What Russian Tsar Ate for Breakfast?

What Russian Tsar Ate for Breakfast?

In the famous play by one of my most favorite Russian writers Mikhail Bulgakov there is a funny scene where lunch is served to Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The Tsar asks what is being served and hears the following list, “Rabbit livers boiled and pike’s heads in garlic and caviar… Anis vodka or cardamom vodka…”  This scene is funny because it’s not really Ivan the Terrible who is attending the feast, but a time traveller from 20th century and this fake Tsar is not up to the task of handing boiled livers and pike’s heads.  There are perhaps some more famous scenes in the play, but none stayed in my memory as vivid. 

From an early age I had a particular interest in what people ate and how.  Luckily for me a lot of Russian writers, both fiction and non-fiction, shared my passion.   Here are five breakfast menus in the life of Tsar Alexander III and his wife Marya Feodorovna. The recipes linked to these dishes are mostly in Russian, but there are recipes in English further below and it is my goal for the next year to cook as many dishes from Tsar’s kitchen as I can manage and post them here.  (My source is in Russian, but it’s available in full text online and a “google translate” feature might perhaps do a good job with it.  Source: Igor Zimin, Imperial Kitchen).

Breakfast Menu September 19th, 1888: “Kvas soup, pea soup, pirozhki, cold sturgeon with horseradish, poulyada (пулярда, which is a fat, over-fed chicken, original Tsar recipe here) with mushrooms, and wild strawberries ice-cream.”

Breakfast Menu September 20th, 1888: “Kvas soup, american soup (original Tsar recipe here), pirozhki, cold stellate sturgeon cutlets, bordelaise sauce (борделез), pheasant fillet Sevigne, tenderloin with mushroom puree, pear compote with champagne.”

Breakfast Menu September 22, 1888: “Kvas soup, soup with tomatoes, pirozhki, stellate sturgeon a la russe (осетрина по русски), grouse cutlets with truffles (котлеты из рябчиков с трюфелями), tenderloin with garnish, ice cream.”

Breakfast Menu September 26th, 1888: “Kvas soup, earl soup [probably Earl Stroganoff soup], pirognoe (пирожное), cold sturgeon, partridge with cabbage (куропатка c купустой), sheep with garnish (седло баранье с гарниром), pears in jelly (груши в желе).”

Breakfast Menu October 6th, 1888: “Kvas soup, soup with tomatoes, pirozhki, cold fish jelly (холодное заливное из рыбы), grouse cutlets, beet with garnish, ice-cream.”


The concept of breakfast was different in the times gone by.  Tea or coffee was served in bed as soon as it was rung for, the real breakfast was served later in the morning, lunch as late as 4, and dinner as late as 9.

Food is not only something we cannot survive without, a fantastic background for family and friends gatherings, visual and gastronomic masterpiece, fuel to the imagination fires, but also a historical lesson.  Take this passage from Aleksei Tolstoy’s novel Peter I about Peter the Great.  “[At 9 in the evening…] noble guests sat down to dinner of bloody sausages, pig heads stuffed with ground meat, and amazing earthy apples of wonderful sweetness and satiety, called apples of the earth [potatoes].”  Potatoes were not known in Russian until Peter the Great brought them from Holland.  Eventually potatoes were seized upon by aristocracy as well as peasants and became such a popular thing that no table was complete without a potato dish or two.


We can’t say that all Tsars ate the same breakfast, of course.  They had different personalities and lived in different times.  The diet of earlier Russian Tsars was limited by climate and location.  They ate game and poultry, dairy fresh from the farm, vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and berries: fresh when in season and preserved in a winter.  Many historians call it a traditional peasant fare.  Later Tsars were greatly influenced by the development of transportation systems.  Russia has the largest landmass of any country in the world and there are multitude of cultures and variations of cuisine across this mass of land.  As the ability to move around improved, the influences from distant regions, like Siberia or Kazakhstan increased.  And of course, other countries, most notably France and England, left their mark.


When people talk about the influence of French cooking on Russian cuisine, they seem to overestimate it.  Even on the tables of Tsars and the highest nobility Russian favorites never went out of style.  There was always a desire to offset the exquisiteness of delicate French dishes with solidness of traditional Russian fare.  It might not have been cool for a while to serve a dinner of only Russian foods, but when you read descriptions of intimate family dinners, you always see a long list of pirozhki, pelmeni, and rastegais. And I once had a look at a book by Ghanna Orlova, who discovered authentic Russian cookbooks made for Tsar’s kitchen published in 19th century and had them translated from old Russian (старо-русский).  According to Orlova the detailed recipes in those cookbooks from Ivan the Terrible times through Peter the Great and up to the 19th century were in essence what we now call traditional Russian fare and that was the stuff that Tsars liked and requested to be cooked.


What Russian Tsar Ate for Dinner... a study of Russian food with a historical perspective


Another important factor was the personal preferences of ruling Tsars.   English influence was most pronounced during Nicolas I reign.  He was a great lover of all things English and official dinner at this house was never complete without a beef-steak. Ivan the Terrible who liked to have lavish and extravagant tables ate very little because all his reign he was afraid to be poisoned (and for a good cause, his mother was poisoned in court intrigue).  Ivan the Terrible loved fish, Peter the Great hated it.  Alexander III avoided dishes with onions and garlic, Nicolas II loved fried pelmeni.  Alexander I loved vodka, and …. Hmm… what Russian Tsar didn’t drink vodka?  I’m sure there was at least one, but I haven’t looked into it yet. 


What Russian Tsar Ate for Breakfast - the History of Russian food in one post

Private breakfasts were different from breakfasts attended by members of nobility.  In their private life, away from the court, in remote country houses Tsars were known to lead simple, rustic lifestyles, beginning the day early with a simple breakfast of toasted bread with honey and black teas.  The presence of guests required a breakfast table filled with a wide variety of dishes and a presentation elaborate and sophisticated complete with food carvings and fancy garnishing.  Breakfast was just as an elaborate and long affair as any other meal of the day.  Most of those beautiful and carefully prepared dishes were sent back to the kitchen barely touched, as it was in fashion to just sample and not to appear too hungry. 


The drinks popular on Tsars Tables are still the ones popular today.



Left to right: (1) Baltika beer, 2) Mineral Water Essentuki, (3) Kvas, (4) Sweet wine, (5) Champagne, (6) Birch Vodka.  Two other popular drinks are Fruit compote and  

What Russian Tsar Ate for Breakfast Unit Study

If you are putting together a unit study on What Russian Tsar ate for Breakfast for your kids, I suggest you start the discussion with questions like Do you know who is a Tsar?  What does Tsar do?  Are there any Tsars living now? You can also do some Russian crafts like making an Imperial Russian Crown and put a Tsar story together (details in the linked post).  Then go over the five categories of Russian foods listed below and pick one from each category.  If you have a hard time deciding what would be a good combination, here is my Sample Menu.   It’s also available as a free Printable


Tsar Breakfast Menu 

(with links to recipes in English)

Pancakes with Caviar

Borscht with pirozhki

Vinaigrette with Borodino Bread

Bowl of Buckwheat Kasha

Alexander Torte

For drinks Black tea for parents and Fruit Compote for kids


Tsar Breakfast Menu Printable


The list of common Russian dishes that can be part of Breakfast or any other meal of the day:

1.     Zakuski (appetizers)

·        herring (pickled, in oil, with dill)

·        smoked fish

·        pashtet (liver pate)

·        gul’yen (mushrooms baked in sour-cream in a pot)


·        vegetable “caviars” (zucchini, eggplant, beet, mushroom)

·        salads (vinaigrette and stolichny/oliv’ye) 

·        accompanied by rye bread

·        vodka and sweet champagne (yes champagne for breakfast).

2.     Russian Soups

·        borscht

·        shchi

·        ukha (clean fish soup)

·        rassolnik (kidneys and pickled cucumbers)

·        solyanka (pickled cucumbers and cabbage)

·        soup Bagration

3.     Main Dishes (many dishes were often named after Russian aristocrats)

·        kasha (like buckwheat, oats, or barley)

·        Veal Orloff

·        Pheasant Souvaroff

·        Beef Stroganoff

·        Chicken Kiev

·        Golubtsy (stuffed cabbage)


·        Fish (especially sturgeon)

·        Coulibiac  

4.     Baked pastries and Pancakes

·        pirozhki  

·        pirog

·        kulebyaka (fish or chicken)

·        kurnik

·        vareniki

·        pancakes (milk)

·        pancakes (kefir)

5.     Dessert served with lots of Black Tea

·        Alexander Torte or Charlotte Russe

·        Russian Napoleon Torte

·        Strawberries Romanov

·        Zefir (sugar, water, gelatin, lemon juice, baking soda, fruit flavor)

·        Medovik

·        Fresh fruit

My hope is to post recipes to all those dishes in the nearest future.  Did I inspire you to cook some Russian dishes?  Please, share!


My Favorite Russian Foods 

1. Kvas 2. Zefir 3. Vegetable Caviar
4. Black Caviar 5. Red Caviar
6. Chocolate 7. Gingerbread 8. Salami

1. Kvas – can be used as a drink or added to soup (as you can see in sample menus of Alexander III above kvas soup was a very popular thing)
2. Zefir – it’s one of my favorite desserts.  Pic above.  I hope to post my grandma’s recipe soon, but for now you can buy it on amazon
3. Vegetable caviar aka Zucchini spread.  Eat it on a piece of bread or mix it into your green salad
4. Black caviar – very affordable way to feel like a Tsar, eat it on a bread, pancake or cracker with sour cream or butter
5. Red caviar – that’s the one I usually have with my pancakes.  
6. Chocolate Candy Alenka – every Soviet kid’s childhood favorite treat
7. Tula Gingerbread – I can’t think of a better alternative to chocolate.  My grandma’s country house was in Tula, a few blocks away from where they made this delicious treat.  When the wind came from that direction, you could almost faint from the smell of freshly baked gingerbreads.
8. Moscow Salami – it’s hard to limit myself to just eight items as there are so many Russian foods I want to include.  My #8 was bout to be either a buckwheat honey or Bird’s Milk Candy (mmm…), but my daughter just inquired, “Did you buy my salami?” and so I decided to include her favorite Russian item.

Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Vasilievich changes trade
Alexei Tolstoy, Peter the Great
Igor Zimin, Imperial Kitchen


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