26 April 2011

Enjoying Russian Food Without Blunders, Part II

Welcome back to the second half of our Without Blunders Etiquette  post!  Just click comments at the end to let us know about table etiquette where you live, or to elaborate or modify what we said.

Savvy drinking tips.

Toasting is part of a festive meal.  You, too, should give a toast, even  in your own language, to the hostess.  Say предлогаю тост за... pred- lo-ga-u toast za...  I propose a toast to...

Before starting food, the host gives the first toast.  The second may be offered for parents... present, absent, or deceased.  At some point the cook and hostess is toasted.  Then for whomever or whatever to keep the vodka flowing!  Keep your glass raised while a toast is said, clink all around (unless a somber toast), and keep eye contact until you shoot all the shot down the hatch with one trip to the mouth!

Bottles from the refrigerator are left on the table until empty.  The host fills the first round, and later the men pour for the ladies. It’s OK to sip if you are a women or foreigner. 

The rare non-imbiber, other drinks, and a caution!

I participate in toasts with just berry juice in my glass. No one will give you a medal for sobriety, but nowadays people will leave you alone about your choice.  It’s just rare not to drink, and shouldn’t be emphasized. 

Often toasts continue with dry wine, while a younger group might welcome champagne or cognac.  Russians are mystified by foreigners who ask for a mixed drink.  Why would you want to pollute good vodka?

A while back we noticed people at the other end of the table were getting a little sloppy as the meal progressed.  Next time we watched closely and saw that our octogenarian Ex-Red Army volunteer Mama was filling up glasses of people, while they were looking away, so they lost all idea how much they had drunk.  Help like this will make you a little drunk... fast!

And some wad eat that want it (Some would eat but have no food).

In St Peterburg, location of the Leningrad Blockade, it’s important to finish every morsel on your plate.  If you are full, say so... Я сыт... Ya seetSome say Russian custom is to leave a bit of food on the plate to show that you are satisfied... but I believe to do this would be a subtle strike against you.

The Scottish way to express this respect for food is to recite The Selkirk Grace...

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.

Bread is treated with reverence.  Don’t play with it or throw it.  It’s OK, though, to use it to clean the gravy off your plate.

Scrumptious appetizers including salads...

After the first round of vodka, people start appetizers... such as smoked salmon or caviar on buttered bread... maybe with a few lemon sections.  Deviled eggs, black olives, pickled small cucumbers or tomatoes are always a hit, especially around vodka.

After a few light appetizers, it’s time to turn to the many salad platters.  These salads are considered more important than the entree by most Russian home cooks.  This is the quintessential part of the Russian table.

This particularly tasty part of the meal can last an hour or two.  Then people take a break... sit back, talk, and drink. 

Gift a song!

This is the time when I offer to sing an American song while standing at the head of the table.

Are we finished?

My reaction to the bounteous appetizers and salads is... That’s it!  How could there be more?  It’s a similar feeling to what I had in New Jersey at an Italian-American celebration... Appetizers, spaghetti, and... Surprise!  A full turkey dinner, too! 

The ubiquitous chicken ...

Almost always, the entree is chicken or fish with boiled potatoes.  In some homes, only then, is a knife put next to your plate.  Russians eat much less beef than Americans, and I’ve never seen steak served. 

We use ketchup sometimes during the week, but never place it on a formal table.  It’s OK to cut off pieces of chicken, and then when finished, chew the bones to get the remaining meat.  I’ve seen potatoes served as a separate course.  Baked potatoes are rare.  Boiled potatoes with parsley and dill is usual, often without butter.

Eventually, bottles and dinner plates are cleared.

Something sweet!

Cake is served with spoons.  Dessert is the only part of the meal that is usually store bought.  The Russians I know don’t do much home baking.

Expect hot tea.  Sometimes the hostess has coffee available.  Russians prefer to not be too noticeable, so it’s considered rude to stir your tea as if you are sounding an air raid alarm.

After  a large meal, even after ten years, I have to catch my inclination to lean back, stretch my arms over my head and exclaim... That was great!  

Dance fever...

Often someone will suggest that everyone dance, right in the hallway next to the dining area.


It’s typical in America to go to a dinner in the afternoon and still accept another invitation for the evening.  Russian dinners can last into the night, so excusing yourself for another event would be gauche.

Watch your food and drink!

Extra helpings are called дабавки.  If you are asked, moj-na do-bav-ka?  Do you want some more?  Just say, Spa-sea-ba, nee-nada, Thanks, not necessary!

Eat some bread between toasts if nothing else is at hand.  Never try to drink a Russian under the table, or even try to match him drink for drink.  Say хатетwha-tit... that’s enough! and smile when you say that!

Dinner is finished after many hours!

Russians live more in the present moment...and hours... while Americans minds often are thinking about what’s next more than what is enjoyable right now.

I left America when I was 57.  All my life I was used to Sunday dinners which lasted maybe 1 1/2 hours.  Here, it’s usual to have a dinner last 5 hours.  A business lunch can take up a good part of the the workday.

Be sure to compliment the cook!   Как кусна! kak koos-na!  How tasty! At the end of the meal, Russians don’t say “Please excuse me” but rather Thanks!  Спасиба!  spa-see-bah!

Interesting posts from blogging friends about Russian customs...

Mendeleyev Journal

Windows to Russia




  1. When toasting, don't clink glasses when the toast is to a deceased person.

  2. Thanks for these two posts! I enjoyed reading them. A Russian dinner is truly a special experience if you're lucky enough to get the opportunity. Even living in the college dorm, the parties were more like what you described here than the typical American "kegger".

  3. I'd always known Russians toasted but I wasn't prepared for just how often they do it throughout the meal! Also eating cake with a spoon was strange at first but now I always have it like that.

  4. Hi Interculturist!

    Back in 1999 at our wedding in New Jersey we asked everyone to be prepared with a toast or a song. Most didn't take the request seriously and skipped it. I love the raucous dinner well oiled with lots of toasts and spirit, or is it spirits?
    Makes anything else seem staid.

  5. Hi Karyn!

    The Kegger is a venerable institution, too. I like the warm group feeling after many complimentary toasts that Russians do so well. The main thing is the party spirit you can feel at both.

  6. Thank you Bill for the reminder that clinking glasses at a funeral dinner for the deceased is a faux pas. Traditionally there is no alcohol, but in my experience there was.

    Often the family has a meal three days after death when the body is buried, 9 days after death, and than 40 days. At this last meal a place is set for the dead.

    When the food at this place setting is untouched it means the dead one is now at peace.


Comments, Questions, Ideas