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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Zakuski are perhaps the most distinctive feature of a Russian meal. The word, meaning ‘little bites’, originally referred to the sweet delicacies and pies served after a main meal. Now it has two meanings: either something relatively light served before a meal, usually with vodka, or by extension a snack, often eaten in a zakusochnaya—a stand-up bar.

The origin of zakuski is generally attributed to an enlightened 18th-century tsar, Peter the Great who, Lesley Chamberlain (1983) explains, absorbed many customs observed on his travels and military adventures in the Baltic, Finland, Holland, and England. Thus the zakuski may be likened to the Finnish and Swedish brännvinsbord which consisted of a small hors d’oeuvre set out on a table and served prior to the main meal. This was, of course, the antecedent of the smörgåsbord. Other analogues are the hors d’oeuvres of France, the mezze in Middle Eastern cuisine, and, though the connection is more distant, tapas in Spain and Portugal.