Unlike many exotic or unknown cuisines which have gained traction in recent years (Georgian, Turkish or Argentine), Russian cuisine remains in relative obscurity, especially in Canada. Apparently my countrymen despite their increasing numbers are not doing their part in spearheading the effort to introduce the food to our adoptive country. When we first moved to Canada there were very few folk from Russia here, and every time you’d inadvertently overhear someone speak Russian it would be an immediate occasion to introduce oneself and often make a new friend. There was exactly one small store selling Russian food, and people drove from across the city to see and buy familiar ingredients.
Now it’s heard much more frequently around town, and there are several excellent stores carrying Russian themed items, yet I’ve never seen a native Canadian shop in such a store, even for the sake of curiosity. The situation is often not helped by the store owner themselves, who sometimes speak poor English and are unable to help a bewildered customer navigate unfamiliar items and wax eloquent about their favorites. Even a local food writer extraordinaire dee Hobsbawn-Smith completely neglected Russian stores in her otherwise excellent book Shop Talk: The Open-All-Hours Insider’s Guide to Finding Great Ingredients in Calgary. But there are some things which must be shared with the world, so without further ado, here is my tour of a typical Russian store with my highlighted favorites.
As you walk through the door you will see three things common to all Russian stores – tea, jams and canned goods. The teas are mainly imported due to Russian writing on the side of the box, although it comes from London, and can be seen in a few other stores around town, like the small market adjoining Atlas. The jams are rather unique – they are closer to preserves than a traditional jam and are softer and runnier, typically made with just sugar. The labels should help you navigate and some may even contain English labels. The flavors are more common to Russia – cranberry, black currant, red currant, blackberry and cherry are lined up next to the usual flavors of apricot, raspberry and strawberry. In the photo below the first half of the shelves is taken up with sweetened condensed milk and dolce de leche, both ingredients crucial to baking.
Loose tea from London
Next to the tea there are bins and bins of candy – mainly caramel and chocolate. They were rare toward the end of the Soviet era, so many people are quite nostalgic about their flavors. I am not a huge fan of most of them as they consist of a hard caramel shell with a soft fruity filling inside. Meh. The one exception are the candy with a cow on the label – they are fudgy and addictive. There are small bags around if you feel like trying one or a few – it’s candy you can’t go too far wrong.
The canned food section is vast and confusing. If you’re unfamiliar with Russian food, you should stay away from much of it at the beginning. Russian cuisine is not always friendly to untutored exploration and there is too much that will not be a good intro to a western palate. Basically baby steps – try what I’m recommending first before venturing into the murkier depths of traditional soups and spreads. A good place to start though is the vast variety of pickled items. Russia has always had cold and long winters and people had to rely on root cellars and preserving food to make it last through the winter to the harvest ahead. So the food culture evolved around whole grains, root vegetables, fermented foods and meat. On the shelf below you’ll see pickled red peppers, pickled watermelon, pickled cukes, pickled cabbage, pickled tomatoes, pickled zucchini and sauerkraut. You can’t go too far wrong with most of these items, but skip the sauerkraut, it’s made fresh in –house and will be in the fridge.
Mmmm - pickles
I recommend these tiny crunchy baby cukes: (the label clearly refers to the drinking culture of Russia – it says ‘vodka chaser’ as these items are often consumed while drinking).
And my favorite brand of pickled tomatoes, made in Bulgaria. Pickled tomatoes are brined without vinegar, just water, sugar, salt and spices. Of course their texture leaves them soft and falling apart, but if you can get past that – the flavor is great. Slightly sweet, rather salty they are an addictive taste and are a popular snack and hangover cure.
Ugly but good
The sausage counter is just a mix of salted pork belly, lard, salami and ham, sliced to order. Everything is available to sample, and sampling is encouraged. There is no real guide here – the sausage culture is adapted heavily from Germany and Poland and probably other places I don’t know about, but sausage is sausage.
Somewhere near the front counter you’ll see a bread basket. Typically there will be three types of bread inside – a long sliced loaf, similar to the mild German rye that is sold at Superstore at the moment, a square dark rye, almost black, and the loaf you see below. The square dark rye is perhaps Russia’s most iconic bread – Borodinsky bread. Legend has it that it was developed by nuns who baked loaves studded with coriander around the village of Borodino, famous as a battle site against Napoleon. Sweetened with malt and studded with caraway it is a dark dense loaf, full of flavor that can stand up to the toughest toppings. It’s a noble bread, but my personal favorite happens to be a smaller, even denser loaf with a sweet chewy texture. Even my boyfriend who is rather cautious in his enthusiasm for Russian food happily snacks on it, along with chunks of dry salami and aged cheddar, or dipped in borscht. All the breads can be frozen, so you are under no obligation to eat through a whole loaf, although they keep well on the counter. Very healthy and low calorie they are a filling guilt free snack at our house.
Russian rye - nothing like it
If you were to only purchase one single item as an introduction to Russian food, these would have to be it. Each bags below holds one kilogram of Siberian dumplings – Russia’s answer to wontons in Asia, tortellini in Italy and empanadas in Latin America. They are one of the holy grails of Russian cuisine. When I was a child it was common for the family to get together for a several hour long marathon of pelmeni making. Pork and beef were mixed together in equal quantities, a schwack of onions would be grated in, a good quantity of black pepper and salt would be added and the whole mix would be wrapped up in fresh dough circles, placed on floured trays and frozen. Several thousand would be made at a time and since we lived in Siberia we simply stored them outside.
Try them now!
To prepare pelmeni simply drop them frozen into boiling water seasoned with a bit of seasoning salt and a bay leaf. They will be done about five minutes after they begin floating, or about 10 minutes total. You can serve them in the resulting broth or on their own. Traditionally they are served with melted butter, mustard, sour cream or vinegar spiked with pepper, but people also love them with ketchup and horseradish. Really you should set out at least three of the above and have a taste test – a clear winner will soon emerge. James loves his mustard (or sometimes Sriracha sauce), and I am a ketchup girl. Although in the winter I’ve been known to dip them into apple cider vinegar and pepper. The world is your oyster. These are amazing and fast treats and THE perfect supper on a chilly weeknight. Ten minute dinner that everyone adores, even if you factor in a salad.
Whew, part 2 coming up on Monday.
The store I took photos in is aptly named Russian Store, and is located at:
523 Woodpark Blvd SW
But there are several in town, including:
Matryoshka on the corner of 16 Ave and 14 St SW
17107 James McKevitt Road SW
Kalinka at 11440 Braeside Dr SW
Avenida Place Shopping Centre