February 1, 1997

3 Min Read
What Makes it Russian?

What Makes it Russian?
February 1997 -- Flavor Prints

  What sets one country's foods apart from those of its neighbors? To a great degree, the difference is in the spicing - the ones most frequently used and the combinations utilized with different foods. We call these habits characterizing a nation's cuisine its "flavor prints." In their way, they provide identification much like fingerprints do for humans. In this series, developed in cooperation with the American Spice Trade Association, Food Product Design explores nations' flavor prints as a guide and inspiration for food product designers.

  Naming the flavor prints of Russia is a big order; there are so many different "Russias" and so many different ethnic strains within it boundaries that it's difficult to generalize.

  However, a few "prints" stand out: the flavors of cabbage, beets, sour cream, yogurt and pickled fish make a start, and caviar, of course. Among spices, dillweed, caraway, mint, parsley and cumin seed take the lead. But paprika, coriander leaves (cilantro), garlic and onion are influential as well.

  Both black and white pepper are heavily used. So are the hot chiles, but the degree of potency depends on the geographic location within the country. Native-grown tarragon is a frequent ingredient in the butter "stuffing" for chicken Kiev. Saffron, another locally produced spice, appears in traditional recipes for kulich, the famous Russian Easter cake.

  One of Russia's favorite spice specialties is a little black tear-dropped shape seed called nigella, charnuska or black cumin. It's often used as a topping on hearty peasant breads and is often seen in ethnic bakeries in the United States. The flavor faintly resembles that of caraway.

  From the Middle East through to the Caucasus, Russia has adopted shashlik, the spicy marinated and broiled meats we call shish kebab. In the country's western regions, the food is influenced by central Europe - garlicked sausage, poppy-seeded baked goods, honey cakes, herring salads, potato pancakes and many mushroom dishes. Borscht is said to have arrived from Poland. A taste for roast goose, fruit sauces and pickled vegetables came from Germany. And from Italy, the Russians imported a love of ice cream and fancy pastries. Over the caravan trails of the Steppes, came a familiarity and liking for cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves from the Orient. All of these tastes are reflected in regional flavor prints of this vast nation.

  Russia is a land where zakusky - appetizers - often get more attention than the main meal. These range from smoked and pickled fish and vegetable preparations to hot meatballs, filled pastries and salads. Stuffed grape leaves will be redolent of dill, but may also contain mint and, not uncommonly, a touch of cinnamon, coriander and black pepper. Marinated mushrooms are apt to be flavored with a vinegar in which peppercorns and cloves have been simmered.

  What makes it Russian? A predilection for dillweed, caraway, mint, parsley and cumin seed. Cabbage, beets, sour cream and yogurt in almost countless recipes. Pickled fish; grilled, marinated lamb; garlicked, herbed and buttered sauces for meats; elaborate Easter cakes golden with saffron; and breads lavishly strewn with charnuska seeds. Depending on where you are and what you are eating, the spicing is apt to include the haunting flavor of cilantro; the nip of red pepper; a splash of paprika; and one or more of the conventional baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, etc.). And wherever you are, of course, caviar.

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