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Russia Breaks My Brain
I don't understand this place, I just live here.
#08: Indiayka (Turkey) Day
Monday, November 24, 2003

Hi everyone, and welcome to another tasty chunk of Russian oddness. Just to warn you, it looks like due to my delinquency earlier this month, I'm going to be doing another small barage of emails soon. But they're all nifty, so really its just sort of a holiday treat coming a little early. Yum.
To start things off, I'm going to address a topic which a couple of people have asked about, has special relevance at the end of November, and is dear to the heart of just about everyone I know- food.

Food was a bigger issue when I first got here of course, because I couldn't ask for it and therefore couldn't really get it all that easily. I'll go into more detail about why Russia makes language students hungry (and thirsty) in another email soon. For now the important thing is that I've been sampling a number of local offerings, and have found out that you should never ever eat the little rolls in the shape of pig-heads.

Sure they look cute, what with their little dough ears and nose, but they're full of what was recently identified as pig livers, and are actually pretty gross. Little bread rolls filled with various fruits/veggies/meats are pretty common (as in, make up half my diet these days) so avoiding the pig rolls is thankfully easy. But that first time, when I ordered two at once...

The rest of these rolls are usually pretty good. When it wasn't -5 degrees (celcius) outside, you could get fruit filled rolls, but now you usually find jam or potato or ground meat in them. When you're lucky, they come with sour cream on them. I'm not quite clear on when the roll warrants sour cream yet, but I always accept the offer. And you naturally have to have sour cream in your borsht.

Yes, I've had borsht. Pretty good. Go beets.

Aside from the little bread things, there are a number of fast-foodish options all over town. The coolest is a chain of kiosks (usually near subway stations) called Teremok. They serve coffee, beer and blini. Blini are very similar to crepes, only somehow better. You can get "sweet" blini or "savory" blini, which means options like blini with banana and chocolate ("Tropicheskii") or with mushrooms and cream ("E-mail"). Oh, and you can add bacon to these too. They're awesome.

Another fun find has been Priyaniki- little ginger cookie-ish things filled with fruit, uh, stuff. Occasionally they're also good for breakfast, or dinner if I haven't been to the store recently enough. But I make sure to balance my diet with other cookies and pretzels. If this sounds like an unhealthy combination, keep in mind that one of the staples of Russians' diet (aside from beer) is ice cream. It's available everywhere, has a slightly smoother texture than American ice cream, and is super cheap. Thankfully, I avoid that temptation usually and just stick to the cheesecake bars.

The cheesecake bars aren't actually cheesecake though. They're more of a cross between ice cream and cheesecake, and therefore are, of course, intended as a breakfast food

for kids. (Kristin adds- they are actually made of tvorog- a kind of soft Russian farmers cheese- mmm)(Somehow though, obesity is not as big a problem here as in the U.S. Go figure.)

When I'm not inducing diabetic shock with these tasty treats, I usually stick to the one food that has kept me going for the past couple of years. Thank god Ramen is available here, and priced at less than $ .10 each. While the noodle-brick is slightly smaller than American Ramen, Russian Ramen comes with an extra little packet of oil in addition to the normal flavor packet. But to really make the Ramen a meal, I've been adding frozen veggies, ice cream (just kidding), cheese (not cheddar though, it's only available here in select stores), and hot sauce.

The hot sauce issue has been going realtively well, considering how far I am away from a real green chile. I've been buying some sort of asian "spicy sauce" lately, which isn't bad but isn't great. I also found a jelly, from Germany, claiming to be "Hot as Hell", as it's a "Green Chili Explosion." It's strangely sweet, and not at all spicy. (Silly Germans). Kristin finally found a way to make it edible though, in her very first Ramen recipe (I'm so proud!) Other steps have been taken to help with the lack of Mexican food though.

The greatest discovery has been the lavash bread as a surrogate tortilla. Aside from frying it into chips, Kristin and I have also come up with a sort of "Caucasion Burrito." Rather than pinto or black beans, we use red Kidney beans, and of course make due with non-cheddar cheese. With some asian spicy sauces, onions, garlic and tomatoes, they're pretty damn good. I'm sure we'll have to create the breakfast version soon as well, since eggs and potatoes aren't hard to find.

Thanksgiving required us to come up with some other creative substitutions. We invited Russians and my Swiss friend, Luis, over for dinner this Saturday, and wanted to share American cuisine (and we were already out of ice cream.) Mashed potatoes, stuffing, and homemade cranberry sauce and apple cider were no problem. Russians already make mashed potatoes, and so introducing them to stuffing was easy. We don't have a working oven though, so we skipped a turkey, added chips and salsa, a black bean dip I brought from NM to supposedly give to someone, then had to find a solution for the "Pie" issue. In the end we found a way to make deep fried apple pies, making for a pretty greasy but very tasty Thanksgiving. I felt so southern after frying things all afternoon.

Once again, the New Mexican food went over really well with the Russians. I was asked for the "recipe" of frying the chips, which is surprising considering how many other things here are served fried or with oil or cream. The black beans were sort of suspect at first, with a comment or two asking what we did to the beans, but once people tried them they liked them. Or they pretended really well.

So while I am looking forward to ordering, say, fallafals or green chile stew soon, food's been going pretty well here. I haven't had to run to the McDonald's, KFC, or Pizza Hut out of homesickness for American greasiness, but that may be because they don't have Taco Bell here. You can't safely drink the tap water, but often you'd rather have hot tea or coffee anyway.

Sound tasty? Not as tasty as the other email treats to follow soon! So get ready for seconds, because my rant on shopping in Russia is just about ready.

-Angry Giant