While vodka can be served in a range of formats — from elegant Martinis to a Gen Z style Borgs — in Europe’s “vodka belt,” this popular spirit is typically enjoyed neat. And if there is one rule that these countries have made clear in their traditions surrounding vodka consumption, it’s that you should always pair it with food.
While making sure you don’t drink on an empty stomach is generally sound advice for all categories of alcohol, it is particularly pertinent to vodka — especially when drinking it straight. In the U.S. it might seem strange to pair straight vodka with a meal, as we are accustomed to ordering it as a shot at the bar. But in countries like Russia and Poland, it is the cultural norm to always serve vodka with a spread of classic culinary accompaniments. These customs are based on notions that food can prevent overconsumption, help with the digestion of alcohol, and make the vodka more pleasant to taste.
In Russia, vodka is served alongside traditional zakuski, the country’s local small-plate equivalent to Mediterranean mezze or Spanish tapas. This spread typically includes pickled vegetables, smoked fish, boiled meats, horseradish, salads, and soup. Guests are often welcomed in out of the cold with a warming shot of vodka, immediately followed by these classic bites.
If pickled green tomatoes and herring aren’t your thing, you can always opt for Russia’s most iconic zakuski: caviar. This decadent roe used to be widely available in Russia but has since become more of a luxury than an everyday occurrence. Given caviar’s recent boom in popularity in the U.S., it’s easier than ever to find the perfect spread of caviar, blinis, potatoes, crème fraîche, and chives to enjoy with your vodka.
Poland residents have a similar tradition of enjoying their vodka with food, with their specific set of dishes dubbed zakąski. One typical pairing in Poland called the lorneta z meduza, meaning jellyfish binoculars, consists of two shots of vodka and a serving of jellied pigs feet.
Vodka is a neutral spirit, and its lack of distinct aromas or tastes actually enhances its ability to pair with food as opposed to more flavorful spirits like bourbon and mezcal. So next time you plan an evening of sipping chilled vodka, make sure you prepare a proper spread of food to accompany it.