Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Cuisine Has Bones to Pick

The small dried fish that old women arrange on upturned crates and sell at the markets are eaten everywhere: outside metro stations, around a wooden table in a park, on a train -- often with a beer.

Think of these fish -- vobla (Caspian roach), okun (perch) or leshch (bream) -- as Russian pretzels or peanuts. They are cheap -- about 5 rubles apiece -- and salty, and if you can ignore their appearance, they are delicio us.

To eat one, peel the skin and pick away at the dried flesh, taking care to avoid bones. Some lucky people find dried red caviar in the cavity.

These are among the dozens of fish -- smoked, dried, fresh, frozen or canned -- for sale in Moscow's markets. A trip to the Palashevsky fish market, or to the fish counters at other markets, can be an education in Russian fish cuisine.

Russians eat an average of nine kilograms of fish per person each year, according to the Russian National Research Institute of Fishing. Most of it comes from the Arctic and Pacific oceans, but Russians are also partial to the bounty of the Azov and Black seas.

Freshwater fish are also available. Russia's rivers are home to carp, perch, bream and pike. Armenians have given the name of "prince" to lake salmon trout, which has pink flesh. Herring, trout, and, of course, sturgeon and caviar, are some of the most prized foods in the world.

Humblest among them, perhaps, is the vobla. This fish swims in the salty waters of the Caspian Sea, and fishermen dry them outdoors in the shade before they are shipped around Russia.

Freshwater fish, such as perch and bream, are also dried but are not as popular or tasty as vobla, although they are often called by that name.

At the Palashevsky market, fish is smoked in an electric smoker from four to 24 hours and sold ready to eat.

Another option is long, dark-brown, smoked eel. Delicate but fatty, smoked eel can also be eaten straight from the market, and at 90 rubles per kilogram, it is considered a delicacy.

No Russian holiday is complete without fish on the table. If there's enough money, preferences include forel, or trout, osetrina, sevryuga and beluga, or other fish from the sturgeon family. Usually they are sold sliced and packaged. Expect to pay about 75 rubles for six slices. Add some lemon and parsley and you have an appetizer or a light meal.

Different kinds of sturgeon, such as sterlyad, can be cooked in a variety of ways. "We bake trout and sterlyad with their heads on, and on the table they look alive," said Sergei Kukhtin, the deputy chef at the seafood restaurant Captain Nemo.

He also serves osetrina po monastyrsky, a whole sturgeon with cabbage, pickles, potatoes and other vegetables and spices.

Many people think that herring is Russians' favorite dish. "Herring with potatoes on the side is characteristic; we also prefer everything salty and fatty," said Viktor Shevchenko, a scientist at the Inter-departmental Ichthyological Committee, a federal research institute.

The favorites, of course, include caviar.

Black caviar, Russia's most famous food, comes from sturgeon; the price for 50 grams can be more than 60 rubles. Red salmon eggs are cheaper: 50 grams for about 35 rubles. Both types of caviar are often eaten on small pieces of white bread or on blini as an appetizer or with vodka.

For those with adventurous palates, the cheapest -- and therefore most popular -- fish might provide a culinary challenge. Mintai, a relative of cod, is small and shiny gray and usually bought frozen.

Mintai is commonly fried at home or in factory cafeterias. Some say it is tasteless and that no method of cooking will improve it. And even some cats turn their noses up at the smell.

Russia has long had a rich fishing tradition. The better fish were caught in the south, in the Azov and Caspian seas; fish were also delivered to Moscow and St. Petersburg from the north.

"It was typical to see a caravan of frozen fish from Arkhangelsk on a sleigh road, and it was on one of those that Russia's most famous scientist, [Mikhail] Lomonosov, came to Moscow," Shevchenko said.

Other fish were smoked or salted and stored in barrels.

"The major role of fish in Russian cuisine must be explained not only by referring to its historic traditions but also to its religious ones," Viktor Zilanov and Nina Yanovskaya wrote in a research paper on the subject. Because the Orthodox Church forbade eating meat on certain days, fish was a popular alternative.

But during the Soviet period, there were times when no fish were available, except some strange, unrecognizable things.

Then, as now, some people coped by catching their own. But now, the best bet is the market. Just buy a bit of something that looks appealing and give it a try. For it is probably as impossible to imagine Russian life without fish as it is without vodka.

Palashevsky rynok, 3A Sytinsky Tupik. Nearest metro: Pushkinskaya or Tverskaya. Tel: 202-3155, 299-9490. Open Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; on Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Captain Nemo, 11 Mozhaiskoye Shosse. Nearest metro: Kuntsevskaya. Tel: 440-0914. Open noon to 11 p.m.