The Nature of Russian Cuisine (Part II): Traditional Russian Appetizers (Zakuski)

Zakuski (закуски) is the plural form of the Russian word for «appetizers» and zakuska (закуска) is the singular form. Zakuski loosely translates as «little bites», are very close to Mexican tapas by nature, and are meant to soften the effects of the vodka or other strong potables they are served with. A zakuski spread is presented buffet style on a table known as a zakusochnyi stol and is indispensable before a formal meal or on holidays. The most common categories of zakuski may feature a few simple items, such as herring, cheese, and bread. More elaborate zakuski can be in the form of various salads, pickled vegetables or mushrooms, Russian pies (pierogi) with different fillings (meat, fish, cabbage, potatoe, rice and egg, apple, lemon, different types of jam), Russian pancakes (blini) with different fillings, smoked meat, sausage, ham, red or black caviar – sturgeon black is valued more than red from salmon. Some Russians consider soup as part of the zakuski spread, especially now that slow cookers are popular worldwide and can keep the soup hot on the serving line.

Perhaps one of the most famous form of zakuski, almost entirely unknown to the world outside of Russia is a salad with a funky name “Herring Under Fur Coat”. The name is just a figure of speech of course, there’s no actual fur involved, and the salad is in fact tastier than it sounds. An alternative name would simply be “dressed herring salad”, but that’s just boring, isn’t it? This dish was often served by Soviet Jews on Shabbat and after Yom Kippur, when Jewish rituals had to be practiced in secret. It has remained popular to this day. Herring Under Fur Coat is a traditional layered salad made of finely chopped pickled herring, eggs, beets, carrots, potatoes and some type of dressing, either mayonnaise or a sour cream base. The recipe gets its fur coat (or shuba in Russian) moniker from the beet layer that completely covers the salad. Some cover theirs in mayonnaise dressing so it looks like a white fur coat. Herring Under Fur Coat is perhaps the second most popular Russian salad after Olivier, and no zakuski session is complete without it!

Арсений Чурилов

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