent visits to the city over the last 7 years. I have been living here for almost a year now. What you mention about the quality food and price of wines seems very bizzare. I am not ruling out that Moscow is very different, but if that is the case then you are totally out of touch with the rest of the country and should not generalize here on behalf of Russians living elsewhere.

Some specific non made up or theoretical examples of decent food at affordable prices: at work, we regularly go to a chinese cuisine restaraunt for lunch. Its a 15 minute walk or 5 minute drive to get there. This restaurant opened just a few months ago and the lunch offers they have are very cheap and tasty indeed. Last time (just a few days ago) for lunch I had pork soup, a generous serving of Gong Bao chicken with rice, chinese bread and tea. All in all cost me around 140 roubles, which in my opinion is extremely cheap. The lunch menu is cheaper of course than what you would pay in the evening, but I wont complain about that )) My colleagues don’t have any problems affording this kind of meal 🙂 I could give you many more examples, but I think a simple link will be sufficient. This is one of several local restaurant holdings – they control a number of restaurants throughout Izhevsk and you can find the menu and prices here Wine may be more expensive overall, but I will write a separate paragraph about that

When it comes to beer, you have only yourself to blame if you go for the expensive imported beers. I don’t see the point because there are some excellent local beers to be enjoyed. To substantiate my claim – on Friday I enjoyed a few beers at a local summer cafe where they offered a decent locally brewed beer which cost only 90 RUR per 0.5 L. Is that expensive by your standards? At the shop I purchase 1L of fresh Zhigulevsky keg beer brewed locally for 100 RUR to accompany me while watching football (sadly, not so much anymore since the awful performance of our team yesterday)

You cannot possible complain about the wine. I remember 5 years ago I was not aware of a single store specializing in wines in Izhevsk, and the wines on offer were either CIS-origin suspicious red mixtures or were ridiculously overprices with disregard to quality. Today you have absolutely incredible variety (in comparison) and much more affordable prices. Today, the big chains and independent importers are much more sensitive towards quality and can import large quantities of good wines and other booze. Growing competition means that they will sell these imported goods at prices which the market will accept. If you get ripped of in Moscow, then perhaps you should move to a smaller city, you may also find that there are a lot less traffic jams. 🙂

I would argue that american-style steak houses are somewhat exotic in Russia at this point. They are expensive because the meat is imported from USA or Australia and there is little local beef of sufficient quality being produced today. However, this will change very quickly because there are several gigantic agricultural projects happening in Russia at the moment. One of them in Bryansk involves investing billions into angus meat breeds that will be fed with quality Russian grain to produce the same quality meat that is being imported today. Then Onishenko will do his magic, and voila! 🙂 If we are talking about meat in general, then why don’t you settle for decent Russian or Caucasian shashlyk? It is affordable and delicious! Check out the prices in Izhevsk

Retail is absolutely booming, if you are primarily talking about food products then there is sufficient variety and quality in Izhevsk. That said, my main complaint would be that there is not enough Russian fruit and vegetables being sold, a lot seems to be imported from other countries. I would contribute this to the risky and long invesment cycle (much like the beef situation described above), but I also predict that it will change significantly over the years. In the past 5 years I saw at least a dozen of large shopping malls and retail chain superstores opening in Izhevsk. Many of the federal retailers have showed up here and there are also strong local players which seem to be able to compete against them

Btw. from my knowledge many western countries, especially the ones in northern europe with a historic lack of sensitivity towards food quality, all went through a very similar gastronomical transformation fairly recently as society became more rich and open to the outside world. Norway or the UK would be prime examples of this


  1. Mark Sleboda says:

    Thanks, but living in Moscow and doing all the cooking at home in Moscow – I vastly prefer and love using the old local markets with fresh mostly Russian and CIS grown produce and products ( I was so glad to get back here from London grocery shoppingwise) – especially the dairy, meat, fruits, and vegetables has a quality, zest, and freshness that you could never find in the plastic wrapped, homogenous, tasteless, franken-food supermarket tombs where good food goes to die, both in Russia and the West.

    • Gadzooks! Not (I hasten to add, being any kind of Foodie myself) I well remember the Salad Cones that littered Intourist Hotel remnants in my time. These stacked, formed thingees, involving mayonnaise, were set out after breakfast to bake and putrefy in the heat. Never even touched one. Salmonella doesn’t taste good.
      Also, on one tedious banquet, a whole roasted suckling pig, brutally hacked into cross-sections: bone, bits and all.
      A market full of pigeons and their droppings. Blaughhh!
      Chickens tougher than boots.
      Pizzas and Georgian food were the only alternatives then.
      But that was then (1992-96), this is now.

  2. Moscow Exile says:

    Yes, the numerous Moscow markets, mostly operated by people from the Caucasas republics, are a distinctive feature of that city when comparing it with British ones. Russian housewives use far more fresh fruiit and vegetables than do their British counterparts. Russians also use far more “trava” (literally “grass”) with their meals, namely herbs such as dill, parsley, basil etc.

    I should think that most Russian women spend at least three times longer in their kitchens preparing a meal than do their British counterparts, which latter often seem to me to be only skilled at using a can-opener. At the huge feasting time of New Year, my wife and her friends spend most of New Year’s Eve preparing a seasonal feast that will last all night. Until quite recently, very littled canned food was seen in Russan kitchens and canned soup was almost unheard of. In fact, I know of no Russian who eats canned soup such as the Western favourite Heinz Cream of Tomato. Soup is an absolute necessity in all Russian meals – and it’s always homemade. Everyone thinks of borshch when talking of Russian cooking, but there are many other staple soups in Russia and a cold soup summer favourite of mine is okryoshka, made wiith kvas, which latter is a a fermentation of black bread that.

    Russian bread also makes UK bread pale into tasteless insignificance. My favourite is Borodinsky, a black bread first made by the nuns at the convent that was built near the Borodinsky battlefield.

    Russians are big dairy produce eaters as well: kefir, a milk fermentation, is a Russian staple.

    When I first tasted Russian pork over 20 years ago, their was something familiar about it that I just could not quite place my finger on; then I suddenly realized that it had the taste that pork had in the UK when I was a boy in the ’50s. Since then, pork in my home country has become a bland, pale meat packed with hormones and other chemical additives. The streamlined pig developed in Western Europe (Denmark, I think) to suit Western tastes for skinny bacon rashers doesn’t exist here in Russia – yet. Here the porkers are the big fat rascals of my youth, and they have the same taste as I remember from all those years ago – minus the additives.

    • The wild strawberries and raspberries sold by Russian village women are quite tasty, too. The only thing I’ve had that in the USA compared, was wild blueberries sold in some village in Maine.

      Bread in Moscow has generally declined a lot in taste in the last 10 years; I think Westernization has set in.

      Complaints about restaurants in Moscow being overpriced sort of miss the point, or reflect a misunderstanding of Russian culture. Since most meals are eaten at home – and “going out” generally means a feast at a friend’s house – of course there will not be many affordable “normal” restaurants for eveyday occasions in Moscow. There is little market for such places. Russians would sit in them and think, “why am I eating this food here when I can have the same food (maybe even better) in a more relaxed setting, at home, and pay less for it.”

      The only reason to go out to restaurants in Moscow is to have an exotic or ostentatious experience that cannot be replicated in one’s home or dacha. Thus the very expensive, or themed etc., restaurants.

      • Dear Moscow Exile,

        In spite of what I said about the general improvement of British food I do agree with you about the decline in the quality of the generic British pork. The reason for it is that pigs are kept indoors and are bred to be as lean as possible. The result has been to take away the flavour.

        I am lucky in that there is a farmers’ market near where I live where I can buy good free range pork and fresh produce that has kept its quality but the stuff you get in supermarkets (like supermarket chicken) is tasteless.

      • Maybe that’s why I’ve always disliked pork, and preferred chicken and beef. Just never got to taste the real thing?

        • Moscow Exile says:

          The tastiest pork I have ever experienced is that of wild boar. I used to buy it at game shops when living in Germany. There they have many wild game game shops. When I was a child in the north of England, game was often seen hanging outside butchers’ shops, but was mostly rabbits and hares. Rabbit is eaten more often in Eastern Europe than I should think is now eaten in the West, but they are rabbits bred for the table. They’re tasty too.

          I believe that an attempt was made to market venison at some big UK supermarket chains – unsucsessfully, I think, because of inverted snobbery perhaps: British housewives thinking that venison is not for “the likes of us”? Or perhaps because of this strange modern aversion held by many in the West towards eating our “furry friends”?

          As for myself – I love animals: I eat them!

          This attempt at marketing venison in UK supermarkets came about because of the necessity of culling deer there. There is now such an abundance of deer in the UK because hunting there has become so much frowned upon by the chattering classes.

          As regards the game shops in Germany where I used to buy “wildes
          Shweinefleisch”, I’ve often wondered why some entrepreneur here in Russia does not try opening them in Moscow. I should think the idea of eating wild boar and venison would certainly appeal to the “elitny”, who would be more than willing to eat what was once deemed to be only the food of the rich – and at extortionate prices, of course, so as to show off theire “elite” status.

          Come to think of it, there is one restaurant in Moscow that I know of where they serve up game: it’s in the State History Museum and they do replica tsar’s feasts there – stuffed sturgeon, suckling pig, wild boar etc.

          • I’ve eaten venison bought from British supermarkets. It was very good, although too pricey to be consumed regularly for us at that time.

            Talking of game, I recently tried elk at this place. It was absolutely wonderful.

            The only human-husbanded meat that compares with elk and venison in my experience is Kobe beef.

            Never tried boar, but you’ve convinced me to put it in on my to-do list!

            • Moscow Exile says:

              Yes, elk! Really tasty. I ate it quite oten when living in Sweden. Again, hunting is not frowned upon there: in fact, it is encouraged, as there are so many elk in that country that they present a serious problem to farmers. I first tasted elk in Sweden at an IKEA resaurant. Elk is always on the menu there. So when IKEA was building its first outlet here in Khimki, I was impatiently waiting its opening day so as to to taste elk again. No elk on the Russian IKEA menu though.

              • Moscow Exile says:

                It often amused me when I used to hear the common complaint off those in Britain that had tried game, namely that it tasted “gamey”. I wondered what exactly this term “gamey” meant. And then, when I was living in Germany, I gave my sister, who was visiting me, wild boar to try. She said it was “all right”, but that it was too “gamey” for her. And then I realized she meant it tasted of the animal whose flesh she was eating, namely it tasted “piggy”. It was pork – real
                pork and not that bland, pale, textureless, hormone enriched flesh that she was accustomed to eating in the UK and that is known as “pork”.

                I suppose that’s why few in Britain now eat mutton or goat. When I was a child, mutton stew was commonplace; and yes, it tastes like it is – sheep.

                It’s the same with British kids I’ve heard, who, although not averse to eating with relish fish fingers – liberally dosed with ketchup, of course, turn their noses up at fish from a fishmongers, saying that it smells and tastes “fishy”!

  3. I think Supermarkets in the West only in the last couple of years started emphesising sourcing locally whenever they can and marketing themselves as such.

  4. AM –

    Depends where in the West. The French and Italians, for example, have always been loyal to local produce, which is a very good thing, but then each country has a cuisine with a strong identity. In Britain, almost everyone goes for whatever’s cheapest. The variety of fresh fruit/veg in British supermarkets is staggering – in fact I think it’s way over the top and a waste of resources flying that stuff round the world. No one needs 100 different vegetables to choose from.

    AP –

    Families eat at home, and housewives have the fortune/misfortune of spending hours in the kitchen several times a week. Young Moscow residents with grueling work schedules don’t have that option, and do go out to eat.

    If you go to somewhere like the Yevropeysky shopping mall at Kievskaya any evening, you’ll see all the restaurants (chains like TGI, Il Patio, Planet Sushi, Chaikhona) packed to the rafters. You’ll find almost everyone is between the ages of 18 and 40, and you probably won’t spot a single pensioner. So eating out or at home is very much a generational thing.

    Whether you consider Moscow food to be good or bad, cheap or expensive, depends very much on your tastes and expectations.

    Examples of good, cheap eating out options (in no particular order): bliny at Teremok, as someone said before (especially with trout roe or bacon/brynza/dill), shashliks (places like shashlik mashlik, which always give a fresh, hot lepyoshka), sushi chains (Malenkaya Yaponia’s a good one – these places always have a heavily Americanized menu, with stuff like California Maki, and with fillings like cream cheese that no Japanese would eat – but still, it’s tasty and it’s not expensive. Plenty of competition in this sector).

    As far as beer goes – I know there’s a certain attachment to Zhigulovskoye, as the ubiquitous Soviet beer, but I can’t agree that it’s a good beer. Russia doesn’t have centuries of brewing tradition that the Czechs/Germans/English/Belgians benefit from. The vast majority of domestically brewed beer in Russia is made by three companies – Efes, Sun InBev (part of AB InBev), and Baltika – a large array of cheap lagers that differ mainly in their labels and logos. Microbreweries are so rare as to be almost non-existent. If you want an ales, stouts, porters etc. you have to go for pricey imports.

    • Yes, maybe it’s a generational thing – the group I spend time with are all in their late 30’s and 40’s, plus visits to their parents’. For this crowd, who aren’t too poor to go out if they wanted to (they are mostly well-off successful professionals) going out to eat (other than a quick bite while shopping or whatever, at a place like Teremok, which I’ve mentioned before) is not normal. We’ve had many hours-long multi-course meals over beer, vodka, cognac in apartments; this is the way to go, rather than meet at a restaurant where one pays more for worse food, less leisurely pace, and with strangers around. I remember my first trip to Moscow, at the end of the 90’s, dragging my wife to the clubs, before settling into the local routine which is wonderful on its own merits.

      Exceptions are special occasions; one guy spent literally $3,000 on one meal hosting friends from high school, visiting from the USA for the first time in 15 years, at a restuarant he shut down for the occasion, near the Kremlin. Other exceptions would be going out to lunch during the workday (thus the many places offering “business lunches.”)

      So the youth in Russia have generally become Westernized from the perspective of restaurants/going out? They all hang out in pubs or “lounges” as in the West, rather than in homes and dachas? Interesting.

      • Mark Sleboda says:

        “So the youth in Russia have generally become Westernized from the perspective of restaurants/going out? They all hang out in pubs or “lounges” as in the West, rather than in homes and dachas?”
        This would be a gross mischaracterization of Russian youth as a whole. It describes only a wealthy bourgeois and dare I say, spoiled, segment of society mostly confined to Moscow and to a much lesser extent in a few of the other large cities. ie it is a class phenomenon. Also even the Golden Children as they are called in Russia do not hang out in ‘pubs’, there is no culture for it.

        • ‘Also even the Golden Children as they are called in Russia do not hang out in ‘pubs’, there is no culture for it.”
          They don’t hang out in pubs, but they hang out in night clubs. I am from Minsk and in my city clubs are packed at nights, especially on week ends.

        • The closest thing to pubs in Russia would be the numerous summer cafes which would somewhat resemble an english pub’s beer garden

      • Russians are made for restaurants – They love socialising with good food and drink and they do like to be served. But it’s not true that they not don’t enjoy dinner parties anymore. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.
        Also rich Russians will still have dinner parties – only they would invite, for example, an Uzbek chef to cook for a lot of guests.

        • Dear AM,

          I completely agree. My experience of Russians is that they are very gregarious and love partying and socialising. Pre revolutionary Russia had many fine restaurants and St. Petersburg had a reputation for having the best dance parties and some of the best night clubs in Europe. Why should modern Russia be different?

  5. I for one love going to cafes and restaurants with affordable prices, and am glad to hear Russia “Westernizing” in this respect.

    After all, while dinner at home can be quite excellent, you’re never going to experience the more exotic or high-end cuisines there.

  6. Just one very brief thought on this topic. As someone who came to Britain in the 1960s I have vivid memories of the awfulness of British food at that time. Indeed the ghastly quality of British food was an international joke.

    Anybody who has lived in Britain continuously through the last fifty years as I have done will agree that the food scene here has transformed and vastly for the better. It seems that Russia is going through the same process.