A trip to Russia means experiencing a whole different world, a unique culture filled with gracious people and rich, old traditions. Part of this experience includes enjoying the incredible food and drink that can be found there. Moscow and Saint Petersburg offer a huge variety of cuisine, with ethnic options like Chinese, Japanese and Italian, along with plenty of traditional Russian fare to taste and enjoy. And there are certainly plenty of different types of eateries at which to dine. From cafeteria-style to first class fine dining, the choices are virtually limitless. That said, there are certain things you should avoid consuming while in Russia, in order to ensure a healthy and safe experience.
The production of bootleg vodka is illegal in Russia, but it's still frighteningly common. This "unlabeled" vodka is referred to as samogon and is extremely dangerous. With ingredients including anything from sawdust to shoe polish to medical disinfectant, consuming samogon can cause anything from severe illness to death.
If you'd like to partake in Russia's most popular drink, here's how to do it safely:
When in doubt, don't drink it. This part may be tricky since many Russians take drinking very seriously and may even be insulted if you refuse to join them in a toast. The best way to get out of sipping something you're wary of is to either say you're an alcoholic (believe it or not, this actually works most of the time) or explain that you're currently taking medication and simply cannot drink.
Russia may be known primarily for their famous label vodkas, but there are also plenty of delicious beers and wines produced there as well. And with the big cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg offering a plethora of restaurants, bars and nightclubs to party in, enjoying a drink or two is to be expected. Be forewarned however, that having one too many may result in an unpleasant end to a lovely evening.
Not only does being intoxicated make you an easy target for thieves and other criminals, but drinking or being drunk in public is likely to get you noticed by the police (which you definitely don't want). Public intoxication is not tolerated, especially from foreigners. You may end up facing a hefty fine or even jail time, so enjoy your adult beverages responsibly. Drink driving is not tolerated in Russia, with the blood alcohol level being 0.00%.
The nightlife in Russia is one of its most appealing features, particularly in the larger cities. Clubs and bars are popular among locals and tourists alike, and allow for an exciting way to break down barriers and experience a variety of different cultures of people. This usually involves dancing, mingling and almost always drinking. But it's important to note that the drug GHB (also known as the "date rape drug") is gaining popularity in Russia and can be extremely dangerous if consumed. It's typically used to spike alcoholic beverages, and can leave the unsuspecting victim who consumes it unconscious and extremely vulnerable to any number of crimes. Stories of folks being drugged while enjoying a drink they were offered, only to wake the next morning in the middle of nowhere, confused and poorer after having been robbed of all their money and dropped off on the side of the road are not uncommon. If you're going to drink in a Russian nightclub or bar always watch your drinks being poured, keep your drink in your sight at all times and never accept a drink handed to you by someone you don't know.
One of the most common travel tips given to Russian-bound tourists is not to drink the tap water. It's worth remembering unless you're interested in spending a good deal of your trip in the bathroom of your hotel, or even worse, visiting a local (less than sanitary) hospital for treatment. It's also important to remember that tap water is also used in the ice that can be found in some drinks, washing fruit and vegetables or even salad preparation. Bottled water is cheap and readily available almost anywhere, so don't chance it - not even to brush your teeth. The water in Saint Petersburg is especially bad, since the plumbing system is just about as old as the city itself.
Eating food prepared by street vendors is also something to avoid since many of these vendors are not licensed. The standards for food safety in Russia are quite different than those of the U.S. and other European nations. In fact, Dr. Nikolay A. Vlasov, Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO), Deputy Head of Federal Veterinary and Phytosanotary Surveillance Service (VPSS) admitted to insufficient resources for proper food safety in a recent published report.
That being said, many of the folks selling food from booths on the street have never been inspected for safety and could be using just about anything in their recipes, from undercooked food to spoiled ingredients. Eating something prepared by them could result in food poisoning or worse. Stick to the popular cafes and restaurants - your stomach will thank you.
As long as you're careful and use good judgment, Russia can offer some of the most delectable cuisine on earth. There are so many places to choose from, it's often hard to decide where to eat, particularly while on a short visit. A few places you may want to add to your list for Moscow are Elardji and Art Strelka. Mayak, Kvartira 44, Solyanka Club are a bit off the beaten path and lesser known to tourists, but widely known by the locals as having some of the best food around. If you're heading to Saint Petersburg check out Lagidze, Stary Tbilisi and PecmopaH, (translation: "restaurant"), which offers delicious authentic Russian cuisine. Wherever you choose to dine or what you decide to drink, if you do so with caution you'll be sure to enjoy a delicious, and safe, Russian culinary experience.
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