Last weekend I went on a Russian Cuisine Walking Tour in Boston. The towns of Brighton and Brookline right outside of Boston have a large Russian population that has grown by leaps and bounds since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 90’s. Always curious about the culture of my new environment, I thought this tour would be something fun to do while Lee was in Asia.
I can’t say that I’m crazy about the little Russian food that I’ve been exposed to. My impression of Russian food involves a lot of starch and carbs, and vodka. I won’t say this tour entirely disabused me of that perception. There are definitely a lot of starches involved in Russian food, but after this tour I can say they are pretty yummy starches. And they definitely stick to your ribs! I was thoroughly stuffed by the end of the tour.
We met at the Whole Foods store on Washington St. in Brighton. I was a little late and missed the introduction to the tour, because I once again got lost trying to take the Storrow Dr. exit off of I-93. This is getting to be a bit of a joke, since it seems that every time I try to go this way I manage to take the wrong turn. At least I am becoming familiar enough with Boston that I knew the general direction that I wanted to go and managed to get there eventually, although I know I went out of my way, since at one point I ended up down by the Public Garden. Mind you, this is WITH a gps. Hell at this point I’m not sure that I might not do better without a gps! Oh well.
I did get there in time to find the tour and enjoy our first sampling of Russian Food, which was, what else, Lox with cream cheese on rye bread. Now why this was Russian food and not Jewish food beats me unless the Russians stole if from the Jews, or vice versa.
We also got to sample Kefir, the fermented milk drink, which I had no idea was Russian either. I thought it was Turkish, or maybe Hippy food. The last time I had tried Kefir was back in the 70’s and I have to say it has improved since then. Yuri, our tour guide, said that the Kefir sold in the US is sweetened to cater to American tastes. Maybe that was it.
Our next stop was a Russian grocery store called Babushka Deli. Lots of very Russian food could be found in this store. Yuri told us that many Russians will do all of their shopping at the same little grocery store. Much of the food labels were in Russian, the deli case held lots of Russian delicacies, and piles of rye bread were available for sale.
Here we were able to try blini with caviar and a Georgian bread stuffed with cheese. We had red caviar because the black stuff is currently over-fished and very expensive. I loved this food sample. The blini are basically crepes, light and sweet. The caviar was salty and the combination was delish! I didn’t like the Georgian bread as much. The pastry itself was pretty heavy, and the cheese was stinky! I still ate it all though, so it can’t have been too bad.
Next we took a walk, crossing the line from Brighton into Brookline. We stopped into a restaurant called The Fireplace. Here we were seated at a table and invited to sample Russian vodka. Yuri told us the brand, but I forget. In my limited vodka experience I thought it was pretty tasty. We were given pickle and butter sandwiches, and taught the proper way to drink vodka and eat pickles. First, you blow air out through your teeth, sharply. Then, you take a sip (or slug) or vodka. Then you bring the open-faced sandwich up to your nose and inhale the pickles, and then take a bite. Chew and swallow your pickle sandwich bite and repeat. It did make the pickles taste really good. I guess I should stop and smell the pickles more often!
After the Fireplace we went over to another Russian Grocery store called The Russian Village. Here we were introduced to Kvas, a fermented drink, and shown some Russian beer, although we didn’t get to taste either one. That was okay with me since I was getting pretty stuffed.
We quickly headed down a few doors to another little restaurant called Vernissage. This place was uniquely Russian and catered to a Russian clientele that like to have a place to hang out and party. Yuri said that Russians don’t like to just go out to eat. They think an evening is incomplete unless it involves hours of eating, dancing, singing and of course, drinking. We didn’t do any dancing or singing here, but we did get to sample Russian dumplings. They were excellent, small fragrant dumplings made of pork and a tasty liquid, with sour cream for dipping. They would have made a good addition to anyone’s dim sum menu.
Finally we crossed the street to a little European bakery called Athan’s and had a sampling of éclairs for dessert. No, éclairs aren’t Russian, but apparently except for candy Russia stole most of their desserts from France, so it was traditional, none-the-less.
I waddled up the hill to get back to my car in the late afternoon darkness. I was beyond stuffed, but satisfied. I had a good time and got to sample a bit of another culture that was different and yet strangely familiar too. My dad’s family has Russian roots and I kept thinking about him during the afternoon when he would occasionally have a cultural fit and decide to drink some tea in a glass. And I practiced the Russian toast that Yuri had taught us – Za zdorovie! To your health!