Russia: Shchi, Marrow, and Zakuski

#9 Russian Federation / Российская Федерация: Shchi Cabbage Soup, Marrow on Rye Bread, and Zakuski


So we are up to Russia, the first European (or at least kind of European) country.  When I think of Russian food I tend to think of borscht and vodka.  It turns out borscht actually originates from Ukraine.  Luckily, vodka is as pervasive through Russian culture as stereotypes might make you think.  We will get back to that, but first, the basics.  Russia is the largest country in the world by area, and not by a small margin.  Russia spans nine time zones and many different climates (including tundra).  About 77% of Russians live west of the Ural Mountains, an area often called Western or European Russia.  Over 80% of Russians are ethnically Russian.  Russian cuisine is primarily a reflection of the (oftentimes difficult) environments that make up the country.  Russian cuisine is also affected by the large span of the country.

Oftentimes Russian cuisine is divided into the traditional cuisine of Russia and Soviet Cuisine – which would include the many countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union or USSR. For this post I concentrated on traditional Russian cuisine – as I plan to have individual entries for each Soviet country that separated from Russia.  Traditional Russian cuisine has its foundation in peasant food, often emphasizes soups and stews, and uses many ingredients that are preserved to last through the cold winters – such as pickled vegetables and fish, and smoked or salted meats.  This brings us to the first dish I decided to make – Shchi.  Shchi is a cabbage soup often considered a national dish of Russia and has been a staple food for Russians since the 10th century.

The next part of the meal I decided to make was Zakuski.  Zakusi is not as much of a dish as it is a course.  Zakuski consists of many types of traditional hours d’oeuvres served before a main meal.  Zakuski is almost always served with vodka – the word literally translates to “something to bite after.”  Basically Zakuski is somewhere between an appetizer and an alcohol chaser.  For my Zakuski, I served some cold vegetables and pickles with some bone marrow on rye bread (we had to include something kind of weird, right?)



  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 head cabbage shredded
  • 1 large peeled and coarsely grated carrot
  • 2 ribs celery
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Black peppercorns to taste
  • 8 cups water
  • 2 russet potatoes, chopped
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Couple tablespoons fresh dill
  • Sour cream


Start of by grabbing a whole bunch of vegetables:  cabbage (of course), onion, celery, carrot, potatoes, and tomatoes

Russian cabbage





Then chop the onion, celery, and potatoes:




Those ugly bits of the potato are fine (at least in my book).


Be sure to quarter and deseed the tomatoes.

Grate the carrot..



And you should have most of your mise en place.  Time to get back to the humble cabbage.  You can shred a head of cabbage in tons of different ways… but I prefer to quarter it and shred it using a mandolin.  Mandolins are great tools for making slaws or thin slices of vegetables – plus they are fun.


Mandolin cabbage

It goes pretty quickly with the mandolin… which is why I use a super-cool protective glove.   Otherwise you can really take a chunk of your finger off.



Now time for the real cooking.  Start by heating a large saucepan over medium-high heat, and melt the butter.


Onc the butter melts, add the onions and sauté until they become translucent.


Add the celery and carrot.


Allow the vegetables to cook for a few minutes, and pick up a little color.


Next add the head of cabbage, and cook it down for a few minutes – it should start to release its water and reduce in volume.


Then add the water and bay leaf.


Bring the soup back to a boil and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes.  Then add the tomatoes and a handful of dill.


Allow the soup to simmer for another five minutes or so, or until the tomatoes have mostly dissolved. Serve warm, with sour cream and dill.



For the zakuski course, I served raw tomatoes, dill pickles, thinly sliced radishes, and marrow on rye.

I started by simply slicing up the vegetables.


Cut the pickled cucumbers into spears, the tomatoes into wedges, and the radishes into very thin slices.



For the marrow:

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees fahrenheit.  Stand the marrow bones on a roasting pan and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.  I used bones from the asian market, so they were rather long and only had a small amount of marrow – but were, of course, dirt cheap.

Marrow bones

Once the oven is preheated, roast the bones for 20 minutes, until browned and the marrow is soft.

russian bone marrow

Scoop the marrow from the center of the bones into a bowl.


While the marrow bones are roasting, or whenever you get a chance, prepare a quick Onion Salad:

  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • bunch of parsley, chopped
  • juice of half a lemon


Mix together the parsley, onions, and lemon juice.  Let the mixture sit for at least 10 minutes for the flavors to meld.



Then slice up some rye bread. (I purchased some from the Reading Terminal, but rye bread was the first bread I attempted to make, and it is surprisingly easy, forgiving, and delicious.)


Serve the marrow on the slices of rye with a bit of onion salad.


Precede with ice cold vodka, of course.



The verdict?  Russian food is surprisingly normal, by American standards.  The differences between shchi and the Irish cabbage soup my Irish mother makes are small.  Shchi is a warm, comforting, and familiar soup.  Zakuski is a great meal starter, I happen to really enjoy pickles and raw vegetables, and an excuse to systematically drink as part of a meal… so zakuski is a winner in my book.  The marrow, in particular, was new to me.  Bone marrow has a very rich taste.  The fattiness of the marrow needs to be balanced out by something, and the highly acidic and fresh onion salad really cuts through the fattiness of the marrow.  And the vodka was vodka.

Next week:  a destination post, my adventure in Japanese cuisine from the Outer Banks, North Carolina.



  • wikipedia entries on: russia, russian cuisine, borscht, shchi, zakuski, and several more

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