A Zakuska is a Russian hors d’oeuvre. It can be something as simple as bread with a piece of fish or flavoured butter on it before a simple meal, or it can be an astounding collection of hot and cold items served before big, fancy meals. Such vast displays are rare outside restaurants given that nowadays the servants in private homes seem to be on permanent leave. Despite this, food writers continue to prattle on about groaning Zakuska tables as though all Russians still live in the glittering mansions of Tolstoy’s Counts and Countesses, instead of in cramped, Soviet-era Moscow apartments built as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Should you be lucky enough to encounter a resplendent, fully-decked Zakuska table, items on it might include bliny (very small pancakes), boiled new potatoes tossed in dill, bread, caviar, cheese, cooked shrimp, dried fruits, eggplant caviar, eggs, ham, head cheese, marinated mushrooms, olives, patés, pickled beets, pickled herring in sour cream, pickles, piroshki, salads, sausage, seafood and smoked fish. Chilled vodka and, of course, champagne will be provided to wash it all down.
Some have theorized that Zakuska tables evolved at the great Russian estates and dacha out in the country as a way to set something out to eat when you had a number of guests arriving from various directions at different times in ermine-trimmed sleighs on snowy roads.
That being said, Zakuska tables still have their uses, and will sometimes appear as part of traditional Russian hospitality. They are much simpler now than they were in the time of the Russian aristocracy, what with people not having either a Count’s budget or household retinue.
The tables used to lay out the Zakuski are supposed to be round or oval, and away from walls, so that people can walk around them to explore all the tempting nibbles. Small plates, forks and spoons are provided. In the past, special silver Zakuska spoons and forks were made. Zakuska are usually eaten while standing up and mingling. You’re not meant to pull a chair up to the Zakuska table and tuck in. You mustn’t be misled and think that what you are seeing is a buffet meal. The Zakuska are just the appetizers: the real meal will follow.
Literature & Lore
“It was just the moment before a big dinner when the assembled guests, expecting the summons to zakuska, avoid engaging in any long conversation but think it necessary to move about and talk, in order to show that they are not at all impatient for their food. The host and hostess look toward the door, and now and then glance at one another, and the visitors try to guess from these glances who, or what, they are waiting for — some important relation who has not yet arrived, or a dish that is not yet ready.” Leo Tolstoy. Chapter 18. War and Peace (published 1869).
In Russian, Zakuska means “little bites or nibblies”. A collection of zakuska is referred to in the plural, as “zakuski”. The table on which the zakuski are laid on is called a “zakuska table”.