A Medieval Russian Hangover Cure

By Darra Goldstein

Olearius' text
Olearius’ text
(Wiki Images)

In 1635 the German scholar Adam Olearius (1599-1671) set out on a journey through Russia, down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Persia, part of an embassy sponsored by Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who hoped to negotiate an overland route for the silk trade. Tsar Mikhail I had granted permission to travel through Muscovy, and Olearius later wrote a lively account of his travels,  offering commentary on the lands and their people, their mores and habits. [1]  He devoted several pages to the Russian love of drink:

“The vice of drunkenness is prevalent among this people in all classes, both secular and ecclesiastical, high and low, men and women, young and old. To see them lying here and there in the streets, wallowing in filth, is so common that no notice is taken of it…None of them anywhere, anytime,or under any circumstance lets pass any opportunity to have a draught or a drinking bout” (Baron, p. 143).

Olearius went on to note how Russians dealt with alcohol’s aftereffects by preparing a dish called pokhmel’e, which takes its name from the Russian word for “hangover”:

“The Russians prepare a special dish when they have a hangover or feel uncomfortable. They cut cold baked lamb into small pieces, like cubes, but thinner and broader, mix them with peppers and cucumbers similarly cut,[2] and pour over them a mixture of equal parts of vinegar and cucumber juice. They eat this with a spoon and afterwards a drink tastes good again” (p. 156).

When I share this recipe with my students, their reaction is generally “Ewwww!” But just think about it: savory roast lamb, pungent pepper and crisp cucumber mixed into a kind of salamagundi with a sharp, sour tang the Russians love. Olearius did not share this appreciation for hearty foods. Noting that “They are not accustomed to tender dishes and dainty morsels” (p. 155), he damned the Russian delight in pungent alliums:

“They generally prepare their food with garlic and onion, so all their rooms and houses, including the sumptuous chambers of the Grand Prince’s place in the Kremlin, give off an odor offensive to us Germans. So do the Russians themselves (as one notices in speaking to them), and all the places they frequent even a little” (pp. 156-157).

Adam Olearius
Adam Olearius
(Wellcome Library)

Yet even as Olearius disdained the lingering smells, he recognized the wisdom of Russia’s homeopathic cures: “In general, people in Russia are healthy and long-lived. They are rarely sick, but if someone is confined to bed, the best cure among the common people, even if there is a high fever, is vodka and garlic” (p. 162).

Although seventeenth-century Russians did not understand the science of metabolism, they certainly knew what made them feel good. The dish pokhmel’e is a case in point. The high protein content of the lamb surely boosted energy, while copious amounts of pepper would stimulate the stomach’s secretion of hydrochloric acid, thereby aiding digestion and easing the upset so common in hangover sufferers. Most crucial to the recipe, however, is the brine (rassol) that results from the traditional Russian method for making pickles. Cucumbers are brined in a salt solution, which initiates malolactic fermentation, a process with many health benefits that the Russian peasantry instinctively understood when insisting on something sour with each meal. Thanks to its high proportion of electrolytes, pickle brine can reduce hangover symptoms by mitigating the dehydration caused by alcoholic overindulgence.

Russian Boyars
Russian Boyars
(Library.ru)

The malolactic fermentation of traditional Russian pickle making also creates what we today call “probiotics”—microorganisms beneficial to the digestive system. These microorganisms were the focus of research by Russian biologist Ilya Mechnikov, whose work led to a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908. Could Mechnikov’s interest in the properties of lactic acid and its effect on the gut have been stimulated by the culture in which he lived?

Pickle juice gained modern fame in 2000, when the Philadelphia Eagles football team won handily over the Dallas Cowboys in blistering heat after drinking pickle juice before the game—no Eagles player suffered the crippling muscle cramps that benched many Cowboys. As for hangovers, it has taken the West nearly four hundred years to catch up with the remedies Olearius described. Only recently has The Pickleback become popular in bars: a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice. In this trendy drink we can perhaps see a modern version of the pokhmel’e the Russians understood long ago.


[1] Offt begehrte Beschreibung der newen orientalischen Rejse (Schleswig, 1647). The book was soon translated into several languages and appeared in an expanded version in 1656 (Vermehrte newe Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reyse). John Davies of Kidwelly made the first English translation: The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia (London, 1662). The Russian portion of the journey appears in a modern English translation by Samuel H. Baron: The Travels of Olearius in Seventeenth-century Russia (Stanford UP, 1967).

[2] The original German is translated into Russian as igral’nye kosti or “dice,” a finer degree of chopping than cubes. “Peppers” should appear here in the singular, as “pepper” (Russian perets), in reference to the aromatic spice. Bell peppers, a New World plant, arrived in Russian in the late sixteenth century, most likely via Constantinople, but they did not become widespread for at least another century. Thus the passage in English should more properly read: “…mix them with cucumbers similarly cut and pepper…”.


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