Wintertime traditions: Sbiten
As we write this post, it is Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve, and what better time to have a hot cup of sbiten, an ancient Russian festive wintertime drink.
Back in now unimaginable days when sugar was a rare treat, honey was easier to get, and it ruled the world of special occasions and celebrations. Honey literally and figuratively sweetened people’s lives and was considered a near panacea for many illnesses.
Sbiten is a traditional nonalcoholic wintertime drink that has been popular in Russia for centuries and is often served hot at Russian Christmas dinners. Roughly translated as “beat up”, sbiten is a honey-sweetened spiced infusion that is delicious, easy to prepare, and chock full of health benefits.
Sbiten recipes vary, with many existing versions, and below is a personal favorite. We choose to use honey in moderation in this recipe and in general. Traditionally sbiten is made with a hefty amount, but we pull back and only sweeten to taste. Although we appreciate the tradition, we believe that adding sugar should always be optional in modern times and saved for the particularly bitter moments in life. If you must avoid sugar altogether, there is always licorice; adding licorice to hot drinks sweetens them and adds even more health benefits. We hope that you give sbiten a go and let us know what you think of it; for those who celebrate, Happy Russian Christmas.
Grated nutmeg ⅛ tsp
3 crushed cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick or ½ tsp ground
3 crushed whole cloves
½ tsp dried or a few slices of fresh ginger
3 Tsp berry jam, we like cherry for tartness, but blueberry or any other will work. It is optional; it gives a nice color to the drink and enriches the flavor with berry essence.
Lemon zest from half a lemon
1 Tsp crushed fresh mint leaves (1 tsp dried mint)
Honey to taste (traditionally about ½ cup, we find that 1 Tsp is plenty sweet)
Dried licorice root ½ tsp, optional to substitute jam and honey and to make it sugar-free
Grind to break down and release aroma from spices (nutmeg, ground cinnamon, whole cloves, cardamom, dried ginger) in a mortar and pestle.
Bring 1 quart of water in a saucepan to a boil, add “beat up” spices, licorice if using, and everything else but the honey.
Stir, cover with lid, turn off the heat, let steep for 20 minutes.
Midway, add honey and stir. Cover to keep steeping.
Strain and serve.
Traditionally served hot; cold sbiten is also very tasty. Add some lemon and enjoy.
Sbiten can be stored in the fridge for a week and reheated as necessary.