Strictly speaking, the idea of Saint Petersburg cooking does not really exist. The city is so huge, the third largest in Europe by population after Moscow and London, that you can find cuisine from all over the world and choose your favourite restaurant, bar or cafe from thousands of establishments. Nevertheless, this is a separate topic, so today, we reveal the dishes that are considered properly native to Saint Petersburg.
*The fish smelt is as traditional a symbol of Saint Petersburg as the city's drawbridges. European smelt swim up the Neva to spawn from the end of April to the start of May, and the locals line up to catch it from Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland. Fresh smelt is sold in shops, by street vendors, and in cafes and restaurants, giving off an unmistakeable smell similar to cucumbers. By summer, this annual craze gradually tapers out, so fans planning to come to Saint Petersburg for the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2017 and the 2018 FIFA World Cup™ are advised to arrive a bit earlier, especially since May is the best time to be in the Northern Capital.
Smelt is more than just a type of fish or a tasty food. It is part of Saint Petersburg's collective identity. If you like smelt, know your way around it and can cook it, then you are thought of as a local. It is better to gut and clean the larger fish, but you can eat the smaller ones with the tail and head still on. Typically, smelt are rolled in flour and then fried, but there are dozens of different recipes: it can be marinaded, baked, smoked or cured.
Smelt's cult value in Saint Petersburg is far from exhausted, with the city celebrating Smelt Day in recent years and exploring the idea of building a statue to their very own fish.
*Pyshki are a traditional dessert in Saint Petersburg. If you have visited Russia's Northern Capital without trying this flour-based delicacy, it means you are not familiar with the city's tastes. Like with smelt, pyshki are a source of local pride. However, do not make the error of calling pyshki doughnuts while in Saint Petersburg, as this will go down as a real faux pas (although in reality, they are actually a type of doughnut). These round airy rolls with a hole in the middle should be sprinkled with sugar powder and dipped in coffee – this forms part of a city-wide ritual.
Pyshki cafes initially became popular during the 1930s, and today, they preserve the spirit of Leningrad from Soviet times. As opposed to smelt, pyshki in Saint Petersburg have a precise epicentre: the legendary Pyshechnaya cafe just off Nevsky Prospekt at 25, Bolshaya Konyushennaya Street. Go there for a few pyshki and you can consider yourself a true Petersburger.
*The well-known stroganoff recipes, especially beef stroganoff, are not an exclusively Saint Petersburg dish. Its history is linked to Count Aleksandr Grigorievich Stroganov (1795-1891), who was born in Saint Petersburg and went on to serve as the then capital's military governor and also the country's Minister of the Interior. Rumours about the recipe's origins range from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, where Stroganov served as governor general in Odessa towards the end of his career. According to one version, the ageing Count, who had problems with his teeth, asked French chef Andre Dupont to cut up tender beef into small strips, fry them and serve with warm sour cream, so the meat would be easier to chew. Nowadays, beef stroganoff is served in practically every restaurant in Saint Petersburg.
*Liquid or semi-liquid dishes that need boiling, like soups or kasha, have always been typical of Russian cooking, as are vinegary or salty foods. In this way, rassolnik is the archetypal Russian soup. Rassolnik acquired popularity around the 15th century, but is less well-known than shchi or borsch. According to ancient recipes, it was cooked with pickled cucumbers or cucumber brine.
In the Soviet Union, it became common practice to make rassolnik with beef and pearl barley, which was known as "Leningrad rassolnik" (after the city's historical name was restored in 1991, you can often find "Petersburg rassolnik" as well). The addition of barley sets it apart from the Moscow version.
*There are a lot of salads in modern Russian cooking, but prior to the 19th century, the concept of slicing up food into small pieces and mixing it all together simply did not exist. In the last couple of hundred years, salads have entered into everyday life, and today, you will not find a festive table without them.
The reason why this hearty salad with chicken breast, mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, cheese, eggs and mayonnaise is called "Petrograd" is unknown, although its inclusion here was a certainty. For those unfamiliar with Russian history, Saint Petersburg was known as Petrograd from 1914 to 1924. Today, the part of the city in the estuary on the right bank of the Neva River is called the Petrograd Side.
*Arina Rodionovna bliny
*Most Russians are already familiar with the story of the name behind this beloved national delicacy, but we will continue our immersion into local culture for international tourists. Arina Rodionovna was the nanny to the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, who remained very attached to her for the whole of his life, dedicating poems to her and mentioning her in his correspondence. Whereas Pushkin came from Moscow, legend has it that his nanny was born in the village Suyda near Gatchina, not far from Saint Petersburg.
The characteristic feature of these bliny is their pink colour, which comes from the beet juice that is added to the dough. It is best served with gooseberry jam, known as the "Tsar bliny" because apparently the Empress Catherine the Great loved them this way. They say Pushkin adored the bliny his nanny cooked and was able to eat up to 30 in one sitting.
There are countless other recipes for dishes common in Saint Petersburg, often with intriguing names like "Gatchina trout" or "Stackenschneider kasha" (in honour of the Russian architect who built palaces and other buildings in Saint Petersburg and Peterhof). However, the list would be endless, if we decided to go through all of them.
By way of a conclusion, here are a few words on what there is to drink, which is probably something football fans will especially be interested in. Saint Petersburg is home to a huge number of establishments where you can celebrate your favourite team's victory. Wherever you come from in the world, you will find both the familiar and the completely exotic here.
It is hard to recommend one type of beer or cocktail in particular because the choice is so varied, the quality is so good and what is in vogue changes from season to season. Suffice it to say that Belgian defender Nicolas Lombaerts, who has lived in Saint Petersburg for ten years now, is only partially joking when he says that the Belgian beer in Petersburg is better than at home, where it is held up as the pride of a nation.