March 01, 2013

The Secret of Little Bites

The Secret of Little Bites

When we think about modes of dining in various cultures, Russia stands out for its zakuski, savory “little bites” meant to whet the appetite before the main meal. A formal zakuska table epitomizes the Russian style of dining – just think of the mouth-watering appetizer spread in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. But eater, beware! All too many guests at a Russian table mistakenly fill up on the zakuski, only to discover that the actual dinner is yet to come.

A zakuska spread can range from a few modest dishes to a show-stopping array of over 20 hot and cold plates, including elaborate preparations like whole fish bathed in aspic and – at least in the past – delicacies like meadowlark pâté. But whether humble or grand, the zakuska table is unthinkable without plenty of vodka. Hence the need for salty dishes to pique one’s thirst.

Strictly speaking, the zakuska course isn’t a Russian invention. Though its precise origins are lost to history, the idea for a set appetizer table likely traveled to Russia from Scandinavia, where a similar spread is known as the smörgåsbord. Typically Russian dishes of fish, mushrooms and vegetables were eventually embellished by the hard cheeses and cured meats Peter the Great encountered in the Netherlands. Zakuski proved well suited to the needs of the Russian gentry, especially when families were in residence on their country estates. Because visitors had to deal with bad roads and inclement weather, they would often arrive late. With a zakuska table set and ready at a moment’s notice, guests could refresh themselves immediately after their journey.

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