Russian Nibbles & Vodka Inspired by the Novel 'A Gentleman in Moscow'

Russian Nibbles & Vodka Inspired by the Novel 'A Gentleman in Moscow'

Wednesday, 18 March, 2020

Food and drinks are some of the easiest ways — and the most fun— to vicariously experience another culture. When you add a great book to the mix, you've got the makings of a perfect evening. In Food+Fiction, we recommend a delicious read and a related recipe so you can try the taste of different destinations in your own kitchen.

This post is part of our Food+Fiction series.


In Amor Towles lyrical and lovely novel A Gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a member of the detested noble class, is placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel by the new communist rulers. His privileged world suddenly shrinks to the confines of a small room, and then slowly, over the next thirty years, surprisingly expands.

We should not like the Count. He’s rich, prone to quoting literature, and fussy about wine. But he will quickly become someone you wish you could know in real life. And his story is populated by other compelling characters who get caught up in delightful capers inside the hotel, as well as the real-world drama of the twentieth century that batters the outside.

Through it all, the Count is sustained by his friendships with the people who pass through the hotel: the cook and maitre d’ of the posh café, an old poet friend, a precocious little girl, a charming actress. And, as we all do, they connect over plates of food, even during the harshest times of war and other upheavals in Moscow and beyond.

They find comfort and nourishment — both for body and spirit — in a legendary pot of bouillabaisse or a bowl of traditional okroshka: a cold summer soup made of cucumbers, spring onions, and radishes with boiled potatoes and kvass, a fermented drink made from rye bread. There are bottles of fine wine and towers of ice cream, cabbage pirogi and veal cutlets, a whole bass roasted with black olives and fennel and lemons. And in one significant scene, a carefully considered order for a Latvian stew of pork, onions, carrots, dried apricots, and prunes. Amor Towles shared a recipe for that stew in the wake of his novel’s release.

We’ve gone a much more proletarian route.

We suggest you pour a glass of cold vodka — or brew a lovely cup of strong black tea, if you prefer — and compose a plate of Russian-inspired finger foods to snack on while you read this book or any of the others we recommended in our podcast episode Russia: Revolution, Hope, and Vodka.

wooden table set with vodka, brown bread, meat, and pickles
Photo courtesy of New Africa/Shutterstock

Russian-Inspired Appetizer Plate

Zakuski, a.k.a., cold hors d’oeuvres, are a major part of socializing in Slavic countries. The word literally means ‘something to bite after,’ and if you’re doing it right, you’ll be alternating your nibbles of food with sips of vodka (or tea).

At the Russian House restaurant (a place we love in Austin, Texas), before you even have time to review the menu, the servers deliver a welcome gift: a wooden board topped with spring onions, housemade sauerkraut, brown bread, butter, and shots of icy vodka. It marks the dividing line between what you were doing before and what we’re doing right now, together. It’s a reminder to be present, to savor the moment, to toast to life.

The plate you make at home can be as simple as a slice of good brown bread spread with unsalted butter, a bit of salami, and a few slices of garlicky dill pickles — or you can compose an elaborate board of several types of meat, vegetables, pickles, and condiments to share with your favorite people. We’ve compiled a list of the ingredients we’d put on our appetizer plate, but just as with books, let your personal taste be your guide. Za vashe zrodovye!

Meats & Fish:

  • various types of salami & ham
  • smoked sausages
  • pickled herring
  • smoked salmon
  • caviar

Vegetables & Pickles:

  • fresh cucumbers
  • spring onions
  • cherry tomatoes
  • hot and/or sweet peppers
  • green and black olives
  • sauerkraut
  • pickled veg: beets, cucumbers, mushrooms


  • dark bread
  • crackers
  • blini

Condiments & Garnishes:

  • butter
  • mustard
  • sour cream
  • fresh herbs: dill, chives, parsley
  • hard-boiled eggs
Arrange your ingredients on a large board or several platters. Give everyone their own plates, turn up a Slavic soundtrack, and make a toast.

For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim. — Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

We should not like Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov — recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, and Master of the Hunt. He’s rich, prone to quoting literature, and fussy about wine. But the Count will quickly become someone you wish you could know in real life. Despite his privilege — or perhaps because of it — he’s charming, erudite, articulate, and unexpectedly kind and good. In 1922 Russia, the Count is also wildly unpopular with the Communists. He’s a relic of the past, but, for political reasons, he can’t be eliminated. So they hide him away in the Metropol Hotel. {more}

This historical novel (496 pages) was published in September of 2016 by Penguin. The book takes you to 1922 Moscow. David read A Gentleman in Moscow and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it. is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.

A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel


Top image courtesy of Irina Grotkjaer.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

From its landscape and architecture to revolutions and historical figures, everything about Russia seems larger-than-life. In this episode, we discuss five great reads that transported us to Russia, past and present.
What do Pushkin, cholera, duels, Tchaikovsky, dumplings, caviar, and sugar-dusted confections have in common? A butter-yellow building with a storied history on the corner of a busy intersection in St. Petersburg.
Russian Teacakes are like butter bombs of happiness. The original recipe in this classic cookbook is the hands-down, best-ever holiday cookie. If you've never tried these fluffy white puffs of joy, now is the time.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.