12 November 2007

Foodie-ism Comes to Russia

Based on earlier reports of my struggles with local “cuisine,” some of you, my dear loyal readers, may fear for my culinary well-being. In fact, when lizzie b was out here in the Muscovy hinterlands, she was a little disturbed by my use of kolbasa as the “secret ingredient” in everything from omelettes to salads to just eating the stuff sliced up with apples and cheese and calling it “dinner.” That said, Russia's victuals have come a long way, even in the decade since my 1997 visit when Danish hot dogs were a big deal. It still ain’t a smorgasbord of flavor, but it’s also not the land of the 1952 home-making classic A Book on Tasty and Healthy Food (Kniga o vkusnoi i zdorovoi pishche--I doubt both claims).

Of course, finding flavor in Russia remains a struggle, a long-standing issue described in a variety of the foreigners' memoir literature that I read for my dissertation. Almost fifty percent of the Chinese students at Sun Yat-Sen University suffered from malnutrition in the 1920s, not from lack of food, but from the refusal to consume Russian fare, which they deemed inedible. Langston Hughes considered what Russians did to macaroni and cheese a travesty. Sam Darcy (born Samuel Dardeck) enlisted Katayama Sen to make him apple pies, bringing the ingredients over to the old Hotel Lux and pleading with the stately father of Asian communism who learned how to cook American classics as a restaurant worker at the turn of the century. The list could go on and on.

Back to the present, food choices are especially hard right now. Winter has set in, the sun sets at 4.30 PM, the ground is frozen hard and little drifts of snow dance across the sidewalk. The street vendors, with their fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and various fruits, have disappeared from Moscow’s streets. And it's not just "temporary repressions." They are gone for the season. In these dark days, one turns to the frozen, the canned, and the overpriced greenhouse goods. There’s nothing quite like a meal of hard black bread and soft cheese with mushrooms to make you realize how far from New York (much less California) you are. It’s passable fare, sure. But didn't I used to strive for something beyond passable?

Ah, but fear not for me, for Russia's foodies have answered—in the form of the magazine Gastronom’, a Russian variant on Food and Wine crossed with Cook’s Illustrated that tries to lure the Slavic palate into regions unknown. October’s issue featured recipes for carrot-grapefruit halva (tasted like Fruit Loops, as an astute music historian pointed out to me), Vietnamese pumpkin-peanut soup (too thick and pasty for my taste), Thai fish cakes, couscous salad, various fennel salads, spicy green tea mousse with wasabi (seemed contrived but I have yet to try it), and a review of various canned herrings. November swapped Southeast Asiana for “rice” as the monthly theme with instructions for creole jambalaya (described as an “American synthesis” of Uzbek plov and Indian pilau), duck risotto, Kashmiri pilau, followed by some odds and ends: Reuben sandwich tapas, Manhattan chowder and a special on the delights of salo (Ukrainian salted pork best enjoyed with black bread and vodka--see image above).

The main disappointment with Gastronom’ is that it, like much of Petersburg and Moscow, seems intent on bringing Western Europe and America to Russia. And when the writers turn their attention to Asian fare, it's in a vernacular form that substitutes sweetness for spice. Still, the recipes all seem to require a trip to the ex-pat extorters at Azbuka vkusa (The Alphabet of Flavor) for some obscure ingredient. After all this, the worst thing is that the food ends up tasting a little...well, if not Russian, then at least Soviet.

I can’t help but wish that Gastronom' would just go ahead and tailor its dishes to local ingredients and flavors and in some (valiant?) attempt to reinvent post-Soviet cuisine, instead of launching a Julia-Child-bringing-French-cuisine-to-America-esque campaign. I mean, they could really do something creative with salo or Georgian food or old-style Russian favorites. But innovative fiddling with traditions, as of this writing, doesn’t seem to be the name of the game.

As always, I'll keep you posted on developments. In the meantime, I’ve been going my own route. To give you an idea, here are a few recipes that make use of the limited range of Moscow's winter produce:

Spicy Chicken in Coconut Milk

Fry up onions, red chilies, garlic and ginger with chicken and a healthy heap of cayenne pepper. Toss in coconut milk and diced mango. Cover and let simmer for 10 minutes. Serve over fragrant rice and feel depressed that you can’t get real basmati rice in Russia.

Maacher johl po-russkii

Fry up onions, red chilies, ginger, cumin, turmeric, and coriander with some frozen hake fillets. Cover and let simmer for 10-15 minutes. Serve over rice and alongside aloo pulkopi (while cauliflower is still available). Dream of your mother’s cooking.

American Chili with Krakovskaya kolbasa

Fry up onions, green and yellow peppers, garlic, cayenne pepper, cumin, carrots and canned corn. Toss in diced-up krakovskaya kolbasa and tomatoes. Serve in a cup or over rice, depending on your mood. Try not to think of barbeque in Austin.

Stir-fry po-russkii

Buy frozen “Thai Wok” vegetable package. Fry up frozen turkey kotletki with garlic, ginger, chilies and frozen veggies. Splash on sriracha sauce and soy/fish sauce (depending on mood). Boil pelmeni and throw them in with the stir-fry al dente. (My current choice of pelmeni is the Russkii khit brand.) Fantasize about 3AM stops in Boston’s Chinatown for dumplings or Brooklyn’s Halal No-Pork Chinese Kitchen. Devour with a can of Baltika 7 or Nevskoe svetloe.

Pundit-watch postrscript: Bob Herbert rightly tells David Brooks to shut it with his apologism for Reagan's racist record.

Related note postscript: The eXile has a cheeky piece on Russian perceptions of spicy food.


tom said...

this is hilarious. are you in or near la over the winter holiday? i'm trying to make my way there before this hong kong thing, which i *think* may actually happen...but i'm still waiting for confirmation...it would be good to see you!

Lyndon said...

Druzhba restaurant at Novoslobodskaya = best Chinese food in Moscow. Try it.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Tom, Yes, I'll be around LA in the late December/early January season. Let's email to hook up a plan. And I'm psyched to hear that the Hong Kong plan may work out!

Lyndon, Now you're like the fourth person to tell me this about Druzhba and I still haven't been there despite the fact that I walk by it no less than three times a week. I think you may have finally pushed me over the edge to commit to a biznes lanch there, at the least. I'll report back.

Iras said...

You may have heard of it already, but there is a place called Jaganths on kuznetsy most near the english book shop. Its cheap and I used to go there alot. If only to laugh at the badly tied saris on the russian waitresses.

Also on prospect mira, there is a spice shop with ready made stuff/imported veg called indiskii spetsi. I had to fight back the tears when I found it sold Garam Masala!

lizzie b said...

Maybe you shouldn't rush _Gastronom_. When it comes to developing a foodie culture, maybe you need Julia Child before you're ready for Alice Waters. Come to think of it, Alice Waters in Russia -- that's a food reality show I'd like to see.

Anonymous said...

Have fun. But you are lucky it is 2007...plenty of options for eating out or cooking in.
You should have in Rusland in the '80's or '90's. Winter of '91...Coupons were being distributed to students, workers for scare products. The Stokmann supermarket was the only source of edible cheese and other delicacies. Received extra coupons trading the valuti store hordes. While the regular state gastronomi filled with 'goomanitarnaya pomoshch' -- top item, Skippy peanut butter and dried milk...Enjoy.

Malathi said...

I know I am several months behind...
Reading this post now, I was going to say, "I sympathize with you, but you should have seen what we lived on in the late 80s and early 90s" and then I saw anonymous commenter's words along these same lines. Actually, *I* shouldn't complain too much about those days either because compared with what the Soviet babushkas ate then, foreign students had a lavish picnic thanks to dollars, 'rhinoks' (farmers' markets) and relatively low inflation ($1 gave us about 5 to 6 rubles and a kg of good kolbasa or 'cir' (cheese) cost something like 3 or 4 rubles, I think (in the affordable range). But while there was a shortage of staples like bread and meat after the Fall, there was a bizarre abundance of junk food that we consumed mindlessly. One example was this weird introduction to the concept of potato chip (previously unavailable in the Soviet market). It was a long, thick, rectangular, funny tasting chip (resembling an uncooked lasagna in form and shape but texture was crispy) and it came in flat, square boxes. We hated the taste the first few times we tried it and agreed that it was nothing like the potato chip we had in India--but like all versions of potato chip the world over, it succeeded in getting you addicted to its taste. I am craving for it right now. In fact, I am missing all things Russian and all things Ukrainian/Kiev this week. Even the salo.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...


I certainly hear you on the "times were worse before" note.

My parents are currently here visiting and I have been introducing them to the native and pseudo-native treats--Georgian food, Russian soups, bliny, dill as the major flavoring in many various meats/salads, and a French-style bakery staffed entirely (as far as I can tell) by Central Asians. The funny thing is that I think my parents are categorizing all of these experiences, more or less, as "Russian food" that isn't too bad, but is overall fairly bland. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, "My lord, the diversity of food and how fresh are these fruits and vegetables!"

I can only imagine how startling are the changes since the 1980s if this is my reaction to the changes since January.