Category Archives: cuisine

EDITORIAL: Russia Stuffs her Face with American Eats

EDITORIAL

Russia Stuffs her Face with American Eats

One of the most utterly hilarious lies we have heard about the people of Russia is that their taste in food is much better than that of Americans, that they have no interest in American fast food.

How odd, then, to see major stories in both the New York Times and the Moscow Times reporting on the explosive growth of American fast-food franchises in Russia.  Subway is poised to overtake McDonald’s in Russia, the MT reports, and it’s not because of lo-cal or vegetarian dining options like those popularized by spokesperson Jared Fogel in the USA.  Nope, from Subway Russians demand only sandwiches packed with fatty sausages and other meats.

The extent of Russia’s passion for American junk food is truly breathtaking, as is the extent of Russia’s hypocrisy and mendacity on the subject.

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EDITORIAL: Gagging on Russia

EDITORIAL

Gagging on Russia

Anatoly Komm in his Moscow restaurant, Varvary

Even when Russia gets something right, it’s still wrong. That’s Russia in a nutshell. And we do mean nut.

For the first time, Russia has placed a restaurant into the world’s top 50 as assayed by the San Pellegrino sparkling water company.  The place is called Varvary, and its chef is Anatoly Komm.  It even specializes in Russian cuisine! This ought to be a great day for Russia.

But here’s what Komm has to say about his eatery (which costs over $300 per person to explore):

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PHOTOS: What Russians can Do, the Story of Lina Kulchinsky

Meet Lina Kulchinsky of Sigmund Pretzel Shop in New York City. She’s a Russian who wanted to be successful in the food business. Here’s her formula (photos from the New York Times):

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EDITORIAL: Russia, Food Wasteland

EDITORIAL

Russia, Food Wasteland

A reader tipped us by e-mail to a new list just published by mineral-water maker Pellegrino of the 50 best restaurants on the planet.  Three of the top ten and eight overall are located in the United States, the nation most honored by the list.  American chef Thomas Keller, who has not one but two restaurants in the top 50, is the world’s most lauded auteur de cuisine.

And guess what:  Not a single restaurant in the top fifty is even located in Russia, much less does it prepare Russian cuisine.

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Russians Lap up Georgian Cuisine (yup, that’s how much their own sucks)

The Independent reports (click the “cuisine” category in our sidebar to read more about Russian food and drink, if so it can be called):

At the newly opened Café Khachapuri, just off Pushkin Square right in the heart of Moscow, young Muscovites tuck into plates of coriander-infused chakhokhbili chicken stew, spicy lobio beans and the eponymous khachapuri – gooey cheesy bread.

None of these exotic Georgian dishes tastes like the bland indigenous Russian food, and nor do their consonant-heavy names roll off the Slavic tongue easily. But everyone knows exactly what they’re ordering. Georgian food, perhaps the tastiest and most exciting of cuisines in all the former Soviet countries, has long been popular in Russia, and as new restaurants spring up across the capital, its popularity is going from strength to strength.

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EDITORIAL: Russia and Mickey D

EDITORIAL

Russia and Mickey D

There are 235 McDonald’s restaurants in Russia.  Before this year is out, that number will increase by a whopping 20% as the company spends $150 million on the Russian business.

Russian McDonald’s outlets are twice as busy on average in Russia as one of the chain’s locations in the United States, seeing an average 850,000 customers compared to just 400,000 in the USA.

Over 125,000 Russian workers owe their income to McDonalds.  That number, of course, is increasing just as rapidly as the number of restaurant locations.  Whole industries previously unknown in Russia have been created to supply the burger chain with the 300 different ingredients it needs to produce its daily menu of American cuisine.

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EDITORIAL: Annals of Russian “Cuisine”

EDITORIAL

Annals of Russian “Cuisine”

Several times already (click the “cuisine” category in our sidebar to see them) we’ve exposed the pathetic charade that is Russian cuisine, a perfect representation of the country itself in that is embodies unreformed yuckiness whilst the benighted population thinks it grand.

But even still, the comments about the latest Russian restaurant to open in America’s eating capital, New York City, in the New York Times by the nation’s leading restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, bear noting:

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Russia: The world’s most gastronomically challenged country

The New York Post agrees with our analysis of the horrifying deficiences of Russian “cuisine”:

It’s no shock that Nets buyer Mikhail Prokhorov celebrated the other day at Nello. The Madison Avenue joint’s overpriced food and underfed blondes are perfect for a bimbo-craving, globetrotting gazillionaire from the world’s most gastronomically challenged country.

Nello’s theoretically Italian, seasoning-shy Oligarch Cuisine attracts the kind of vagabonding clowns too eager to flaunt their ill-gotten gains — hedge-fund scoundrels, tainted politicians, dope-snorting movie stars. Plus, as Mr. Nello Balan once informed us in an ad he placed in this newspaper, “her royal majesty, the late Princess Diana,” Prince Andrew and Prince Albert of Monaco.

They can’t all be going there for the food, even if the joint’s organic guinea hen has more meat on it than some of the broads who hog the front tables.

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EDITORIAL: Zagat on Russia

EDITORIAL

Zagat on Russia

The Zagat publication New York City Restaurants 2009 is the most authoritative guide to eating houses in one of the most diverse eating cities on the planet.  It scores cuisines on a scale of 0-30 points based on input from thousands of diners.

For the convenience of those interested in nothing but the best, the Zagat guide lists the top three restaurants in a variety of 37 cusines on pages 13-16.  It lists Turkish, Thai, Vietnamese, Kosher, Greek, Korean, Caribbean and Indian cuisines, along with more mainstream choices like French, Chinese and Italian, and lots of others.

Russian cusine is nowhere to be found on pages 13-16.  It’s as if it doesn’t exist.  And upon closer inspection of the encyclopedic guide, it doesn’t get much more vivid.

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EDITORIAL: Russia is an Oily, Disgusting Mess

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EDITORIAL

Russia is an Oily, Disgusting Mess

Nyet!

Nyet!

You can read all about one Russian man murdering his wife every 40 minutes, or about Russia not ranking in the top 150 nations of the world for lifespan, or about its stock market losing 80% of its value.  But sometimes information this lethal clouds the mind, and doesn’t allow one to appreciate the true horror of what is going on in Russia.

So let’s use a simpler example. Let’s talk ice cream.

A story last week in the Moscow Times revealed that Russian dairies are lobbying for new legislation that would make it illegal for a manufacturer to use the Russian word for ice cream (“morozhenye“) to refer to a product that contained more than 12% vegetable fat (i.e. trans fat, i.e. shortening, i.e. the stuff in the middle of an Oreo, but frozen) instead of milkfat.

Amazingly, if this measure passes, a whopping 70% – that’s right, seventy percent – of all frozen “treats” currently consumed in Russia will no longer qualify for the “ice cream” designation.  The reason for this is simple, of course:  The collapsing Putin economy means that (delicious) milkfat is far too expensive to be affordable to people who earn less than $3/hour on average, so only cheaper (and very disgusting) vegetable fats are being used to create an affordable substitute.

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Oh, the Horror of Russian Restaurants

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When you combine the scabrous horror of Russian cuisine with the infamous hostility of Russians to anything remotely resembling customer service and Russia’s even more pernicious problems with corruption and pollution, you have a grim restaurant vortex from which nothing resembling light or hope can escape.  Now one heroic blogger has taken it upon himself to record the carnage (if it’s like this in Moscow, Russia’s city of cities, do you dare to imagine what it’s like in the hinterlands?). The Moscow Times reports:

After yet another unfulfilling Moscow meal, one expat recently snapped and launched his own restaurant review web site. This is no Michelin list, as he refuses to rate any restaurant with one star, let alone five.

Unlike tourist guides, which tend to view the city from behind rose-colored glasses, this annoyed foreigner rants at Rus-res-rev.ru about a world in which the customer is always wrong and generally leaves with a bad taste in his mouth — and not just because of the mediocre, overpriced and undercooked food.

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Drinking in Russia

Alexander Nazaryan, a Russian expat English teacher in Brooklyn who has written for the Village Voice, New Criterion and other publications, and is working on his first novel, “Golden Youth,” about Russian organized crime in Brooklyn, had the following op-ed in the New York Times last week (click through to read a number of comments the piece attracted). In it he observes:  “But perhaps because our foods are less sensuous or readily appealing than Mediterranean cuisine ― sour cream is not so sexy, it turns out ― only the [vodka] bottle lingers in the imagination.”  He might not have limited the comparison to Mediterranean cuisine, since Russian food suffers by comparison to virtually any other cuisine you can name. It’s an observation we made long ago, that Russian cuisine is a perfect microcosm of Russia itself, gross and unreformed, because the people of Russia simply can’t be bothered.

There are few bars in my native city of St. Petersburg, and none at all, as far as I can tell, in Brighton Beach, the Russian enclave of Brooklyn to which I return whenever the memory of stuffed cabbage dumplings and accordion music begins to beckon. Not that sobriety has too much traction in either: when I returned to St. Petersburg in 2003 for the first time in 20 years, it was much more common to find open beers in the morning crowd than cups of coffee. And in the extravagant cabarets of Brighton Beach ― those gilded mafiya haunts now frequented by well-heeled families from Montclair and Stamford ― each dinner table is marked by an endless cavalcade of Smirnoff and Courvoisier.

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The Sunday Supper

The New York Times reports:

CANNED peas and boiled bologna, Lara Vapnyar says, is a dish she has missed since arriving in Brooklyn from Moscow in 1994. “We also ate a lot of black caviar,” she said last week. “But I don’t feel nostalgic for that.”

Along with immigration, food and love, nostalgia for the lost world of Soviet Russia has informed Ms. Vapnyar’s fiction — two collections of stories and a novel — since her first short story was published, in 2003. “It is a little like being from Atlantis,” she said.

Ms. Vapnyar’s work is structured and elegant, despite the fact that she spoke little English when she emigrated. But she does not yet have the mastery over spinach that she does over syntax.

“I don’t seem to be able to cook fresh vegetables well,” she said, a broad and breathtaking admission for a writer whose new collection of short stories is called “Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love” (Pantheon Books). In these stories, food has the power to define characters, propel plots, cause riots and even commit manslaughter.

In “Luda and Milena,” two Russian-born women in their 70s compete for a man in their English language class, each elbowing the other aside with platters of spinach pie and cheese puffs. The man finally chokes to death on the day that both women make Russian meatballs: juicy patties enriched with cream-soaked bread, onion and garlic, and fried until crusty and brown. It is, however, impossible to know from the story which woman’s meatball was the fatal instrument.

“I couldn’t do that to either of the characters,” she said. “The point is that no one wins, and they both win, because, after all, they don’t really like to cook, and now they won’t have to.”

In Ms. Vapnyar’s work, the chores of cooking are often presented alongside the satisfactions of the finished dish: Sergey, an impotent carpet installer, is seduced by watching a prostitute make borscht — mincing garlic and parsley together, carefully crushing boiled potatoes — in her tiny, steamed-up kitchen. A young woman, trapped in Brighton Beach by her immigrant parents’ expectations, finds her place at the family table by sitting down with a knife to make Salad Olivier. It is the Russian party dish par excellence: a mound of hard-boiled eggs, canned peas, pickles, potatoes and meat, diced and bound with a tangy mayonnaise. For particularly swanky occasions, the salad is covered with aspic.

“There are high versions and low versions,” Ms. Vapnyar said. “I like them all.”

Through her work, American food is seductive — often to the point of nausea. In her novel, “Memoirs of a Muse,” Tanya’s immigration application is fueled by fantasies about the coffee she will be able to drink in Brooklyn. “Turkish coffee, Swedish coffee, Arabic coffee! … Cappuccino, espresso, iced coffee,” her uncle shouts down the phone line.

Arriving in Brighton Beach, Tanya gorges on cream cheese, smoked salmon, cherry-flavored wine and chocolate cake, and spends her first night in America on the bathroom floor.

Ms. Vapnyar’s transition to the United States was often rocky in its own way. Brooklyn, and its Russian enclaves, did not live up to her expectations of the New World. Her husband, “like all the educated Russians,” got a job as a computer programmer, but she could not find work.

While taking care of their two children, now 13 and 10, she worked on her English first by reading, then by writing.

“I was so lonely and starved for conversation that I began to invent characters,” she said.

She has never written in Russian, only in English. She has taught writing at the City College of New York, where her students often turned in work filled with sex and gore. One assignment she gave them was to write about food and how characters responded to it, to teach them how preferences, memories and quirks could make up a personality on the page.

“Beginning writers often don’t give their characters enough particulars,” she said. “Food is something that readers can understand.”

In the short story “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf,” the character Nina is defined by her infatuation with American vegetables. (Her husband — who, clearly, will soon leave her — introduces her to his poetry-reading, guitar-playing friends as “a vegetable lover.”) Nina buries herself in a lavishly illustrated Italian cookbook, with pictures of a woman’s smooth, capable hands working in the kitchen: “Nina fantasized that … It was she who pushed the hard, stubborn stuffing into the bell peppers, or rinsed grit off lettuce leaves, or chopped broccoli florets, scattering tiny green crumbs all over the table.”

In fact, like many home cooks, Nina never manages to cook the vegetables she buys. When her husband leaves her, it is with a crisper drawer full of rot.

Like Nina, Ms. Vapnyar says that her intentions often exceed her abilities in the kitchen. “I like to cook, but it wasn’t considered a prestigious or entertaining activity when I was young, the way it is here.”

When she was growing up in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, her family — like most other Soviet-era Russian families — had one cookbook: “It was a big book full of canned food, published by the government,” she said. That book, “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food,” was first published in 1939, a move by Stalin’s regime to replace what had been Russia’s classic cookbook from 1861 until 1917, when it was banned: the aristocratic tome “A Gift to Young Housewives.”

“You couldn’t make a case that that book was anything but bourgeois,” said Darra Goldstein, a professor of Russian at Williams College and editor of the food journal Gastronomica. “It was for the upper classes and their servants.”

By contrast, the recipes in “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food” were accessible to ordinary Soviet citizens.

“It was the 1952 edition that took off, just as the Soviet food industry was really getting going,” Professor Goldstein said. Alongside photographs of cans of fish and recipes using dried soup were vistas of wheat fields and orchards. “It was a powerful piece of nationalistic propaganda, but also very useful as a cookbook,” she said.

Ms. Vapnyar was born in 1971 and grew up during what is sometimes termed the stagnation period of Soviet history, presided over by a top-heavy, aging Communist party bureaucracy. Some of the regimentation and repression remained — at Ms. Vapnyar’s preschool all the children had to nap lying on their right sides — but by the time she was 18, the first McDonald’s in Moscow had opened.

“One of the first signs of perestroika that I remember is commercials for American candy bars,” she said. She remembers watching a construction worker eating a Snickers bar, and the slogan for another candy bar, Bounty: Paradise on Earth.

“I believed every word,” she said. When she was small, she said, there were vegetables and fruit at weekly farmers’ markets in Moscow, but fresh food became less and less available. The daily work of shopping and cooking was grim and unpredictable.

“I remember waiting hours, standing on the street, to buy frozen meat that someone had bought from the Belgian military,” said Ninel Vapnyar, Lara’s mother, who lives with her daughter on Staten Island. “It had expired, and all that was left was the bad bits. I couldn’t stand the smell and went in the bedroom, but Lara cooked it slowly, with garlic and salt and oil.”

Lara Vapnyar’s food memories, filtered through a childhood lens, are more fond. It is, it turns out, possible to be nostalgic even for a cuisine so repetitive and denatured as Soviet-era institutional cooking.

“I am sure the meatballs at my school were inedible, but I would give all of these cakes and things to have some right now, with a pile of real mashed potatoes,” she said, dismissing the plush layer cakes and perky cupcakes at Kitchenette in TriBeCa. “Even just the potatoes, with a small piece of pickled herring.”

Russia’s Nigella Speaks

Remember what LR said long ago about Russian cuisine? Maybe there’s hope for Russians after all! First Post reports:

Yulia Vysotskaya (pictured), Russia’s answer to Nigella Lawson, has caused a scandal by criticising borsch. The beetroot soup – a traditional Ukrainian dish which Russians have adopted as their own – is, says Vysotskaya “disgusting”.

“I hate it as a dish and I hate it as a symbol,” she spits. Gazpacho, says Yulia, is a far better alternative.

In these nationalistic times, with Russians torn between embracing the new and reviving the old, her comments have hit a raw nerve. Critics say that Vysotskaya, a favourite with millions of TV viewers, has lost touch with her audience.

There are hundreds of foreign restaurants in Moscow, but one of the capital’s biggest success stories is Yolki Palki (Goodness Gracious), a chain of affordable restaurants aimed at the new middle class which offer exclusively Russian fare: meat cutlets, cabbage pies and an all-you-can-eat zakuski (starters) buffet. Lately blini kiosks have sprung up all over Moscow and Vilka Lozhka, an old-fashioned Soviet stolovaya (workers’ canteen), has opened on the Arbat in the centre of town. The upmarket Russian restaurant Pushkin, open 24 hours, is still a place to be seen: its miniature mushroom pies are legendary.

Vysotskaya takes the opposite line, encouraging Russians to ditch their favourite black bread and babushka’s home-made jam in favour of Thai green chicken curry.

Irina Mikhailovskaya, editor of Russian Elle, says this is no longer chic: “Initially she was exciting but now her show has got a bit tired. I think people would like to see a man doing a show like this now.”

Step forward Andrei Makarevich of Smak (Yum) on Channel One. His speciality dish? Russian kebabs. Now that’s more like it.

Then again, maybe Yulia will find herself arrested any day now. She’s obviously a traitor to the Fatherland!

Annals of Russian . . . umm . . . cuisine

It’s time to play “Identify that Really Weird Thing in the Photograph”!

Is it:

(a) The Kremlin’s birthday gift to Boris Berezovsky

(b) A recovery from the tomb of Cheops

(c) A radioactive isotope

(d) A “pashka” (Russian Easter “treat”)

Seriously, are there any circumstances under which you would
consider consuming this object internally?