Russia isn’t exactly known for its cuisine throughout the world. I suppose it’s natural that when your country experiences such long and difficult winters, the food ends up heavy on root vegetables or pickles. I’ll admit that it has been difficult adjusting to the food here. I came here a vegetarian, but after some health problems, I’ve had to re-incorporate some seafood and chicken into my diet. But somehow, I’ve still managed to find some tasty things here. (Sorry for the terrible quality of photos in this post but I was too lazy to get my camera every time I had a meal)
A supermarket in Russia is nothing like a grocery store in the US. The supermarkets here are much smaller and have a more limited selection. On multiple occasions, I’ve had to visit two or even three different stores just to get all the ingredients necessary for some meal (although that typically only happened when I wanted to make a Tex-Mex meal or some other foreign dish). After this year, I feel like I definitely understand Boris Yeltsin’s reaction to the grocery store in Texas back in the 80s.
Foods in the supermarket tend to be very local and fresh, however. And I don’t think they contain as many preservatives. Milk all comes from within a few km of the city and the milk only lasts for five days. That reminds me, in Russia, instead of a ‘Best by’ date, the date the products were made is written on them and then somewhere it will tell you how long it’s expected to last. That really scared me the first time I got home with all of my groceries and then realized that the dates on everything had already passed!
Since winter in Russia is long and difficult, fresh fruits and vegetables become rare. Beets, potatoes, onions, and garlic are very common and found all the time. Apples, bananas, oranges, and pears are also found all the time, usually imported. During the early winter, persimmons were really common. I can almost always get a pomelo too, a large citrus fruit that’s like a slightly sweeter grapefruit. Beyond that, it’s a toss-up what you’ll be able to find on any given day in the supermarket.
These supermarkets are apparently fairly modern in Sakhalin, according to Justin. Even five years ago, they were more typical markets (which you can still find today), where different merchants have very small stores together in one building, each specialising in some different thing. So one for bread and other bakery items, one for milk and dairy products, one for meats, etc. In this style market, you don’t walk around and choose for yourself of what you want. You have to speak the merchant and order
You’ve probably all heard of borscht before, although you might associate it with Ukraine. In your mind you’re probably also picturing a deep red soup made with beets. Well, borscht in Russia is a whole rainbow of tangy, hearty soups. Red borscht is dominated by beets, while orange borscht makes heavy use of carrots, and green borscht uses something that Google translate tells me is “sorrel”. Typically borscht is made with beef and served with sour cream and a piece of rye bread. Of course I omit the beef. I’ve learned that here there’s really no wrong way to make borscht. Use whatever ingredients you have lying around and no one will bat an eye. My roommate even made a borscht with seaweed once.
If you’re a Canadian you might recognise this picture as pierogi, the ubiquitous Polish dumplings that you can buy frozen in any grocery store. Well this is the Russian version of it called varenyky. Varenyky are typically filled with mashed potatoes (sometimes mixed with mushrooms), cabbage (sometimes mixed with meat), or quark cheese (somewhat like cottage cheese but denser?). Or there are dessert varenyky made with berries. Savoury varenyky are served with butter or sour cream and may be garnished with fried onions or bacon.
Plov (in my opinion completely distinct from the related pilaf) is an Uzbek dish that has become popular and common throughout Russia. It is a heavily spiced rice dish stewed with meats and vegetables. Typically lamb would be used for plov, but I opt for chicken instead. Unfortunately the fattiness of the meat is essential for the dish and I haven’t been able to make a vegetarian version (although I’m still trying!). The lamb is browned and then stewed with onions and carrots and garlic is added as well as cumin, coriander, barberries, marigold, and different types of pepper. Then the rice is added over top and not mixed into the dish and it absorbs the broth. In my plov above I added black olives because I happened to have had an open can but it’s very non-typical.
Buckwheat is a cereal grain like rice or quinoa that is common here. It has a really unique flavour and texture that’s hard to describe. It can be cooked into porridge, but I prefer it more whole. I like to add frozen vegetables to it. In the picture above, I added what I thought was a frozen vegetable mix but it turned out to also contain rice! So it’s a buckwheat-rice mixture.
Blini you might be familiar with as well. Often called ‘Russian pancakes’, to an American, blini are more like crepes. They’re thin and very slightly sweet. Blini can be served with savoury or sweet toppings, such as sour cream, sour cherry jam, caviar, honey, or (my favourite) sweetened condensed milk. Blini are also sometimes used as wraps and eaten with smoked salmon or chicken inside.
Taken from this website which has a recipe in Russian
On Sakhalin, there is also a typical dessert called “Tort Sakhalin”. It’s a cake made of layers of Genoese sponge soaked in brandy syrup and separated by layers of chocolate praline creme. On the top is placed chocolate in the shape of Sakhalin island and little dots representing the Kuriles. It is so incredibly tasty! It’s the number one food I know I’m going to miss after leaving.
Sakhalin’s population is around 15% ethnic Korean, so Korean culture has had a considerable influence on Sakhalin. There are small differences you can see in the language. For example the word for noodles in Sakhalin is ‘кукса’ (kuksa) [deriving from the Korean word for noodles] whereas in the rest of Russia, the word is ‘лапша’ (lapsha). Korean food can also be found all over. There are a number of Korean restaurants and in any given supermarket you can find different types of kimchi and Korean salads. You can also find the good kinds of ramen (or ‘ramyun’) in most supermarkets. The Korean food is very welcome for me since the typical Russian food isn’t very spicy and I love some heat.
Russia is very much a ‘tea’ country. Tea is drunk all throughout the day and city. I think most typically black tea is drunk with lemon and sugar. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I drink more tea here or when I was in England. Russians try to tell you that coffee is just as popular but it’s not true. The majority of coffee you buy is instant coffee. It was a rough adjustment for me, but now I drink instant coffee every morning. Coffee can also be bought in cafes but even there I don’t think it tastes as good.
Kissel is another hot drink here. It’s a sweet, thick, fruit juice. It’s oftened thickened with potato starch. It has the strangest texture and takes a while to get used to, but it’s actually so good on a cold winter day. Somehow it seems more warming than other types of drinks.
Of course vodka is the most popular liquor here and it is pretty cheap. For about $5 I can get 2L in the store. I’m not sure if this is typical of all Russians or just my flatmates, but I was surprised to find they don’t drink any liquor straight. They mix it with juice usually. And drinking has a bit of a ritual to it where food, such as sliced fruits or chocolates, is prepared before drinking at home. Annoyingly, Russians like to finish a bottle when it is opened, so it’s not common to have just one drink. And it doesn’t seem to be common to simply have a drink with your dinner for example.
There are only two kinds of beans in Russia: red and white. The red ones are kidney beans, but I’m still not sure about the white. For a black bean loving guy like myself, it’s been very difficult to only have these beans. I’ve gotten so desperate a few times to make refritos from kidney beans (not as good as regular but not as bad as you might think).
Meat on Sakhalin is fairly expensive because most of it is flown in from New Zealand or other places. So I’m glad not to have to deal with those prices. For some reason, seafood isn’t extremely popular here despite how common it is. Somehow it’s like local cuisine never adapted to the island itself and they try to have a Russian mainland diet. Salmon and red caviar are plentiful and cheap here. Scallops are much better price than I’m used to in the US. Apparently you can go clam digging yourself in the sea with considerable ease, but somehow I haven’t been able to find them in supermarkets.
Bread in Russian is sold whole and typically comes in white or brown (rye). Pre-sliced bread doesn’t exist here. In fact, there’s a saying in Russian that translate as “The best thing until sliced bread.”
(Note to my father who will inevitably repeat this as a dinner party fact later: I’m being facetious and sliced bread is available though rare and inferior)
Despite all of the challenges and difficulties, food on Sakhalin can be tasty once you know what you’re doing. If you’re ambitious you can even try to recreate foods from home like I did with these fajitas