There is no tofu in St. Petersburg. Or if there is, it is remarkably well hidden. I have searched the aisles and corridors of supermarkets across the city, and the closest thing I’ve found is white fish that looks vaguely like tofu (if you squint a lot). I had an all-too-fleeting moment of excitement when I found soymilk nestled amidst cartons of sour cream at one supermarket, only to be disappointed when further investigation failed to uncover the more substantial member of the soy family. I know tofu isn’t on everyone’s list of favorite foods, but in my opinion, it’s vastly underrated. And more importantly, given that I am both vegetarian and lactose-intolerant, it’s a key component of my diet when I am at home in the US.
Before I left for St. Petersburg this summer, I asked for advice from friends who had lived in Russia. Would it be possible to avoid meat and dairy and still find something to eat? Could I find somewhere to buy tofu? I get by in the US without too much trouble, so how much harder could it really be in Russia? Some friends gave me advice (bring peanut butter!) while others just laughed and said they hoped I liked potatoes. Dairy products are ubiquitous in Russia, from the ice cream stands dotting the city sidewalks to the sour cream that seems to be included in almost every Russian dish. And while I hear that vegetarianism is slowly becoming more popular, it certainly is not the norm. So I packed a little bit of peanut butter and a lot of lactase pills (which allow me to eat small amounts of dairy) and hoped for the best. Apart from worries about whether I would be able to meet my basic nutrition needs, I feared I would offend my host family if they served me something that I couldn’t eat. As a guest in their home, I felt uncomfortable asking them to change their usual cooking habits on my behalf.
Fortunately, my host mother, Olga, seems to view my complicated eating needs as an interesting challenge rather than a nuisance. To compensate for the lack of meat and dairy, she fills my plate with piles of fresh fruit and vegetables. Almost every day she brings home something new for me to try: shredded carrot and orange salad, pelmeni (dumplings) with potatoes instead of the usual meat filling, strawberry pastries, and more. She cooks delicious vegetarian soup and frets that it will be too bland without chicken broth or sour cream. In return for her hard work, I keep an open mind: dill and cucumber flavored spread for breakfast? Actually quite tasty! In my first weeks here, I sampled many dishes I would never think of eating at home, and I found so many new favorites that I barely noticed the absence of tofu, my old standby.
But despite my assurances that I loved her cooking and had enough (usually much more than enough) to eat, Olga was not satisfied. She asked me to give her the details of my usual diet at home. I attempted to describe tofu with my limited Russian vocabulary. It felt a little like playing Twenty Questions: “It is not meat?” “No, but it is similar to meat. You can cook it like meat. It is from the soy plant.” “Is it like flour?” “No… it is… like a box.” “Do you make soup with it?” “Uh… maybe?”
I was pretty sure that my description had made no sense whatsoever, and I could not find the word “tofu” in any Russian dictionary I checked, so I doubted that Olga had understood me. Imagine my surprise when, a week later, she returned from a trip to Finland and unearthed a crumpled packet of tofu from the depths of her suitcase! I was very impressed. Not only had she correctly interpreted my imperfect description, but she took time to track down my favorite food while she was abroad. After I showed her how to cook it, she even sampled a little herself. I awaited for her reaction, wondering if she would enjoy my cuisine as much as I enjoyed hers. The verdict?
“Not bad. But it would be much better with sour cream.”
By: Mary Brakenridge
Term: Summer 2011