Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mastering the Art of Russian Sanctions Cooking

When Russia banned US and EU food imports for a year, I wasn’t too concerned. I am too cheap to pay $10 for imported peanut butter and I thought maybe this was Russia’s way of jumping on the “eat local” hipster bandwagon. Besides, I was on vacation in the US at that point and I was missing my Russian staples. I had long since depleted my stash of vodka and cherry juice and had resorted to making my own kvas and caviar.

One of my weirder cooking endeavors

I returned to Moscow in September to find that the supermarkets still had aisles full of French cheese, Spanish olive oil, and Italian Nutella. I thought stores were selling off the last of their summer imports, but rumor had it that Western goods were just making their way to Russia via Belarus. I still wanted to encourage the local economy (that’s not treason, right?), so I started frequenting the next best thing to a farmer’s market in Russia.

There are various old women over/under the bridge by my metro who stand in the cold all day peddling pantyhose and produce. When I picked up a luscious bunch of blackcurrants for only $1.25, I thought it was a steal – until I bit into one and discovered they taste like violin rosin. It took many cups of sugar and an hour slaving over a hot stove before I had a jar of blackcurrant jam and something remotely edible.

You might think this would have prevented me from buying more berries the following week, but you would be overestimating my intelligence. I tried again, this time with an even prettier bunch of berries, the name of which I didn’t understand.

Me: Kalinga?
Woman Under the Bridge: Kalina! [bursting into a Russian folk song]: Kalinka – malinka moya!
Me: Oh!  I was forced to listen to that song on repeat this summer in Gatchina!  Yet I still have no idea what a “kalina” is.

Калина, or “high-bush cranberry” as it’s known in English

I went home and popped some berries into my mouth, only to quickly spit them out and Google, “Is kalinka poisonous?” Kind of, as it turns out. According to Wikipedia, “The guelder rose is very mildly toxic, and may cause vomiting or diarrhea if eaten in large amounts.” So naturally, Russians (and now me) flavor their vodka with the berry. I’ll let you know how mine turns out in ten days when it’s ready for consumption (assuming it doesn’t kill me).

Even though I was 0 for 2 on the berries, I went ahead and made a third local produce purchase when I saw that my favorite bridge-dwelling babushka had finally grown something I recognized: leeks. Problematically, I got it into my head that I needed to make Leek Apple Cheddar Soup, which would require an embargoed Western good. I made a trip to the fancy schmancy grocery store, where I found four lonely blocks of Dubliner cheddar, one of which was growing some Irish green mold. So much for that Belarus theory.

I’m hoping I don’t have to rely on my roadside grocers for Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. I’ve already accepted it’s going to be a Russian fusion-inspired feast (Sanctsgiving, if you will), but I will need some Western ingredients. I’m pretty sure pumpkin pryaniki are going to be the greatest thing to happen to Russia since sliced black bread.


  1. Ah, yes, Kalyna. Cook the berries and they'll smell like dirty old socks. Jam or tea is a folk remedy for high blood pressure, coughs, and flu. (But you'll have to hold your nose, while swallowing.) Enjoy!