MOSCOW (AP) — For many fans of food and football, a World Cup in Russia is unfamiliar territory.
Russian cuisine has a reputation for being stodgy, unimaginative fare. While that may have been true for many in the days of Soviet supply shortages, a new generation of Russians in the World Cup’s host cities mix together influences from across Europe and Asia.
Russia’s imperial past also makes it a great place to encounter unfamiliar dishes from neighboring countries like Georgia’s spicy stews or Central Asia’s hearty rice-and-lamb concoctions.
Here’s a look at what you can eat in Russia:
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Russia’s food scene was shaken in 2014 when the government banned the import of most foodstuffs from the European Union and the United States. That was in response to international sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
That’s driven up prices for some ingredients, particularly fruit and dairy products, but also stimulated a revival of Russia’s agricultural sector.
Cheesemaker Oleg Sirota wants to use the World Cup to sell his tilsiter, parmesan and gouda from his creamery near Moscow.
“We will be testing our cheese on football fans who are coming to the World Cup. There will be lots of them, the French national team will be staying two kilometers (1.25 miles) away from us,” he told the Associated Press. “I hope that even the most sophisticated clients won’t tell our cheese from European ones.”
Sanctions also mean top-end restaurants, particularly in Moscow, have started reimagining obscure Russian dishes, working with meats like boar, venison and even bear.
In a country with a cold climate, Russian food is big on what you might think of as winter ingredients — cabbage and root vegetables — and pies filled with beef, potato or fish.
The beetroot soup known as borscht is actually a traditionally Polish and Ukrainian dish, but expect to find it all over Russia.
Another soup, shchi, is more traditionally Russian. Don’t be put off by the intimidating name — pronounced “shi” with a soft “sh”. Cabbage is the one constant ingredient, but beef, onion and mushroom can be added.
In traditionally Muslim Kazan, expect to find local delicacies such as echpochmak, triangular lamb dumplings like samosas which are the local snack food.
Russia’s traditionally gone easy on seasoning because of the high cost of spices in earlier eras, but that’s starting to change.
While you might still see a menu which flags dishes up as “spicy” if they contain so much as a little paprika, restaurants are starting to experiment with a little more spice.
Still, chili sauce definitely isn’t a standard condiment and some dishes may seem a little bland to fans of Mexican or South Asian food.
For a reserve option, most big Russian cities have other options like Italian or sushi restaurants, or a European-style gastropub with gourmet burgers and craft beer.
After a thirsty day at the game, what do you eat along with your beer?
Ever since the Soviet era, Russians go crazy for beer snacks, typically dried fish and seafood. Some of the best selections are in Volga River cities like Samara, Volgograd and Kazan — all of which are hosting World Cup games.
Potato chips and beef jerky have gained popularity too in recent decades.
Just like the British Empire absorbed food influences from India, the Caribbean and Africa, so Russia’s imperial past has introduced its citizen’s taste buds to new flavors.
The South Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan specialize in spice, along with juicy meat-filled dumplings and succulent grilled meat known as shashlyk. Each country has its own specialties and the diasporas mean numerous restaurants across the host cities.
Central Asian cultures like Uzbekistan introduced Russians to the juicy, greasy lamb-and-rice stew that is plov, now a firm favorite. Moscow has some more unusual options like huge, kimchi-stuffed Korean-style dumplings from the Far East called pyan-se, and Mongolian restaurants specializing in quality organic lamb.
Russian restaurant service has improved hugely in recent years, with a greater focus on the customer. Don’t expect staff to check in regularly during a meal — Russians prefer to eat and chat in peace.
Moscow and St. Petersburg prices will be comparable to other European capitals, a reflection of higher rents and wages, but in provincial cities like Saransk a main course at a restaurant could easily come in below $10.
One quirk of Russian restauranteurs — they prefer printing a few elaborate, leather-bound menus over a greater number of simpler ones. Don’t be surprised if you’re left waiting to see a menu when you arrive.
Vodka’s definitely still popular in Russia, especially for ritual toasts at celebrations like weddings — when everyone’s expected to down a shot in one. Still, there’s more to the drink scene.
South-western Russia produces a lot of wine, though many Russians favor sweet or fortified reds which can be a little unusual to Western drinkers.
Varieties from Georgia like the saperavi red or rkatsiteli white offer something dry with a little more depth.
When the ruble plunged in 2014, it sent the price of imported beer soaring and gave a jolt to Russia’s nascent craft beer industry. Most big cities now have two or three breweries churning out citrusy IPAs and coffee stouts.
Non-alcoholic options include mors, a traditional drink made from cranberries offering a characteristic sweet-and-sour experience.
Vladimir Kondrashov in Dubrovskoye, Russia, contributed to this report.