An Insider’s Guide to a Russian Food Store

New York City is rich with ethnic enclaves. This means culture-specific restaurants, bookstores, and perhaps most excitingly, food markets. If you’re not well versed in that specific culture, stepping inside can be a tad intimidating and overwhelming. Where to start? How do you make sure you’re picking up the right products?

As a Russian immigrant, I often go to Brooklyn’s beachside Brighton Beach neighborhood to fill up on provisions. One of my favorite grocery stores is Brighton Bazaar. It’s clean, expansive and easy to navigate. Here are some of the things I like to pick up when I make a trip.

1. Pickled things are the antipasti of Russian meals. The cabbage is tart and refreshing as are the full sour and half-sour pickles. You can also pick up pickled mushrooms, tomatoes and even watermelon.

photo 3-2

2. The hot bar is a cornucopia of Russian specialties, from bread pockets to meat cutlets to mayonnaise-y salads. The meaty, fatty, flavorful borscht is hearty enough for a full meal.

photo 3

3. The aroma emanating from the sliced meats counter reminds me of the sliced bologna and salami we indulge in during family gatherings. For salami, I’d suggest one of the more expensive varieties, like Hungarian (Vengerskaya) or Tzar’s (Tzarskaya), or, if you don’t eat pork, an all-beef salami referred to as “Jewish” (Evreyskaya). I have a soft spot for the alarmingly cheap Doctor’s pork bologna (Doctorskaya), which is smooth and strangely refreshing. My husband insists my love for it is a product of misplaced nostalgia, but I would still recommend it for the Russian food novice–it has a universally appealing taste that’s much less gritty than the Oscar Meyer variety.

photo 5-1

4. Apparently this shop’s bakery department orders their breads all the way from Germany. It makes sense; German bread is renowned in Russia, and the varieties offered here are top-notch. The darker breads are dense, delicious and perfect for sopping up sour-cream drenched things. I usually get the “crusty bread”, which is on the lighter side of dark, and has a nuanced sourdough quality. Feel free to pick up a poppy seed roll–the favorite dessert of every Russian father–if you’re looking for something sweet.

photo 2

5. There are a few varieties of dried fish in the seafood section. The one I’m most familiar is vobla. It’s the fish of post-banya meals and lazy afternoons. It requires a a bit of softening, so you can either hit it against the table a few times or bend it back-and-forth until it’s pliable enough to pick at. It’s salty, so pair it with a refreshing beer–a Baltika, maybe?–for a truly Russian experience.

photo 1

6. Buckwheat kasha or grechnivaya kasha (on the floor) is to Russia what French fries are to the United States. It’s a a staple side in nearly every home and restaurant. It’s not only a side, though. Add some sauteed mushrooms for a complete meal. My favorite dish as a child was buckwheat kasha mixed with cutup hotdogs.

photo 4

7. Russian-style dumplings or pelmeni are my go-to frozen entree when I don’t have time to cook. There are over a dozen varieties to choose from, including sweet versions with cherries, often referred to by their Ukranian name, vareniki. I usually go for the chicken dumplings, but the most popular are “Siberian”-style, a mixture of beef and pork. Boil until tender and top with a spoonful of sour cream or melted butter.

photo 3-3

8. When I was younger, one of my favorite items from the Russian food store was a bag of pryaniki, Russian gingerbread honey cookies. There is an abundance of choice when it comes to picking your favorite. Do you like them smaller or larger, with a more pronounced gingerbread flavor or a more pronounced honey flavor, with more sugar glaze or less? They’re delicious, but also a bit of an acquired taste. They tend to be slightly drier than American-style gingerbread cookies and may require a dunk into tea or coffee.

photo 2-1

 9. There’s no American food product my parents hate more than factory-made marshmallows. They’re convinced American marshmallows taste of chemicals, and well, they’re kind of right. On the other hand, they love zephyr, a Russian dessert with a similar texture. It’s made with fruit puree, sugar, egg whites and some type of gelling agent. It’s airy, pliant, sweet and even better when covered in chocolate.

photo 3-1

10. Let’s get one thing out of the way: Russian chocolates look better than they taste. And well, that’s okay, because they still taste pretty good. The packaging is the star, though, especially in the case of the awesomely retro paper-covered chocolates. All feature bright Soviet-era illustrations, some inspired by Soviet realism, others by 70s-era children’s books. They’re mostly chocolate-covered and the interior is usually a wafer or a nutty nougat filling.

photo 5

11. Russians tend to prefer their desserts less overwhelmingly sweet than many Americans. They love flaky, buttery, Napoleon-style French pastry, and go ga-ga for layered meringue cakes, like the crazy-popular Kiev cake. The oblong, walnut-looking sandwich cookies (below, middle) called oreshki (the Russian diminutive word for “nuts”) are a wedding staple, made from a mayonnaise batter and filled with caramel cream and crushed nuts.  The long, purple, candle-looking dessert is called churchkhela and is popular in the Caucuses. The long spokes are made from nuts which are repeatedly covered in a gelling fruit juice mixture and left to harden.

photo 4-1


Favorite Things Lately, Volume 4

1 Dried squid from Aji IchibanThe New York City outpost of this Chinese snack shop makes me feel like a kid in a candy store…the kind of candy store that’s actually filled with an extensive collection of dried fish, fruity jerky, dried fruit and even dried olives. My favorite is the below, a spool of Haikkodo dried squid sheets. The squid is sweet, salty, delicious, and annoyingly addictive. You can buy it by weight or in prepackaged bags for $7 a piece.


2. Degenerate Art at the Neue GalerieThe Nazi regime didn’t censor the works they found most abominable, instead, they staged an exhibition in Munich in 1937, labeling the works as degenerate–a product of mental illness–and deriding the artists in a public setting. The exhibit went on tour, causing an uproar from citizens around the country who were appalled by the grotesque nature of German Expressionism and the part they thought it played in the supposed degradation of German culture. The works were mirrored by a collection of propaganda-style acceptable art creating a dichotomy of “disgusting” expressionism versus safe, heroic realism. The same technique is used by Neue in this exhibition of the same name, featuring many of the same works from both sides. To stand in the room of competing works is to bear witness to the artistic manifestation of stifling totalitarianism versus artistic freedom. It’s quite a thing to see.


3. Poetry in MotionSince 1992, the Metropolitan Transit Authority Arts for Transit program has filled the walls of subway trains with specially-selected poetry, enriching the commutes of many New Yorkers. There was a four-year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, but for the past two years since the program’s return, the poems chosen, in collaboration with the Poetry Society of America, have seemed especially poignant. They add a dose of inspiration to an everyday activity that is at best, non-memorable and at worst, horrifyingly rage-inducing. The below poem by Dorothea Tanning, Graduation, was the inaugural poem selected for the program’s return in 2012. It’s layered, poignant, and sticks with you long after you’ve read it.

Courtesy of Metropolitan Transit Authority Arts for Transit

Courtesy of Metropolitan Transit Authority Arts for Transit

4. Brooklyn Bridge ParkThis 85-acre waterfront park recently opened two new sections, including a beach (for hangin’, not swimming) near Pier 4 and an sporting area on Pier 2, which includes basketball courts, bocce and handball courts, and soon, a roller rink. There’s also a 30-foot-high berm of soil that separates the park from the BQE, blocking out traffic noise. A newly landscaped area near Pier 3 features installations by artist Dahn Vo–the bronzed life-size replicas of the various sections of the Statue of Liberty (below), on view until December 6th. Though there is ongoing discussion about whether more money should be going toward small, underfunded parks, instead of behemoths like Brooklyn Bridge Park and Central Park, there is something to be said for the transformation the waterfront has undergone, morphing from abandoned eyesore to one of most beautiful and most unique multi-use landscapes in the city. Plus, the view of the Manhattan skyline from the park’s various hills and walkways never gets old.




NYC Oddities: The Berlin Wall in Manhattan

The Berlin Wall was a literal iron curtain; it was a tangible representation of the divide–physical, cultural and ideological–between communism and the West during the Cold War. Erected overnight in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the wall stemmed the flow of immigrants from East to West. Prior to its construction, Germans could easily cross between the two Berlins. Afterward, many were caught on opposite sides of the wall, unable to see their loved ones until the wall’s eventual fall in 1989. Over time, the wall became more and more impenetrable as the GDR added miles of armed guards, attack dogs, freshly brushed sand (in order to track defectors’ footsteps), floodlights, barbed wire, beds of spikes and other hazards to make escape extremely difficult (about 5,000 managed the feat, while about 200 died attempting to cross the border).

Five slabs of the wall are nondescriptly displayed at 520 East 53rd St, between 5th and Madison, in a small plaza outside Valbella, a fancy Italian restaurant. According to the New York Times, the wall was purchased in 1990 by developer Jerry Speyer of Tishman Speyer Properties, which owns the adjoining building.

If you don’t know to look for it, you might miss it. Office workers and tourists eat and rest in white Bertoia chairs in the shadow of the concrete. Most seem uninterested, or perhaps more likely, unaware of its historical prominence. The plaque that identifies the decorated concrete as the Berlin Wall is small and positioned far below eye level.

The slabs are covered in graffiti by French artist Thierry Noir, who spent five years–working nearly every day–painting the western side of the Berlin wall in the 1980s, and German artist Kiddy Citny. The graffiti artists’ work is striking, but what caused me to catch my breath was a date spray painted on the two left-most slabs: 3-5-89. Looking at it feels a bit like traveling back in time. I imagined myself there on the western side, months from the wall’s collapse, on the precipice of one of the most exciting moments of the 20th century. How would it feel? Would I be able to fully grasp the importance of what was about to happen?

There are slabs displayed at four other locations around New York City: in Battery Park City, outside the UN, inside Ripley’s Believe or Not! and outside the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.


Update, 9/14: According to a building employee, the above piece has been removed for repairs. There’s no confirmation that it will be reinstalled in the courtyard; it may be moved inside the adjoining building’s lobby.

Tip: Free Museum Days

“That card lets you into a bunch of museums for free,” remarked the cashier at the BBQ place. My generic Bank of America debit card?

Apparently, yes.

The deal, in its 17th season, is called “Museums on Us,” and grants free access to museums across the country to all B of A cardholders on the first weekend of every month. In New York City, this means free admission to the Whitney, the Met, the Museum of the International Center of Photography and others.

The program is barely advertised and the cashier’s remark was the first time I’d heard of it. But now you know, too!

Take advantage this weekend. And spread the word.



Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: