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Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Russian Fast Food in Moscow and St. Petersburg

Written by Steve Street
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If it’s your first time in Russia, chances are you’ll be thrown by the Cyrillic, even if you’ve diligently studied the alphabet charts in your guidebook beforehand. The mix of recognizable Roman and Greek characters and the Russian ones with no English equivalents will be charmingly baffling and somewhat disorienting for about four hours, or until you get seriously hungry. Even simple staples like kulibeka, a bread with white mushrooms or cabbage baked inside, or moiva, a small dried fish served whole as an appetizer, or the traditional fermented wheat beverage krace, a sort of peasant’s pop like a dark near beer, are hard to translate, let alone order.  Never mind delicacies such as pickled garlic or pike-and-perch soup.  I Had Borscht because I could say it, though I hadn’t touched beets since some unpleasantness at age five.

The restaurants advertised in your hotel might be the best way to find places with menus in English. I found that Georgian and Armenian establishments tend to have English underneath the Russian describing each dish, much like in nouvelle cuisines back home.. Also, you’ll probably hear about or stumble across charming neo-tsarist places like Zoom, a St. Petersburg café where the check arrives in a novel or volume of poetry – in Cyrillic, a necessary reminder that you’re not in Soho, Monterry, or some upscale mall in Des Plaines.

But what you really wanted was to pass your GREs (Genuine Russian Experiences).Once you’ve been up and down Nevsky Prospect or the Old Arbat for a few hours; you’ll want something solid in your stomach. I’ll warn you that a meal at some of these places (or just getting the check for one) can seem to take several hours, given intercultural variations on the concept of time and the visitor’s limited amount of it. So, carefully construct your schedule and routes in order to plan lunch and dinner at restaurants your guidebook lists that are close to the monuments and museums you want to visit throughout the day. Remember, though, the rewards of travel are often found in the surprises when you get lost. And whether you know where you are or not, when hunger hits, your stomach can’t be ignored. What’s surprising is that the ordinary quest of trying to fill it can lead to nourishment of a longer-lasting sort.

One of the best plain meals I found in Russia was at a chain called Kroshka Kartoshka, which looks something like KPOWKA KAPTOWKA in Cyrillic. On the logo, those letters appear in a circle around a cartoon chef hoisting a giant potato, which is what’s served, baked, with your choice of sauces in stainless-steel bowls you can point at through Plexiglas: mushrooms, greens, fish, and meat. I pointed to green-and-brown, pink-and-yellow, and another I forget, all flavorful beyond the chili and broccoli-and-Kraft I’ve had at similar establishments here (though it’s a great idea anywhere, isn’t it?). Maybe the scenery helped the flavor: in the lively Sennaya Plochad (Haymarket Square) location where I first noticed these in St. Petersburg, I took my dressed potato outside on a tray with a draft Boshkarov beer to eat at pine-green plastic furniture (pine green is the color of Kroshka Kartoshka) set out under umbrellas just across from the wishful new monument to international peace, a column made of a metal that looks like ice.

In Moscow, I saw a pine-green cart with the familiar round logo in the Old Arbat, across fruit and vegetable stands from the McDonald’s at the end of the pedestrian mall nearest Smolensky Bulvar and the Foreign Ministry, furthest from the end near Arbatskaya Plochad and the statue of Gogol. Keep your eyes peeled and forget the KGB: it’s Kroshka Kartoshka that is all over.

In St. Petersburg, the fast-blini chain Teremok is also something you will likely see all over town. Don’t be put off by the lit-plastic orange-and-blue burger-chain-like facades and ordering systems: the upside is that the food is pictured, so you can point (and smile). You’ll be glad to know it is also good food and quite reasonable Choices range from ham and cheese to soups, salads, krace and, of course, blini. Blini are pancake-like crepes, griddle-fried for each order -so the lines can be slow, particularly on Nevsky Prospect around weekday lunchtime, but the wait is worth it; they’re filled with salmon or red caviar. Salads, often a bit heavy on the mayonnaise, come in the kind of clear plastic cups used for sundaes at Dairy Queen. Krace, on tap like soft drinks, can be bought to go, in a plastic bottle.

A cafeteria can be another find, a great place to smile and point. One called Kapmaro on the east side of the Gribadoevar Canal in St. Petersburg (on the right as you turn in from Nevsky Prospect toward the Church of the Spilled Blood), promises “quick service” on its orange signs outside and inside offers nature videos on twin TVs and, among other dishes, salmon whole or in patties, patries, and borcht served hot or cold. In another, a step-down with an Arabic name on the Nevsky Prospect just above the M. Morskaya Ulitza, another Western traveler, judging from his new “So-and-So Properties” shoulder bag, and I ate well and in peace.

A note about the mayo: if you don’t like it, visit a different country. A piece of meat, maybe veal, that I ordered once in a restaurant like those mentioned above arrived under a puffed layer that looked like breading or melted cheese until cautious prodding revealed it as maybe half a cup of mayonnaise, possibly baked, the closest this traveler came to a complete cultural balk, though of course the goo was easily scraped off. The mayonnaise for take-out salads comes in packets, so you can set your own limits.

I found the salads in a refrigerated display case at one of the small stores identified by sidewalk signs that read, more or less, “24-YACA,” (“chasa,” or hours) – not a chain, just a sign. Think Mom and Pop store meets 7-Eleven. At a step-down 24-chasa behind white latticed doors and windows on the Kazanskaya in St. Petersburg, what looked to be dozens of varieties of vodka (including garilka, a Ukranian hot-pepper vodka best consumed carefully) in interestingly shaped and labeled bottles share shelf space with breads and other goods that women behind the counter will hand down to you one by one, sighing. This 24-chasa was in a trailer parked at the angle of Zabovsky Bulvar and Burdenko in Moscow, near the Leo Tolstoy statue and the Moscow Home HI hostel. My salads were in round clear-plastic containers that make the contents visible. And the contents do need identifying, because in Russia anything - from fruit to cucumbers to pasta to pickles to fish and meat - can qualify as “saLAHT” (looks like “calat”). It’s healthy food, the ingredients neatly cut or cubed and stacked by kind in the container, though it did take two salat to make a meal for this overindulged American appetite. Two salads along with a bottle of BonAqua “bez gaz” (still) mineral water, cost 55 rubles, some $2.25.

Also in the 24-chasa – or in supermarkets like the St. Petersburg chain identified by a big red dot on its sidewalk sign – you might ask for yogurt. Not “yo-GOORT” or “yo-GOOR” or “you-HOOR,” as I somehow felt obligated to try out until that last brought my mistake to my own ear – but “YOgurt,” our very sounds, a cognate. Sometimes Russian, like travel moments anywhere, can be as suddenly and astonishingly easy as lifting a trunk you’d though was full but isn’t.

More often, though, travelers need help. The best source for it, in these Russian places where you want to lose yourself right up until the moment you find yourself lost, is Russians themselves. The magic words are please and thank you paZSAlusta (the middle syllable pronounced as in Zsa Zsa Gabor) and spaSEEba. Just as important is to breathe, smile, and look your server in the eye. You might not always get a smile back – like Kroska Kartoshka, the grumpy are all over – but you’ll eat. The transaction beforehand can become complicated, even its successful conclusion quite humbling, as when I ate rice and salmon with a soup spoon because I didn’t know how to say that a cafeteria’s fork bin was empty.

But I count a renewed awareness of life’s complexity among the substantial rewards of travel. Modern Russia, no matter its sins or problems past or present, is a society growing from a core value of solidarity, among other similar ones in the revolutionary ideologies of 90 years ago, and hunger, especially in the formerly besieged former Leningrad, is a great leveler. I made few friends trying to order food, but I was fed. And the smiles when they did come were glorious: fleeting and curious, delighted and kind. Call it insight into oneself or the Russian character or grace itself: travel might well be the Great Romance, as a 1920’s poster for a cruise down the Nile put it, but unrehearsed mealtime can be the Great Reality, which turns out not to be so grim.

“Nyet,” croaked a woman I was trying to pay for a red-jelly pastry in a pedestrian underpass in Moscow, shaking her head slowly with the grave, deadpan gaze Russians seemed to favor no matter the issue at stake. The pastry was some 14 rubles, and I’d given her two bills totaling 60: a 50 and a 10 instead of the two tens I’d intended. These times I could have been taken out cold, but wasn’t. Even a drunk who had accosted me turned down five rubles – I quickly found out he simply wanted to share with me a sentence he knew in English, “The city is very beautiful.” This filled me with a sense of gratitude and love for people anywhere who, strapped thought they might be, live by more than immediate gain. To travel well, you have to believe in these people, literal strangers, and put your faith in them and the world itself, wherever you might find yourself. For every story about a pickpocket or marauding bands of trained gypsy child-thieves you might hear, you’ll experience dozens of these small gestures of honesty, generosity, respect and automatic principle – you just have to look for them.

©Steve Street

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012