How Cooking Has Helped Me Learn To Speak Russian
- Written byStephanie Ford
- Read time9 mins
I know I’m not the only one out there who is always far too busy these days.
Balancing work, more work, running a long way for fun, language study, friends, relationships, travel and making time for housekeeping seems like an impossible feat.
As such, combining my passion for creating and eating delicious food with my very strong desire to understand more of what’s going on around me during my stay in Moscow seemed like an amazing way to kill two birds with one stone.
Learning a language by doing everyday tasks is great
Task-based learning is wildly popular with language instructors around the world.
If you’ve ever taken a language class and the teacher has asked you to roleplay visiting a doctor or attending a job interview, then you’ve seen task-based learning in action.
Cooking in the target language is essentially the same type of lesson.
If you can bring in a Russian native for pronunciation practice (and help with the chopping, stirring, and cleaning), then you’ve created an excellent environment for language learning.
I’m sure you all know how to look up a recipe and make it without my help, but bear with me while I explain why this process can be hugely beneficial for language learners.
Searching for recipes to help you learn Russian
As you may have realised by this point, I love food!
Naturally, searching for new inspiration and recipes (a.k.a food porn) is one of my favourite pastimes.
If you run a quick google search for stroganoff in English – you’ll get countless hits for the American take on the Russian classic.
Whilst that might be fine back home, it is not going to impress your Russian friends and/or loved ones.
A search for Строганов, however, will bring up some incredible, authentic Russian recipes.
First things first though, you’re obviously going to be required to type in the target language to run your search.
Learning the Russian letters is one thing, but learning where they are located hidden on the new keyboard is another.
The English keyboard is so familiar to me that I’d be willing to wager that I could type this entire article without glancing at the keyboard.
The Russian keyboard is a whole new kettle of fish.
If you want a mental image regarding the speed at which I could type on the Russian keyboard when I started learning Russian, just picture a sloth walking through a field of honey.
My only advice here is persevere and practice! You’ll get there.
Now while I know that Google has a very clickable “Translate this Page” button, I urge you not to do it once Google has run its search.
There is likely to be an overwhelming abundance of new vocabulary and grammar, but skimming this material in order to find the familiar layout that says “recipe” in every language is still valuable language practice.
I’m still absolutely not an expert and I do still occasionally rely on that bittersweet “Translate this Page” button, but I have learned the words Ингредиенты (ingredients) and Шаги (steps), amongst others, by navigating the website this way.
My food vocabulary has improved vastly as well.
That said, the biggest improvement that has come from this has been to my lifestyle!
Being able to search for new, exciting recipes has been a game changer for my Russian diet. (Fine, I’ll admit it – I ate basically only burritos for the first month after I arrived because I couldn’t find the ingredients for my typical fare in the Russian supermarkets!)
Anyway, whatever your poison, you’ll eventually get to the stage where you can navigate the depths of the web or your Russian cookbook’s index page to find whatever it is you’re after.
Navigating the Russian supermarket is a great way to improve your vocabulary
Now that you’ve found your recipe, you’re likely going to have to brave the supermarket.
You’ll quickly learn that the aisles of your local Дикси or Пятерочка don’t necessarily stock all the culinary goodies that you need.
I recommend setting out for an Ашан or any other local market where you can find a wide variety of ingredients.
You should learn how to ask for and follow basic directions before going to the store.
Ашан in particular is enormous and you’re almost inevitably going to have to ask someone where something is if you want to make it out of the store again within your lifetime.
Walking through these stores means that you will be overwhelmed with vocabulary and learning opportunities.
You’ll see that an abundance of the fruit and vegetables have names that are very similar to English or at least other Germanic languages.
You’ve got spinach (shpenat – Swedish) шпинат, broccoli брокколи, potatoes (Kartoffel – German) картофель, oranges (apelsin – Swedish) апельсин, pineapple (Ananas – basically every language except English) and a bunch more.
Reading your shopping list (and having to match the words with the options in front of you) is another great way to learn new words.
To top it all off, you’ll have countless opportunities to practice your Russian in the store.
I love practicing new phrases in supermarkets!
The first benefit is that the people who are listening aren’t likely to see you again, so if you embarrass yourself by asking for a toilet notebook instead of toilet paper your friends are none the wiser.
The second benefit is that a lot of the time you won’t be able to find a service member who speaks English, so (assuming you’ve left your native or fluent friends behind) you won’t have any choice but to use the target language unless you’re happy to go home empty-handed.
Spending time in the Russian kitchen
I’m a big advocate for spending periods of time where you are only allowed to use the target language.
Whilst it can be frustrating, it’s amazing practice and it gets easier every day.
Food vocabulary tends to be introduced pretty early on in any language course.*
On top of this, people tend to spend time in the kitchen every day. This means that the kitchen is perfect for “language hour”.
I strongly encouraging gathering your fellow Russian learners or your native Russian friends or loved ones and getting to work in the kitchen – in Russian.
Only in Russian.
You will no doubt have to ask someone “дай мне нож” (give me the knife) or “где огурец?” (Where’s the cucumber?).
And now for the fun part: My favourite Russian dishes
Borsch is a phenomenally warming beetroot soup.
The soup has been popular throughout Eastern Europe for an age, so there are myriad variations.
It can be easily adapted for vegetarians, carnivores and for people who are picky eaters, plus it’s a really pretty and thoroughly Instagrammable for those of you who are into that!
One of my favourite things about this recipe, however, is that it perfectly proves that searching in English will give you different (and thoroughly inferior) results.
My English search for Borsch brought up Wikipedia’s definition page and then a bundle of recipes that are “inspired by” Baltic or Slavic recipes or that have been deemed worthy of just 3 or 4 stars out of 5.
My search for борщ рецепт (Borsch recipe), however, brought up recipes consistently rated above 4.5 stars (out of 5).
Many of them also assert that that are классический (classic) recipes, so now I know two things:
- That the recipe should be amazing.
- What the word for classic is in Russian (along with a few of its various conjugations).
On a side note, Wikipedia’s page did inform me that the soup got its name from the Proto-Slavic word for hogweed – bŭrščǐ – which was formerly the main ingredient in the soup.
I have to admit that, as a closet etymology nerd, the English search was not entirely for naught.
Dressed Herring (салат сельдь под шубой)
This dish is a favourite of mine for two reasons.
Firstly, my time in Scandinavia instilled a deep appreciation for herring in me (incidentally the origins of this dish can be traced back to the Swedes).
Secondly, the name for the salad literally translates to Herring under a fur coat and that is adorable! Better yet, is that it’s sometimes referred to simply as шуба (Shuba – fur coat), so it gets even cuter!
Who said Russian is a tough language? 🙂
The dish itself is layers of pickled herring, boiled vegetables, mayonnaise, and, you guessed it, beetroot. The dish is vibrant in both colour and taste, so you should definitely give it a try if you eat meat.
The dish actually has an interesting history and is typically eaten on New Year’s Eve as a result.
Anecdotally, a barman was tired of Russians getting a bit rowdy on New Year’s Eve and ruining his bar. So, in 1918, he invented a dish that was SO delicious and so hearty that nobody would be able to turn it down and everyone would leave his bar more sober and gentler than they had in years past.
My inner etymology nerd also got to eat her fill with this dish.
Shuba, which you’ll recall means fur coat, initially referred to a political movement that condemned chauvinism.
Long story short, the ingredients were perfectly symbolic of national unity and ultimately became associated with this movement.
So the name, which (perhaps too) perfectly suits the appearance of this dish apparently arose from this movement.
And finally, for dessert – Medovik
You’ll certainly hear all about the Russian pancakes блины if you venture into Russia or simply take a culinary journey into Russian cuisine from the comfort of your own home.
I feel as though honey cake isn’t as well-known as it should be, so I have taken it upon myself to inform everyone who will listen about this delicious treat.
I admittedly haven’t attempted to make this cake as yet.
I have however taken it upon myself to sample the cake wherever and whenever possible. It is incredible!
I’ve found that using cooking as an aid for language learning has been immensely valuable.
My other passions, such as running, yoga, and teaching, have been more difficult to turn into opportunities for learning – but where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Running with others who are learning Russian means that I can sneak in some language practice as I explore Moscow.
I’ve also started trying to occasionally watch Russian yoga instructors, instead of my usual Five Parks, on YouTube. I even attended some fitness classes at a Russian gym.
It is safe to say that I will remember the meaning and pronunciation of еще раз (one more time) for the rest of my life.
Whatever your passion, try to find a way to work Russian language learning into it.
I’m sure you’ll improve in leaps and bounds once you start learning relevant and interesting vocabulary!
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