I grew up in San Francisco with a Russian family. Borsch, kotlety, pelmeni, pierogi and olivye salad were household staples for the longest of time for me. But all of those “traditional” Russian foods are dependent on each family on how they are made, and what they feature. For example, I grew up not liking carrots in my olivye salad because my mom would never put them in. A lot of families, on the other hand, put in carrots, and really enjoy them for the color or the additional crunch. As a result, I was apprehensive to come to Moscow and live with a host family. Although Russian food as a whole is extremely nostalgic for me, I am super picky. If it isn’t exactly how I remember it supposed to taste, I probably won’t like it at all. As a result, I was nervous.
Another part of my study abroad anxiety was that Russian food tends to be very heavy. A lot of potatoes, protein, dairy. This is actually a really interesting phenomenon – many northern cultures, especially in Europe have a lot of dairy and especially dairy fat in their national dishes. During the winter months milk and animal fat were very important sources of calories, as fresh food was scarce. I, on the other hand, have grown away from those kinds of dishes. Living in California, in warm climate year-round, I grew more attached to fresh produce. I also just spent the last year of college living off-campus in my own apartment cooking for myself. For the 10 months before the program start my diet consisted of a lot of vegetables, leafy greens, and rice. I packed a bento lunch with me nearly every day, when I had a limited lunch break. I also imagined that I would continue to cook sometimes and plan and pack myself my lunches: salads, onigiri, tacos, curry, and so on.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), that was not the case at all. In worry of the heavy diet, I told my host family I’m vegetarian – I’m not, but I eat meat so rarely that I wouldn’t even notice if I didn’t have it for eight weeks straight. They were super accommodating. I mentioned that I liked rice and mostly eat vegetables, and it was rice dishes, baked zucchini, salads, and stir-fry for dinner. (Breakfast was an easy solve – granola and yogurt daily is great because of both that morning routine and no dishwashing or real cleanup required!) When I went out, it was still easy to find those “healthy” foods that I was so used to. My host family almost completely didn’t let me cook – if I wanted to take a lunch to go they would insist on packing me leftovers. I also realized that it is a lot cheaper to go out for lunch than it is in the U.S., and I do it on a daily basis anyway. There is always something new to try at the local Bratiya Karavayevi, or a business lunch and Djondjoli!
The biggest downside? San Francisco is known for three main cuisines – Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican. My high school years were sustained on Ramune, dim sum, burritos, and all sorts of Japanese sweets. Every time I came home from college, my first stops would be Nippon – the Japanese supermarket in Japan town and Boba Guys – a bubble tea chain that’s very popular in SF. The first couple of weeks in Moscow were fine and then week three I got the biggest craving for dorayaki and milk tea. I was beside myself, trying to find any place that sells the red bean paste filled pancakes. I trekked across the entire city to every single place that would sell Japanese products. Even what I think of as proper Chinese food is hard to find here – legitimate dim sum places? Only by recommendation from someone who knows what they are talking about. Otherwise you don’t know what you are actually going to get. With Mexican it was a little easier, but still – Russian food uses very little spice, and so most places do not serve properly seasoned salsa. The tacos are okay, but do not actually solve a craving.
Not all is lost, though. Moscow, and really the entirety of Russia, discovered a culinary gem that the U.S. still needs to catch up on: Georgian food. More accurately – Khachapuri, a baked bread and cheese item that comes in a variety of styles. My favorite (and the favorite of most others) is Khachapuri in the Adjarsky style. It’s a bread boat filled with cheese, baked until the cheese melts. It forms a small crust and after baking they add an egg yolk and some butter. The only way to eat this is to tear off an end of the bread and mix the cheese, butter and yolk together and simply dive in. Fair warning, though, it is addictive – you will find that once you try it, you will need to have it near weekly. I started looking up where I can find it in San Francisco – and found out that there is only one place for all the Bay Area, that was a whole two-hour drive away from my house, and expensive. A true pity.
Overall there are always ups and downs, always specific home things that you will miss whenever you travel away from home. Food is always a big one. But Moscow opened up my eyes to a lot of new things to try, and a lot of things that I will miss – including not having to ever cook because my host family took care of everything. I can’t say that I can continue to live without onigiri and bao, but I now will have to learn how to make Khachapuri at home, because I will definitely miss it.
By: Polina Florova
Program: Overseas Professional & Intercultural Training Program, Moscow, Russia
Term: Summer 2019