With the whole world abuzz with the highest highs and lowest lows of the 2018 FIFA World Cup™, more than a few Australian-based soccer fans are wishing they were in Russia right now.
But if you're unable to make it all the way there, watching the games over a steaming bowl of borscht and a side of cabbage pies (two staples of Russian cuisine) might be the next best thing. That is, of course, if you know where to track them down.
The slight catch is that Russian food, or Eastern European cuisine more broadly, hasn’t exactly taken off in Australia. Despite the steady number of Russian immigrants to Australia since the early 20th century, the food of the motherland seems to be something they’re content to leave behind – along with bitter winters, revolutions and a few bouts of political unrest.
Svetlana Elgina, a Sydney-based producer of SBS’s Russian radio program, says this might be because of a small perception problem – when it comes to Russian cuisine, Australians automatically consider liquids rather than solids.
“If you ask people in Sydney about Russian food, they talk more about vodka than borscht,” she says with a laugh.
Originally from Siberia, Elgina emigrated to Sydney six years ago, with memories of making robust, meaty soup nearly every day to keep warm during some pretty cruel winters. Sydney’s mild climate negates the need for hot soup daily and, as Elgina suggests, lends itself to spicier, lighter flavours.
Sydney’s interest in Russian’ cuisine may have hit its peak during the recent season of My Kitchen Rules, when two Russian women were vying for the ‘best home-chef’ title on the reality cooking show. Olga Rogacheva and Valeria Maltseva were not-so-subtly painted as cold-hearted “Russian villains” at various points throughout the season, yet they worked hard to put Russian food on the map.
“In an interview with Olga and Valeria, they told me they tried to open a Russian restaurant in Sydney,” Elgina says. “I remember this place – there was good Russian food there, and the promotion and marketing was well-considered. But it didn’t work out in the end, they had to close it down due to a lack of customers.”
Lack of customers explains why there are so few places in Sydney serving Russian cuisine. A few well-established Russian locales that still have their doors open include The Russian Club in Strathfield and Russian Nights, a restaurant in Bondi.
However, it's possible to stay in and support local businesses. Elgina manages to avert her Russian food cravings by buying authentic ingredients from specialty Russian grocers and Polish supermarkets and cooking at home. “Salted meats and pickled herring you can find at Russian Groceries in Lidcombe, or Russkis Deli in Bondi,” she says.
“If you ask people in Sydney about Russian food, they talk more about vodka than borscht.”
“When we emigrated to Melbourne from the former Soviet Union in 1979, there was nothing there in terms of Eastern European culture,” says Estonian-born Sima Tsyskin, executive producer of SBS’s Russian radio program. “One thing I was really missing when I arrived was the Soviet Union’s cafe culture, the good coffee and the nice cakes. But then there was this incredible shift that began to emerge in the 80s. We began to see more Russian festive tables at restaurants around the city.”
Russian festive tables, Tsyskin explains, are laden with appetisers, straight vodka, whisky and cognac, platters of cold meat and fish, and fresh fruit and vegetables. And, of course, there’s the live music and dancing. Lots of dancing.
Russian restaurants and music venues began appearing in Melbourne areas where Eastern Europeans moved in and forged a community – suburbs like Elsternwick and Balaclava. An early example was Matrioshka, where Tsyskin remembers spending many an evening.
“It had all the food we were all used to and loved so much – herring and other smoked fish, red caviar, famous Russian Olivier salad, Georgian-style eggplant, things like that,” she says. “We danced our hearts out to Perry, a one-man-band who sung hits in different languages.”
Matrioshka still exists – new and improved and in a different location than the 1982 original, but still providing Melbourne’s Eastern European community with an authentic taste of home.
So, too, are restaurants like Rasputin in Malvern, Nevsky in Elsternwick and a newer opening called Rada in Ormond. According to Tsyskin, these venues are as authentic as they come, yet most have had to adapt to thrive in an Australian setting.
“Incredibly, the style of these Russian restaurants is still more or less the same, and run on the same principles," she says. “But some places have incorporated local produce into their menus. If you look at the website for St. Petersburg, a Russian restaurant in Ripponlea, you’ll see oysters straight away on the homepage. I wouldn’t call oysters authentic Russian food in any case.”
Also Russian: a diverse approach to dining. “The former Soviet Union was a very multicultural place,” Tsyskin says. “It was not all Russian food as such, there was a lot of other cuisines available.”
While it may be a while before Russian food hits the mainstream dining scene in Australia, perhaps it’s not so unusual seeing Sydney rock oysters on a traditional Russian menu after all.
Keen on exploring Russian cuisine? Check out our collection of Russian recipes today.
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