Food Etiquette and Meal Traditions

Kozhukhovskaya Кожуховская apartments near Metro Moscow 840 ed sm

When you are invited to a Russian house bring a gift to the family specifically for the hostess. A bottle of wine, cake, box of candy or bouquet of flowers are traditional. A small gift for the child is always appropriate.

The hostess which is usually the eldest female in the home. A mother or mother in law is considered to be the hostess (sometimes even if she doesn’t live there). Eastern Europeans practice the tradition of ‘extended families,’ and likely this is an ‘extended home.’ Acceptable gift ideas include flowers or some wine or chocolate for the hostess. Even items like tea crackers or cookies are appropriate and in most cases the hostess will be delighted to serve them during tea after dinner.

Speaking of flowers, unless you’re attending a funeral, flowers must always come in ODD numbers. Yellow flowers, unless specifically requested, are not a good choice. Yellow in a bouquet is okay as long as there are plenty of other colours present, and yellow is not the dominate colour. Red is always a safe choice.

There is one caution on our first visit: Until you truly know the family, never bring a gift that cannot be reciprocated. Please do not mistake cultural politeness with Western generosity. In other words, do not give a gift of such high value that the host/hostess could not afford to reciprocate someday.

While not all Russian/Ukrainian families live in communal apartments today, the traditions seen in the video above are widely observed. Worth remembering:

Remove your outdoor shoes. Always take off your shoes at the front door entrance. Always. You’ll be provided slippers but it’s okay to take your own.  When a guest, this author often carries personal slippers in a cloth shopping bag that also holds a camera, etc.  It is perfectly normal. Be aware that it is impolite to walk in a Russian home only in socks or in bare feet.

Dress nicely in clothes you might wear to the office. Dressing well shows respect for your hosts.

Never shake hands in the doorway/across the threshold. That is considered to be impolite and some believe it brings bad luck into the home. Wait until entering the home, then shake hands. It is also common to greet each other with a slight kiss on the checks. As observed in the video above, this is done three times quickly. Russians do a lot of things in threes as it harkens back to the Orthodox view of the Trinity.

Expect to be treated with honour and respect. In return, offer to help the hostess with the preparation or clearing up after a meal is served. You will be turned down out of politeness. Asking ‘are you sure?’ or saying “please”allows the hostess to accept your offer…or perhaps not.

Dining Etiquette:
If from the USA, dont be shocked when seeing that the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.  This is European Continential style. Unless you are at a very formal function, you may hold utensils like you do back home.

The oldest or most honoured guest is served first.

Do not begin eating until the host/hostess invites you to start.

Do not rest your elbows on the table, although your hands should be visible at all times.

You will often be urged to take second helpings.

It is okay in home settings to use bread to soak up gravy or sauce.

Men pour drinks for women seated next to them.

Leaving a small amount of food on your plate indicates that your hosts have provided ample hospitality.

It is improper to look into another persons plate or saucer.

Remember to say “Thanks, everything was very tasty” to the one who made the dish upon leaving the table.  If a translator is present the phrase “very tasty” is probably better to use than “delicious.”  Very tasty in Russian sounds something like “oh-chen koos-nah.”

Small food should not be cut.

Do not cross your legs with the ankle on the knee or put your feet on the furniture. It’s impolite to show people the soles of your shoes.

Leaving the table:
Do not get up until you are invited to leave the table. At formal dinners, the guest of honour is the first to get up from the table.  If you are the guest of honour the hostess will suggest when to leave the table–in most cases it will be a couple of hours, or more, from the moment you sat down.  Tea and conversation is done at the table after the meal.

There will be toasts. Your host/hostess will begin.  Avoid drinking vodka before a toast has been made. Keep your glass raised throughout the toast and then clink glasses with others before taking the shot of vodka. In Russia, vodka is served straight and taken as a shot.

It is impolite for you to fail to offer a toast to honour your host/hostess and thanking them for the gracious invitation into their home.

As the meal and the toasts continue, at some point offer a second toast of greetings from your family and friends in America/UK/Canada/etc  and good health from your family to the host/hostess and this Russian family.

DO take bites of food in between sipping vodka. To not do so is bad form.  Plus, it will help absorb the alcohol.

Anyone who’s been to Russia understands that participation in after-dinner toasting is a natural part of polite etiquette. So how does one survive a series of toasts?

Opposite what many write on the Internet, Russians don’t mix vodka with juices or soda. Where some get this idea is unknown, because in Russia it would be considered as an insult to your host to mix your vodka with something else. A toast is pure vodka and it is not sipped. Sipping is also an insult. You down the entire glass; thankfully it’s a shot glass, with one swallow.

If sipping is insulting, how does one walk away from an hour of toasts instead of being carried away by friends? Here is are a few key hints:

– You are not required to participate in every toast. Sure, if you are being toasted, you must participate. But as toasting will cover many topics, if you go with the first couple of rounds and then pace yourself afterward, things should turn out fine.

– It is proper for you to propose a toast to your hosts. Get that done early while you still have yourself under control. Waiting too long can force you to drink when you no longer should be drinking.

– Have you every heart the phrase CHOOT-CHOOT? Probably not. Well is a slang expression that carries the meaning of “so-so” or “just a little.” It’s the “just a little” that you’re looking for to help you in this situation. As the toasts go on and on and on, start using “Choot-Choot” and those who do the pouring will get the hint that you’re being a good sport, but can’t keep up with a full glass each time.

Russian table

The Russian Table: Russians really don’t have specific foods for certain meals in the same way we think of it in the West. Even so, to some extent the food served will reflect the time of day.

Some families have 3 daily meals, others have 4 smaller meals. The first one is завтрак (zahf-trak) is breakfast, обед (ah-bedt) is lunch and ужин (ooh-zhin) is dinner. Later in the evening some families will have a very small tiny meal usually of fruits, vegetable salads, etc, and this snack is sometimes called закуска (zah-kooska).

завтрак (zavf-trak) Breakfast

The name for breakfast is taken from the word завтра (zavf-tra) which means “tomorrow.” So breakfast, завтрак, is the first meal of the morrow. Typically, this is a quick morning meal to start the day. While Russians do eat them, eggs are not traditional in the same as in the West to have eggs for breakfast. They’re optional. A favourite breakfast includes porridge, which can be similar to oatmeal but is more like kasha, and of course tea. Tea is consumed in massive amounts in Russia all through the day while coffee is more of an after dinner drink, if consumed at all.

Kasha with sour cream

каша (Kasha) is not only a buckwheat cereal, it also refers to a cooked dish, which resembles a porridge or mush. Sourcream (as shown above) is a favourite way to dress up a buckwheat breakfast. Although Kasha has been a staple food of peasants for hundreds of years it is also a dish for special occasions especially feasts which celebrate the completion of the harvest, weddings, birthdays and even funerals: all are incomplete without kasha and it can be sweet or savory, served both at dinner and supper.

Bread is a staple of any Russian meal and is certainly eaten at breakfast. Hearty black bread is a real Russian favourite. Learn more about Russian bread and try the black bread recipe here.

Black rye

обед (ah-bedt) Lunch/Dinner

In former times, lunch was considered to be the main meal of the day. Lunch began with a salad vegetable and/or meat salad, followed by soup and then the main course. However as the Russian work week now more closely resembles the Western world, lunch tends to be a smaller affair. Sometimes lunch is more like a snack and the salad served for such a lunch would be called закуска (zah-kooska), the word for “snack.”

Salad 1

Just a word about Russian салат (sah-lat): the salads on a Russian table probably bear little resemblence to a typical American salad, for example. It might contain lettuce, for example, but more than likely would not. Russia is a cold northern climate and salads are usually made of things like beets and potatoes, hearty root crops. Russians tend to love mayonnaise or sour cream in a salad, and what you may be accustomed to for salad dressings, while not unknown, aren’t used that often. At dinner, especially on special occasions or when guests are present, a Russian table will be loaded with a variety of tasty salads—usually none will contain lettuce.

The Russian word for sour cream is сметана (smee-tana) and mayonnaise is майонез (may-ah-neze).

ужин (ooh-zhin) Dinner

In a Russian meal the bountiful salads are considered as appetizers and the next serving is the суп (sueph) soup.  Generally soup is referred to in Russian as первое блюдо (pear-vah blu-dah) which means “the first dish.” In the summertime cold soups are served and in the winter few things can compete with a bowl of piping hot Russian soup. The soup course is followed by meat, especially fish, and more vegetables.

Learn more about Russian soups on this page.

Below is a photo of Chicken Kyiv (Kiev) and there are more Russian main dish recipes here. (public domain image)

For most Russian families supper is the time when the whole family comes together to eat and share the events of their day.

Where are the napkins?

Napkins.  Americans can’t get enough of them.  Whether the paper napkins at home or an eatery like McDonalds or cloth napkins at a more plush restaurant or home setting, we’re lost without napkins at every meal.

Given the size of washers and the laundry process in a Russian home, cloth napkins aren’t always very practical and in the past paper napkins were an expense many Russians couldn’t afford.  That is changing and now you can find paper napkins in most supermarkets.

Those familiar paper towels so necessary to an American kitchen are an oddity in most Russian kitchens.  Cloth towels clean up most messes and are rinsed afterward and hung on a heat radiator to dry.

For traveling on trains or in smaller towns, a supply of pocket size kleenex packs can serve multiple purposes, including as a napkin, during each day of your trip.  While cheaper when purchased at home, you can find them readily available at Russian markets.

Russian table 3

10 thoughts on “Food Etiquette and Meal Traditions

  1. Pingback: A taste of Russia with Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel « The Mendeleyev Journal

  2. Great article, congratulations! Living in Malta, I miss Russian food and, especially, enthusiasm and passion for food. When cooking for a party or a reception, we never think that a recipe is too complicated, ingredients are too expensive or it takes too long to cook. We always give our best to guests, unlike here, in Malta, where cuisine is influenced by Italy (and in my opinion, Italian food is the worst). So I miss all the variety of food here, it is only very bad pies, pasta, pizza, risotto and badly cooked fish 😦


  3. Thank you for posting this, it’s been most amazing for me to read it! I am from Serbia and I see many similarities between the two cultures. For example, I couldn’t resist smiling when I read about the salads in Russia – here we have a salad called “The Russian Salad” which is exactly as described, lot’s of vegetables and sometimes meat with a great amount of mayonnaise.


  4. This was very helpful and my lovely Russian hosts were pleased when I tried out the very tasty phrase (my husband was astonished!) I am back now looking at more fascinating information. Thank you so much.


  5. Pingback: Happy Thanksgiving! | Breakfast in Moscow

  6. Thanks for this article) I’m Russian and I can see that it’s not as full of stereotypes as many others) Though we don’t usually eat soup for dinner, only for lunch.
    And there are some things which I was never thinking about, just performed that way automatically.


  7. Pingback: What to Bring When Invited to Her Home | Love Gone Global

  8. Pingback: Meeting Your Ukraine Girl And Her Ukrainian Family

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