A zakuski is a traditional Russian spread of hors d'oeuvres. These foods are usually served as a buffet-style appetizer before large meals or during parties and receptions, and the spread includes a variety of cold and hot dishes. Vodka is also traditionally served alongside the zakuski, but some modern day versions may serve tea or coffee instead.
The tradition dates back to the 1700s, during a time when czars and aristocrats served these appetizers to important guests who came into their homes and gathered outside the dining room. Many of these visitors traveled long distances, and zakuski were meant to appease their expected hunger before the main meal. The foods were usually set up on a large table for guests to pick from. Even though this practice started as an upper class tradition, by the 1800s, tables of zakuski gradually became more common among the other classes, as well, especially during holidays and special occasions.
The term itself comes from the Russian verb zakusit', which essentially means, "to take a small bite." Zakuski is technically the plural form of the noun, but it may be used in a singular sense when describing the overall spread of appetizers. The singular form, zakuska, refers to a single food included among the spread, and zakusochnyi stol refers to the zakuska table on which the dishes are placed.
Individual customs vary by region, but many zakuski include three cold dishes and three hot dishes. Other items, including plates, forks, napkins, shot glasses, and bottles of vodka, are typically placed on the same table for convenience. Some modern day customs may serve Russian tea with these appetizers, or even coffee, if the host is using zakuski to replace a formal dinner and includes dessert amongst the other food items.
Both cold and hot dishes often include various types of sandwiches, fish, meats, and eggs. Salads and cheeses are also common cold dishes. Vegetable salads, or salaty iz ovoshchei include raw vegetables, like lettuce, cucumber, tomato, cabbage, and green onions, as well as cooked or pickled vegetables, such as beetroots, turnips, and sauerkraut. Freshly salted herring, anchovies, or other fish often appear among other cold offerings. Other common cold additions include hard-boiled eggs, cut in half and stuffed, as well as cold meats, like slices of ham or roast beef and liver pâtés, served with bread.
Hot zakuski choices often include vegetable dishes like stuffed tomatoes and mushroom julienne. Salmon, pike, eel, crab, and other seafood selections can be poached, fried, or baked and served in sauces. Hot meat dishes include cooked sausages and fillets or chops of beef, pork, lamb, or poultry. Pirozhki, pastry shells filled with a number of savory or sweet fillings, are often stuffed with cabbage, sauerkraut, mushrooms, or meat when served at the zakuska table.