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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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