By Susanna Zaraysky
“Russian food?” my friends ask with bewildered eyes. “Is there more than just borscht and vodka?”
On various occasions, I’ve taken it upon myself to show inquiring friends that there really is more to Russian cuisine than just vodka and the famous red beet soup. For those who haven’t been lucky enough to taste my mom’s cooking, I have led my own Russian gastronomic tours of San Francisco, showing the delis and bakeries in the Richmond District. The smoked fish, cabbage piroshkis, poppy seed cakes, eggplant salads, fresh dark rye bread and kvas are just some of the culinary items that prove to my guests that there is a cuisine to be discovered.
“It’s time to show people how good Russian food can be!” exclaims Katia Troosh, owner of Katia’s Russian Tea Room on 5th Avenue and Balboa. “Russian food has a bad reputation due to bad service and greasy and heavy food, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” she elucidates.
Made in the USSR:
On a culinary excursion in December 2004, I led three friends through the Richmond. While walking on Geary Boulevard, I warned the culinary adventurers that the American values of friendly customer service are foreign concepts to most Russian businesses.
Our first stop was New World Market on Geary and 21st, the largest Russian food store in San Francisco. The owners, Misha and Nonna Sukhovitsky, from Kharkov, Ukraine, started their grocery store in 1983. They make their own sausages in the smokehouse in the basement of their building. The kitchen staff prepare piroshkis, salads and pelmeni on site.
The first items I pointed out were the containers of Russian chocolates sold by the pound. As kids, my sister and I would happily go through those bins reading the ingredients on the shiny wrappers trying to recall which combination of nuts, rum, raisins, and dark chocolate we had liked the previous time.
A country’s food reflects its history and geography, so I had to provide some information about Russia’s climate and historical facts about Russia and the Cold War to explain the foods.
During the Cold War, Soviet imports to the US were limited and Soviet immigrants formed factories in the US and re-created their favorite foods and distributed them to Russian stores across the country. Instead of bearing the title “Made in the USSR”, Russian sausages and chocolates were made in Brooklyn and other cities. Now, shoppers can choose between products made in the former USSR and their American clones.
To dispel the myth that Russians only drink vodka, I made a point to show the Moldovan and Georgian wines, Armenian cognacs, juices, teas and samovars. Tea is the most common beverage and is consumed throughout the day. The Tsar Nicolas Teas with strawberry leaves and black currant are my favorite as well as the Persian teas with bergamot. A samovar is a metal urn with a spigot and is popular for tea all throughout the former USSR, Central Asia and Iran. My guests were interested in the cranberry, black currant, strawberry and blueberry juices from Eastern Europe.
Another popular beverage is kefir (a cross between buttermilk and yogurt). The dairy selection carries products made in the US or Canada using Russian recipes and European imports.
“Salt. Russians like salt and salted foods. Not many vegetables grow in the winter, so people marinate their summer and fall vegetables to eat all year long.” I explained.
I showed them all the different kinds of fish available. Salty foods like caviar, herring, smoked fish, pickles and marinated tomatoes are must haves at a Russian meal. Smoked and salted fish (salmon, sturgeon, mackerel, and trout) are considered delicacies. Common appetizers in a Russian home or restaurant are slices of French bread with butter and pieces of smoked or salted salmon or caviar on top.
As we moved to the meat area, I pointed out that many of the pork, veal and beef sausages don’t have an ingredient list since the customers already know what they are looking for.
In addition to the wide variety of Russian chocolates, cake, and Israeli halva, there is also a substantial diabetic section in the store to cater to many Russian diabetics.
The owners chose the name “New World Market” to represent the new beginning that Soviet immigrants were making in the US. The majority of immigrants from the former USSR who came in the last 25 years are Jewish, so Russian stores carry Israeli and Jewish foods.
Just as cultural and professional habits change, so does food preparation. “Russian women are used to making their own salads,” indicated Nonna Sukhovitsky, but the store is appealing to “Americanized Russians” who don’t have time to cook.
We then crossed the street to go into the Moscow-Tbilisi Bakery on Geary and 20th Ave, specializing in Russian and Georgian cuisine.
My dad loves this bakery and despite his high cholesterol, he yearns for the oily chebureki (deep fried meat pastries).
The poppy seed cakes, and piroshki are very popular items. Challah, raisin challah, wheat and rye breads are made on site. They also have a variety of Russian cakes and cupcakes. With their emphasis on Caucasian cuisine, Moscow-Tbilisi makes hatchipuri (cheese pastries), and churchela, a string of walnuts cooked in grape juice, sugar and flour.
By this time, the Russian deli and bakery had made us all quite hungry. So, I urged David, A.J. and John to walk about another 15 blocks.
As we approached Cinderella Bakery on Balboa and 6th Avenue, carts of dark and light rye bread greeted us on the street. Upon entering, we were immersed in the warm air and aromas of freshly baked rye bread and pastries. Founded in 1966, Cinderella is the only bakery in the Bay Area to make authentic Russian rye bread, similar to German rye. This Russian staple is slightly sour as it is made with buttermilk. The bakers use a starter for the bread and the entire preparation time takes four hours.
One of my friends said, “Hmm, it smells great, let’s eat!”
We walked into the adjoining restaurant that was decorated with pictures of Moscow, plates, cups, and platters with Russian folk designs and the famed Russian stacking dolls (matroshka). Besides vodka, Cinderella serves Georgian wines, Russian beers, Russian sparkling wines and kvas (a traditional Russian beverage made from bread, yeast, water and different spices) and of course, tea.
Each Russian Baltica beer has a special number according to the brewing style. David had spent part of his summer traveling with his girlfriend on the Trans-Siberian railroad and he remembered which Baltica numbers he liked. Ironically, or perhaps typically by Russian standards, the young men asked the waiter for the beer numbers on the menu and found out that the restaurant only had beers not listed on the menu! I chuckled and David said that while on the Trans-Siberian, he was often given a menu from the waiter without a warning about what the restaurant actually had in stock! I reminded my friends that food does reflect culture and due to the common food shortages in the former USSR, restaurant menus were not always changed to represent what foods were available.
Now, the tour was over and it was time to eat. We had the assorted fish plate, the cabbage and mushroom Siberian style pirogi pies that had a thick crust, clear noodles and cabbage and mushroom fillings. Since I like Russian style salads, I ordered the vinaigrette (beet, potatoes and pickle salad), olivieh (potato, green peas, pickles, ham, egg and onion salad) and eggplant salad. A basket of Russian dark and light rye breads accompanied the food. I gave my guests my kvas for them to taste since I knew they probably had never tried anything like it in the US.
Mission accomplished! I proved to them that there was a world of Russian food beyond vodka and borscht.
It’s not all Meat and Potatoes:
My next culinary tour in March was with my friend Gautam who is a vegetarian and doesn’t drink alcohol. So, I decided to show him European Food Wholesale on Clement and 32nd Avenue. I showed Gautam every vegetarian thing in the store including the wonderful European cheese selection, piroshkis, fresh soups, salads and berry juices.
The deli and salad section of the store has seven different eggplant salads: eggplant strips with mayonnaise and garlic, baked eggplant with red peppers and cilantro, eggplant “caviar” with tomatoes and garlic, eggplants, tomatoes and red wine, eggplant saté (with red peppers, carrots, onions and celery) and baked sweet eggplant “caviar”.
Before the fall of the former Soviet Union, it was hard to find Russian berry varietals. European Food Wholesale carries frozen berries from Russia including brusnika (logonberries), small cherries, cranberries and oblipixha.
Vladimir Verkholaz, opened the store in 1995 and his family also owns the Popkoff factory in San Francisco that makes frozen pelmeni (meat dumplings), chebureki (meat pastry) and vareniki (boiled dumplings with cheese, potatoes or cherries). They sell these frozen goods at the Clement Street store and at various supermarkets across the country.
Not only did I succeed in my mission to broaden my friends’ perception of Russian cuisine, I also showed them the link between history and cuisine. If “we are what we eat”, then I just gave my friends a taste of Russian and Soviet history.
Susanna Zaraysky is a freelance writer. She was born in Russia and grew up in the Bay Area.
Main Russian dishes:
Buckwheat: A dark grain and common staple of the Russian diet. Buckwheat kasha (hot cereal) is often eaten at breakfast or sometimes accompanies main dishes at Russian restaurants.
Piroshki: Turnovers with cabbage, mushrooms and meat.
Blini: Crepes made with sweet baker’s cheese (similar to Ricotta) or with meat and fried onions.
Syrniki: Fried sweet cheese cutlets.
Vareniki: Boiled Dumplings with cheese, potatoes or cherries.
Pelmeni: Dumplings with various meats, served with sour cream.
Golubtsi: Stuffed cabbage with meat, onions and rice.
Olivie Salad: Potato salad with green peas, pickles, carrots, ham, eggs, onions and mayonnaise.
Vinaigrette Salad: Beets, potatoes, pickles, apples, carrots and onions.
Marinated Vegetables: mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, pickles.
Smoked Fish: Salmon, sturgeon, mackerel and trout.
Beef, Chicken or Fish Cutlets: Ground meat mixed with celery, onion, spices and flour. Looks like a round hamburger.
Beef Stroganoff: Long and narrow pieces of meat fried with onions, then stewed with sour cream.
Chicken Kiev: Ground chicken wrapped around a stick of butter and fried.
Borsch Soup: Tomato and beet broth, chopped beets, cabbage, potatoes, onions, beef slices and sour cream.
Barley Soup: Barley with mushrooms, served with sour cream.
Rassolnik Soup: Pickle soup with beans, beef and barley.
Moscow-Tbilisi Russian Deli
5540 Geary Blvd.
Cinderella Bakery Delicatessen & Restaurant
436 Balboa St
New World Market
2051 Balboa St.
European Food LLC Wholesale
3038 Clement St.
Tel. 415 750 0504