January 31, 2014

How to be so Sochi: Celebrate the Olympics, Russian style

If you’re throwing a Winter Olympic party, and you really want to get into the spirit, we have everything you need to be so Sochi.

Let’s say you’re throwing a Winter Olympics party and you want to get into the spirit of the 2014 Games, which start on Friday.

But you have a problem. Do you

know anything

about the Russian host city of Sochi?


Don’t worry, comrade. We’ve got everything you need, from Russia with love.

But first a disclaimer, courtesy of Mariya Omelicheva, Russian native and director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas. The good professor has a small problem with our little exercise.

“Sports watching is a solo male activity in Russia,” she said. “And it’s not part of the Russian culture to have food in front of the TV in a party setting. We don’t do that. So this is kind of made up.”

Guilty as charged, professor. But we


do it in America. With that understood, allow us to present our artificial, totally trumped up, ugly American’s guide to throwing a Russian-themed Winter Olympics party that could, loosely, kind of, sort of, be thought of as being

So Sochi.

Privet! (Hello!)

The first thing you must embrace if you want to get into the Sochi spirit is the tradition of hospitality.

“If you come to somebody in the middle of the night and said, ‘I need someplace to stay,’ you will be fed and they will give you a bed,” said Oleg Grimberg, who owns European Delights, an Overland Park grocery catering to Russian and Eastern European tastes. A Russian native, Grimberg has been to Sochi dozens of times. “It’s a big tradition. In Russia we say you get it with mother’s milk.”

Guests have obligations, too. Not only must they bring something, they must be ready to eat.

Davaite est (Let’s eat)

Which brings us to the food.

Pizza, wings, barbecue, chips and dip? That’s out. And forget paper plates and plastic cups.

Russian natives told us to start with Russian potato salad, called Olivier after the 19th-century Belgian chef who created it. It includes diced potatoes, peas, carrots, salted cucumbers and sometimes other vegetables in a rich mayonnaise dressing. Add shish kebab, typically made with sheep’s meat, with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions on the side, Russian rye, sliced Russian cheese (similar to havarti) and a platter of meat and fish, including herring, sprat, smoked salmon, salami, sausage, real bologna and specialty sauces.

You also could serve blinis (small Russian buckwheat pancakes, often filled) or dumplings.

If you’re up to it, you might try “herring under a fur coat.” Bury finely chopped pickled herring beneath layers of shredded cooked potato, beets, onions and carrots. Mix mayonnaise or sour cream with the beets to form a pink dome over the ingredients.

Then there’s fruit. Peaches, grapes, oranges, mandarins, figs and more all grow in Sochi.

Wait. This is the


Olympics, right?

Yes. But Sochi is no Siberia. It’s a southern summer vacation resort on the Black Sea, similar to Miami. Average high temperature in February? 50 degrees. It could be the warmest city ever to host the Winter Games. (It does snow in the nearby Caucasus Mountains.)

As for what to bring to a party?

“You wouldn’t bring a main dish,” said Anna Feldman, an advocate for older adults at Jewish Family Services who left Ukraine when she was 9. “Bringing wine is good, or tea, fruit, candy, chocolate or desserts.”

Peredaite butylkuhat (Pass the bottle)

Georgian wine is a Sochi favorite, but it’s no longer in favor after the Russia-Georgian war in 2008, Omelicheva, the KU professor, said. Apparently the bitter five-day conflict soured Russians’ taste for the wine.

There’s always vodka.

“One thing that would make a party truly Russian is (doing) shots of vodka,” said Bart Redford, Omelicheva’s colleague at KU, who is a member of a local Russian Meet-Up group. “Instead of everyone standing around with cocktails, people do toasts for every shot. Then, after you take a shot, you’d chase it with rye bread or a pickle. Toast-making is an art, especially in the Caucasus region. (Toasts are) serious business, and often elaborate.”

What kind of vodka should you serve?

“Vodka is big with Russians, but it doesn’t have to be Russian-made,” said Leo Feldman, a Russian native who lives in Overland Park. “Russian-made is like Stoli, and Stoli is not great.”

He prefers Grey Goose. Others mentioned Absolut, Skyy and Ketel One.

Or try Baltika, a Russian beer. It comes in different varieties and strengths, and you can find it locally at several retailers.

Pogovori so mnoi (Talk to me)

And what use is throwing a Russian-themed Winter Olympics party without actually speaking some Russian? Here are some relatively simple Russian words and phrases you can use. One note: Russian words are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Transliteration to English is highly subjective.

• Yes: Da (DAH)

• No: Nyet (ni-YET)

• Go: Davai (dah-VIYE)

• Awesome: Otlichno (at-LICH-nah)

• Cool: Klassno (CLASS-noh)

• To your health: Na Zdorovje (Nahz-dor-OH-via)

Davaite spojem (Everybody sing)

And what’s that? You need entertainment? Try karaoke, popular in Sochi.

Or start up the techno music, dancing, jokes, storytelling and regular singing.

“Speaking of singing, the repertoire changes with how much vodka you drink,” said Grimberg. “When you’re not too drunk, you sing (popular) songs. But when you’re drunk it goes back to old Russian folk songs, such as ‘Oy Moroz.’ It goes ‘Oy moroz, moroz.’ It means ‘It’s very cold.’ And you sing it a cappella.”

And if you just want to watch the Games?

The most popular Winter Olympic sport to Russians, natives said, is hockey.

And what’s a party without jokes? We’ll leave you with one courtesy of Grimberg:

“An American and a USSR-ian meet together. American says, ‘We have freedom of speech. I can stand in front of the White House and say ‘I don’t like this president.’ And Russian says, ‘I can stand in front of Red Square and say the same thing. I don’t like American president either.’ 

So raise a glass to culture and to mutual understanding.

Na Zdorovje!

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