Your customary plate of fries
_ People worry about what you’re going eat. You move there; you move here; you move to Moscow. Where people once talked turkey, they attempt a new language, one of borscht, caviar, and Russian rye, only to find the necessary vocabulary lacking. Internationally, the culinary scene of Russia isn’t causing any fast-growing fads of fusion cooking, so when you arrive, the fabled sandwich (a British recipe, incidentally) will suffice until the old cultural soup pot gets to bubbling.
The less exotic truth is that just about everywhere, anywhere with cars and/or permanent building and/or money to be extracted, in turn has a familiar line of fast food joints calling: the Mcs, the Colonel, the Hut, Subway, and the highly-caffeinated, pre-packed Bucks. It’s a world full of pizza and burgers, high-end coffee and spicy chicken wings, a global globule of saturated fat and glistening cholesterol. There’s no need to worry anymore, if there ever was, about what you’re going to eat.
More so, the challenge becomes clearing the commonplace and finding those unique corners of the cultural kitchen that remain. The temptation to sum up a country’s cuisine in a couple of dishes is high, the methodology efficient and guidebook-friendly, but like any stereotype, only snippet of the whole. Besides, being a Louisiana boy, I have been stung one too many times by American food being carved down to hot dogs and hamburgers, when I grew up on gumbo, etouffee, and crawfish boils.
So, here you are in Moscow, and here are some unexpected favorites that I’ve found:
1. Pickles: Hit a veggie market or the deli counter at one the nearby 24-hour supermarkets and sample an amazing collection of vinegar-soaked delicacies: tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, cabbage galore, peppers and more. Buy a bottle of vodka while you’re at it—this is a classic Russian combination—really.
2. Chocolate & Ice Cream: Sure, these are staple sweets in all places, but avoid the Mars bars and Magnum ice cream and opt for Russia’s take on the old standby. Get into the culture: Boxes of chocolate like handshakes between people here, and Russia is one of the world’s leading consumers of ice cream.
3. Deep-fried Rye Bread Sticks: That’s right. For all those lovers of the grease and finger foods, Russia brings a little something different to the snack pack as well. Accompanied by an appropriately unhealthy dipping sauce, these garlic-enthused fingers of bread just about rival the unbridled deliciousness of mozzarella sticks.
4. “Pancakes”: More like crepes, pancakes are a local favorite in Moscow and can be savory (with cheese, caviar, sour cream, etc.) or sweet (try one of the mind-boggling varieties of honey). When I asked my students what to try to really taste Russia, pancakes topped the list.
5. Salads: Mayonnaise can truly be the glue that binds. In Russia, the leafy garden salad is not the default setting for salad. Again, visit a deli or supermarket and get yourself an endless array to sample. Oliviye, a potato salad with loads of surprise trimmings, is the official holiday dish of Russia.
6. Mushrooms: Having a serious, ever-present Jones for fungal oddities, mushrooms proved to be sufficiently weird, wacky, and plentiful here. Easy to find marinated or grilled, or in great variety to cook yourself, mushrooms are one of the must-dos of Muscovite munching. Add them to your breakfast.
7. Mead: To wash it all down, one assumes vodka, but as the temperatures drop, in come the warm medovukha kiosk, which served the super-sweet, concentrated honey beer in steaming tiny cups. Before moving here, I’d only ever had mead at renaissance festivals, but now it’s a favorite treat when strolling downtown or taking a walk in the park.
So, that’s a lucky seven to get you started, a list that certainly isn’t comprehensive, nor does it come close to distilling (wink, wink) the options for the adventures of appetite that can occur. Imagine the possibilities of combining salt and fish, meat and sauce, cabbage and potato. Think of cool rye drinks in the summer, of steamed stuffed buns, of a whole new platter of cheeses (Russia has its own signature cottage cheese), and get borscht out of the way so you can really begin to explore.