For an item so elegant, the podstakannik has a pretty banal name; it literally translates to “thing under the glass.” These metal holders first appeared in Russia in the 18th century. According to Alexander Dumas’ Dictionary of Cuisine, men typically took their tea in glasses—the way it was served in taverns—while women sipped theirs from porcelain cups at home. (As one legend has it, public houses had switched to glasses after customers complained they could see the bottom of their cups through watered-down tea.) It was all too easy to burn your hands on a hot brew without a “thing under the glass,” so the taverns began using simple metal holders with handles.
The early podstakanniks were utilitarian, but they grew increasingly ornate in the 19th century. In the Soviet era, they began to take on an ideological character, sporting images of the hammer and sickle, the space race, and other iconography of the USSR.
Need to Know
Podstakanniks are seldom used in Russian restaurants or homes today. But they're still a fixture on long-distance trains, where tea is an essential component of the journey. They're favored because they make it easy to drink without spilling on a moving train. Attendants come through periodically to take drink orders and deliver your beverage in the old-fashioned glass. Expect a choice of black or green tea bags and instant coffee. Hit up the hot water tap in your car for self-service refills.