Memory Lane – “Learning to Cook Po-Russki

This little vignette is going to be published in the forthcoming Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Cookbook. Not exactly sure of the title though…

I learned how to cook in Moscow. In the spring of 1992, immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union, I was living in a run-down 15-story dormitory with 13 other American exchange students. My roommates were both vegetarians. For the sake of solidarity and to avoid some of the “mystery meat” that was prone to turn up on restaurant plates, I decided to become a vegetarian, even if only temporarily. The rest of the group ate out at cafeterias, bars, and restaurants or just ate on the run, whatever they came across. As it turned out, foraging for ingredients and wandering the city were probably the best things I did to improve my Russian language skills and better understand post-Soviet Russian culture.

Moscow 1992 – there were no supermarkets, only aptly named stores, such as “Milk,” “Vegetables,” and “Bread,” generally containing very little in the way of actual food. Lines formed outside their doors first thing every morning, the best time of day to actually find unspoiled milk or a fresh loaf of bread. The sidewalks around many metro stations were peppered with grocery kiosks or simply babushkas [old women] standing nearby hawking their wares, each generally dedicating their efforts to just one or two products. The most wonderful option, especially for foreigners with extra cash, was to visit a few of the farmers’ markets that were cropping up in certain areas around Moscow.

Every day, after classes were over, the three of us would head out to canvas the city for food. Paveletskaya metro station could be depended on for canned tomato paste, and pasta could be found half an hour in the other direction. The “bread factory” near our university always had fresh bread. The market at Tsvetnoy Bulvar (“Colored Boulevard”) always had an amazing array of spices, herbs, vegetables, dairy products, meat, and fruit, all peddled enthusiastically by Azeri and other vendors, calling out to women like ourselves, dressed in telltale foreign clothing.

It generally took us two or three hours to cobble together the supplies necessary to prepare dinner. On any given day, our travels could take us to three different parts of town, several stores with mostly-empty shelves, and hard-fought but fun negotiations with vendors in the markets. I loved sampling the different sorts of sour cream or farmer’s cheese, looking for just the right flavor or consistency. It became a point of pride to know the fair price for a kilogram of potatoes, for I hated to be taken advantage of just because I was a foreigner.

When we returned to our dormitory, we prepared meals in the shared kitchen. This “kitchen” consisted of a large, tiled room with a single 4-burner stove and oven – a stove was shared with ten other student-families living down the hall from our group. Granted, only two, sometimes three, of the burners actually worked, and frequent power surges made for “exciting” cooking conditions. The oven never worked, I don’t think. At mealtimes, there were always a few Russian women in the kitchen, happy to give advice or stir a pot while we stepped out. All of our food prep took place back in our room, where there were running water (hot even!) and improvised countertop spaces.

Ultimately, over those four months in Moscow, I learned how to make do with the bare minimum of ingredients, experimented a lot with strange flavors and textures, and had fun traipsing about a huge, wonderful city. Since 1992, I have traveled extensively in Russia, including Siberia and the Russian Far East, sampling delicacies such as salmon roe, moose steak, fabulous smoked fish, fiddlehead ferns, horsemeat sausages, and an absolutely amazing array of berries and confections. I still love to cook, especially in challenging situations, even if I didn’t manage to stick to my Moscow vegetarianism.