NOW that sushi has become as predictable as guacamole at cocktail parties, the last word in small bites is overdue for discovery.
Zakuski, a Russian tradition dating from Tolstoy's time, is food made for drinkers, although teetotalers would have a hard time resisting temptation. The usual array laid out to pick and choose from includes savory, salty or highly seasoned snacks such as smoked salmon, stuffed eggs, meatballs, vegetable "caviars," small servings of salad or big wedges of hot cheese or mushroom pie. The flavors are always dramatic but complementary, and the contrasting textures only amplify the experience of playing with food.
Zakuski translates as "small bites," and the mix of one- or two-morsel choices on a single table or tray -- hot and cold, homemade and store bought, aggressively seasoned and totally mellow -- is what makes the classic idea so appealing.
Anya von Bremzen, an emigre from Moscow who literally wrote the book on zakuski with her 1990 "Please to the Table," describes them as "another spin on meze, tapas and antipasto" and says they are comparable to smorgasbord in that "for the most part you can make a meal of them." But you can't do that without vodka -- at least not in her birthplace, where they drink straight shots.
"The main reason Russians love zakuski is that they can't drink vodka without eating," Von Bremzen says. "It's always: Toast, bottoms up, then eat zakuski, then have another vodka."
Zakuski can be served for lunch or dinner, she added, or "whenever they're ready to drink vodka, which for Russians is between 4 and 5." Not for nothing are zakuski always eaten sitting down.
Unlike tapas, or Italian aperitivo, zakuski are always served on small plates with forks. A selection can be the start of a meal, followed by borscht, an entree and dessert, she says, but "a main course seems anticlimactic."
No one knows how zakuski originated, although the concept may have come from Scandinavia and was well established by the 19th century, "especially among the landed gentry, who lived on estates where everyone had to travel far; when people came over they served zakuski and vodka."
In Poland, another country where vodka is the first beverage choice after water, zakuski are known as zakaski, and are typically served as a buffet before a main meal, especially at Easter, according to Andrew Ziobro, a vice president at Restaurant Associates who has made them a New Year's Eve tradition at his home in New York City.
"Czechs don't do it; Germans don't," Ziobro says.
"But the border between Russia and Poland changed so frequently I think there was a fluid movement [of food traditions]. It's very similar to Swedish smorgasbord, and the Swedes invaded Poland at one time."
The last time Ziobro served zakaski he included pickled flavors -- chanterelles, porcini and herring -- richness such as smoked sheep's milk cheese and eggs stuffed with smoked shrimp and dill, and traditional dishes such as smoked meats with beet relish spiked with horseradish ("Polish ketchup") and Warsaw salad with white beans, eggs, cucumbers and apple in sour cream. All were paired with vodka, of course.
While Russian zakuski vary by class and by region, Von Bremzen says the easy rule is three cold choices followed by three hot. Given that all of it is a sponge for vodka, the foundation is usually meat or fish with bread, black or white. Herring is always on offer, accompanied by raw onion rings or green onions and eggs, or made into canapes. Some kind of salmon or smoked whitefish might also be served, along with cold cuts and horseradish.
Another category of cold snacks is spreads meant to be eaten on lavosh such as spinach, beet or eggplant puree (each enriched with a walnut sauce), or garlicky cheese or mushroom caviar.
Salads are essential: potato and beet; sauerkraut with boiled potatoes, dill and scallions in vinaigrette; or salad Olivier-- poached chicken, potatoes, apples and pickles.
For hot zakuski, "lots of women make a cabbage pie or little piroshki," Von Bremzen says.
Do try this at home
For anyone who wants to try zakuski at home, even with wine or Champagne rather than vodka, Von Bremzen's top choices include a super-garlicky spinach dip and her mother's shortcut version of the classic Russian savory cheese pie, with a combination of grated mozzarella and feta seasoned with fresh cilantro and dill and baked in store-bought puff pastry. Her eggs stuffed with salmon caviar are also an elegant change from the usual bar snacks.
But zakuski are also open to interpretation. A few years ago in Estonia, I found the usual mushroom caviar transformed by the addition of smoked salmon and red pepper.
In Russia today the concept is changing, too. On Von Bremzen's last trip to Moscow, a couple of years ago, she said, traditional zakuski were hard to come by. Instead, the offerings were more international, with imports such as Iberico ham, bocconcini or venison carpaccio more common than vegetable caviar.
"There's so much money there, it's obscene," Von Bremzen said.
Obviously, they won't mind if a few Americans steal their idea.