American vs. Russian: Cuisine

I’ve recently started writing about my perspective on Russian culture, as an American, for another blog.  It’s a language blog to help Russians learn English and to provide insight into the cultural norms in English and Russian speaking cultures.  This is the third article I wrote for English in Russia, and I wanted to post it on my own blog as well.  Here is the link to the other blog sight, in case you want to follow any comments there or check out any other articles:

without further ado…..

Russian vs American: Cuisine

Within the first few weeks of living in Russia, I lost about 10 pounds (4.5 Kilos). It did not take me long to gain all of it back (and then some), when I returned home…now I am on a diet (typical American cycle). No, this article is not going to talk about why Americans are so obese, but I merely wanted to use my scenario as an illustration for what I rediscovered about American food when I came home. It’s a contradictory statement, but American food is probably some of the best food in the world, as well as some of the worst food in the world. How can this be, you ask? Don’t worry, I will elaborate on this in full detail.

First of all, let me clear up one misconception about Americans and our cuisine.  We do not only eat food from McDonald’s and Burger King. In fact, the last time I was in a McDonald’s was in Russia, and only because it had a free public toilet. And I had never before seen a Carl’s Junior until I arrived in Saint-Petersburg. I hate to break it to you, but I think Russians like our fast food more than we do. After all, it’s because of Gorbachev that Russia has Pizza Hut! ( Yes, we have a lot of fast food and chain restaurants to accommodate our busy lifestyles, but a lot of Americans (myself included), choose not to poison our bodies by eating at them on a regular basis. Fast food restaurants are one example of why American cuisine is some of the worst in the world, not only because they sell unhealthy food, but also because, here in the States, they are driven by the livestock and corn industries – powerful lobbies that are poisoning our foods and wreaking havoc on the environment (in my opinion).

You see, the biggest difference between American cuisine and Russian food can be summed up in one simple truth: we don’t make anything from scratch. Everything we eat or cook at home comes in packages, and they are loaded with ingredients whose names I cannot even pronounce. Fortunately, many Americans are beginning to catch on to the fact that the food industry and science have been poisoning our food for years and many of us are becoming vegetarian, eating organic and avoiding foods with GMO’s (such as myself). The market is finally beginning to shift to accommodate a healthier diet.

So then how is American food some of the best food in the world? It’s simple really. We are one of those countries that has been blessed with a diverse ethnic population and we get the benefit of adopting all of their cuisines. Russia also has this advantage, but there still remains a distinct “Russian” cuisine. Nothing we eat is truly “American” (okay, maybe hamburgers and Coca Cola). We’ve got every cuisine you could possibly imagine and we get to experiment with them all and see how they will taste with a new American twist – in fact, we’ve coined this cuisine American Nouveau.

We’ve also developed very strong regional cuisines. America is big and food varies as you travel from state to state. I grew up in Maine, a coastal state known for its lobster.  The southern states are known for having heavy, fattening foods that taste delicious.  Louisiana has a heritage of French and Creole cuisine that is out-of-this-world and loaded with flavor.  The New York tri-state area is a smorgasbord of ethnic and reinvented cuisines – it is the culinary capital of our country. Texans like barbeque and Tex-Mex, Chicago cuisine has a lot of Polish influence, and California is one of the largest economies in the world, in and of itself, and produces amazing wines, produce, seafood, etc. And we love wine and beer. Another secret: I’m going to be bold and say that we have the best beer in the world. Microbreweries have exploded in recent years, utilizing the same entrepreneurial spirit to experiment with beer recipes inherited from our European ancestors. When I came home, I couldn’t wait to have a “real” beer (sorry Baltika!). In a small nutshell, real American cuisine has strong regional and cultural ties and is always open to experimentation.

So what did I think of Russian cuisine? Let me sum up Russian cuisine with a few simple ingredients (keep in mind I’m a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish): cabbage, potatoes, dill, beets, cucumbers (pickled or plain), black bread, smoked salmon, caviar and of course, vodka. In my honest opinion, the best thing to happen to Russian cuisine was the ethnic Georgian population! What I wouldn’t give to have a Georgian restaurant over here, which reminds me – Caucasian cuisine might be the only cuisine I’ve never seen here in the States, although I think it’s been incorporated into the Russian menus on Brighton Beach (the “little” Russia of New York City). In America, you could say that Mexican is to the American cuisine what Georgian is to the Russian cuisine.

Despite my critique of the bland Russian cuisine, I confess I grew to love it. The soups are some of my favorite – borsch and shi especially. I love draniki and salat vinaigrette, although I’ve heard a few other countries claim draniki as their own. I’ve always been an avid fan of all things pickled and I am still searching for a recipe for vitamini salat. Lest we forget, on top of everything goes the dill (I’m actually planning to write an entire article about dill, so stay tuned!).

Occasionally I find myself popping into our local Russian produkti (yep, we’ve got one in my town), to buy sushki and enjoy the nostalgia. Speaking of which, does anybody know how to make grenki? Best beer snack ever! Oh yes, and Russians know how to take a potato and transform it into many different things – even flavored mashed potatoes in a cup! Just add hot water from the samovar on the train and you’ve got yourself a meal. And in summertime, enjoy potatoes sautéed with fresh mushrooms picked by the Russians themselves. But what I don’t understand is, what is it with the pasta and hot dogs, even at breakfast time! Furthermore, Russians love ice cream. My Babushka’s daughter told me they always had ice cream, even amidst the shortages of the Soviet times. I ate the Russian ice cream occasionally, but again I must confess, Americans also love ice cream and I think ours is better.

American cuisine vs. Russian cuisine…sorry, but I’m going to root for my own country on this one, mostly because we have a larger variety. Nevertheless, I will always have a place in my heart for Russian cuisine, as it was all a part of the cultural learning experience. And on a side note, mine and earlier generations of American children grew up being told to eat everything on their plates because there were starving children in China, no joke. Maybe that is why we are obese!

Above: Our “Russian” New Years Dinner included pickled cukes, mini blini, smoked salmon, caviar, cukes & tomatoes with dill, lavash, roasted vegetables, Russian champagne and vodka. Below: A Southern American dish of Shrimp and Grits.

feeling nostalgia: part two – produkti shopping (a.k.a. “grocery” shopping)

I want to preface my post by mentioning that I used to work as a cashier in a grocery store when I was in high school and we have a very specific system of grocery shopping in the States.  First of all, our stores are colossal and can be very overwhelming to foreigners who may be used to shopping at smaller shops and local markets.  Giant stores of this nature do exist in Russia, but if you don’t want to travel far, you may find that a common produkti (similar to a convenience store) will meet your basic needs.  Second of all, as a cashier here in the States, you need to memorize a multitude of produce and grocery codes to help speed up the process at checkout and keep things simple for the customer.  Although new devices and methods have arrived to many grocery stores that allow the customers to do it themselves, for most of my life, I understood that when I buy produce at a store, the code is entered and the product weighed at the register.  Finally, Americans expect good service – it’s part of our capitalistic heritage.  To many non-Americans, we seem entitled (and we have become so, in many respects).  But the way Americans are raised, we work hard and provide goods and services to others – this has market value and when it’s our turn to shop in a supermarket, we value good service as a product we are purchasing, because let’s face it – I don’t have to shop in a store with grumpy cashiers when there are a myriad of other stores I could choose from.  In recent years, service has greatly faltered – you may find cashiers talking on cell phones (or to their peers), and disinterest in customers is becoming more common, but we found a solution….. the self check-out – where I can do it myself and I don’t have to deal with attitude.  I’d rather see a friendly person employed, but…..

So what does all this have to do with grocery shopping in Russia?  It took me some time to get used to.  As I mentioned, most shops conveniently located within walking distance are small.  And, please learn from my lesson (which I mention in one of my first posts), when you purchase produce in many small produkti’s, you weigh the produce in the produce section, or someone employed there (who can rarely be found), will weigh it for you and put the price sticker on it.  My first produkti shopping experience was during the busy after-work hour and I didn’t realize I was suppose to weigh and sticker my produce until I got to the register and aggravated the cashier, who started scolding me in Russian – which, at that point, I couldn’t really understand.  I sat there, staring at her befuddled until a woman behind me said in English, “She wants you to go weigh and sticker the produce.”  The woman was an ex-Pat from the States who understood my confusion.  Grocery shopping experience number one = lesson learned!  Weigh my produce first and angry scolding should not ensue….. unless, oh, wait for it – I’ve only got a thousand ruble bill on me!  Now, a thousand ruble bill is worth about $33 and when it comes to small produkti’s, they don’t always have the proper change in the register to break them….. or maybe they just don’t like to, I don’t know.  However, for my first month or two, when my friends and I would go out to lunch, the question was always, who gets to break their thousand ruble bill at time of pay?  I later learned that I could shop at Stockmann and break a 5,000 ruble bill easily – the cashiers wouldn’t even blink.  I also learned that when shopping at the smaller produkti’s, pretending that I didn’t understand the cashier worked well.  I do not, however, recommend heading to a local produkti early in the morning to buy the milk you forgot to purchase the previous day and handing over anything larger than a 500 ruble bill – chances are they don’t have change for it early in the morning.

Finally, one thing you will notice very quickly upon shopping or dining anywhere in Russia, service may be lacking somewhat, so check all entitled attitudes at the door and just roll with it.  Now, I do not want to totally discredit the service industry in Russia, as I did experience some wonderful service on some occasions….. However, it often seemed that certain aspects of the Russian market economy have not fully adapted to the concept of service as a product being sold.  And another thing to keep in mind, if you see it and you want to buy it, don’t hesitate because there is a good chance you will never see it there again!  Your favorite chocolate appears in a local produkti?  American Peanut Butter on sale at Stockmann?  Toilet paper that doesn’t smell like apples and flowers?  Pretend like it’s Y2K all over again and start stocking up before it vanishes into thin air 🙂  Now, keep in mind that there are many places where you can always find whatever you need, but it may not be convenient or cheap (like Peanut Butter, which costs about $10 for a small jar).  All in all, it’s these differences between the American crazy-consumerist’s market and the Russian happy-to-not-have-shortages market that I loved learning and adapting to, especially when you consider that just 20 years ago, there was no full-blown Russian market economy and things were always in shortage.  Some may think I am silly for writing about this, but shopping for goods and purchasing services is something we all do and learning how to do it abroad reveals a lot about how people there live.  During the warmer months, little babushka’s sell some of the best summer produce, mushrooms and beautiful flowers on the street – it has become a part of their livelihood and it is one of the best ways to shop and support local people.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Stockmann is a Westerner’s dream grocery store while abroad in Russia, but there is only one of them in Saint Petersburg and there are great produkti’s and babushka’s around every corner.  Some last few points: bring your own plastic bags to the produkti or be prepared to buy them; you may want to check your luggage at the door in the lockers; and when it comes time to hand the cashier the money, don’t – that’s what the money plate is for….. so no one has to touch anyone’s dirty hands!  Oh, and one more thing, when dining in a restaurant, just because something is listed on the menu doesn’t mean they actually have it, so be sure to ask before ordering!

Fruit Stand.

A Babushka selling flowers in Lithuania (she spoke Russian).