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Eat Russia With Love

Pickles, dumpling, and other adventures in learning about the food of the other Motherland

Photo: Photographs translated by John Ellsberry, License: N/A

Photographs translated by John Ellsberry

Photo: , License: N/A


I was looking for a Russian deli but didn’t know it. I was driving up Reisterstown Road with my wife Courtney, pondering a place to grab lunch. Following our current course, I knew, would lead past any number of spots to grab good pastrami or matzo ball soup. But it was Saturday, and many of those spots would be closed for Shabbat. Besides, I had become intrigued with the various Russian/Central Asian eateries lining Reisterstown Road, not least the Silk Road Bistro (Cheap Eats, March 9, 2011), an Uzbek restaurant whose small menu was crammed with cheap, delicious, and almost completely unfamiliar cuisine. As we contemplated our options, Courtney spotted a sign for Stolichny European Deli (6852 Reisterstown Road). On a whim, we pulled into the parking lot.

Within the unpromising storefront, we found a world of food, from produce and staples all the way through to desserts and snacks, much of it unfamiliar, most labeled only in Cyrillic. A cadre of blue-smocked women, mostly middle-aged and unsmiling, bustled behind a long deli case, packing up orders for a throng of patrons milling about. A garish Russian variety show played on a flat-screen TV on one wall. On the opposite wall a menu in English listed a few standard deli sandwiches. We had no idea what to order; when we were directed impatiently to a woman who spoke enough English to help us, she seemed almost taken aback that we actually wanted sandwiches. She made them, and they were good, but afterward I became a little obsessed with what was really good to eat at Stolichny.

When I wrote up the place for Cheap Eats (Jan. 4), I put out an e-mail call for a native guide to help me make sense of the place. Almost two months later, I meet Irina Kamiskaya on the sidewalk outside Stolichny on a bright, freezing Saturday morning. A tall early-thirtysomething brunette in jeans and a sporty fleece top, she shows up with her friend Jesse O’Rourke, who spotted my call for assistance in the paper and urged her to volunteer.

Without much preamble, Irina opens the door and plunges right in, making cursory note of Stolichny’s small produce section. (She recommends another nearby market, Sunfresh, for a more extensive selection of vegetables.) As we head toward a wall of cans and jars, we get down to business. “Are you big into pickles?” she asks. Yes, yes I am. Russians are big into pickles too, she says; pickling is, after all, at root a way of preserving food, and it found favor in Russian cuisine thanks to those long, harsh winters. “When you sit down at a Russian table,” Irina continues, “there are like four or five courses that come out, and the first one is pickled stuff, cold stuff.” Like an Italian antipasti course? “Right. So pickled tomatoes are huge.” She picks up a bulbous glass jar of pickled cherry tomatoes and a yellow can covered in Cyrillic print that she says contains “Israeli-style” pickled cucumbers and puts them in my basket.

As Irina talks about the food, she adds a bit about herself. She was born in Mozyr, Belarus, and lived there until she was about 6, at which point her family moved to Novosibirsk, Siberia. In 1992, when she was 12, the entire family relocated to the United States. “As Communism was coming to an end, [it] made things very uncertain for Russian Jews,” she says. While the rest of her family lives in Rhode Island, she lives in Baltimore now. She has lived in the United States almost twice as long as she lived in the former Soviet Union (you have to talk to her for several minutes to detect any trace of an accent in her perfect English), but says she still makes regular visits to Stolichny to stock up. “I’m a transplant, so mom isn’t around to make me the old favorites,” she says. She adds that there’s only one Russian market in Rhode Island: “My mother gets extremely upset when I tell her that there are, like, four within a few miles [here].” (Maryland and Washington, D.C., host the seventh-largest population of Russian speakers in the United States.)

We pass shelves of bread, mostly rye or other darker varieties. Russians aren’t big on white bread, Irina notes. Next up is a long refrigerator case, featuring one long shelf largely devoted to varieties of kefir, a fermented probiotic dairy drink. Irina describes it as tasting like “really curdled sour milk. My grandmother swears by it for digestion. I never liked the stuff.” In the name of journalism, I add a bottle of plain kefir to my basket.

Further down stands a freezer full of bags of little dough blobs that look a bit like tortellini. Irina pauses. “There’s nothing that’s more Russian than pelmeni,” she says solemnly. “They’re meat dumplings, and there are a lot of different kinds. There’s chicken, or veal, but the true, true, true pelmeni are Siberian. I remember making them from scratch. Child labor, small fingers, they’d make me pinch the dough.” She scans the rows of frozen sacks, looking for a suitably Siberian selection—beef and pork dumplings, Babushka brand, manufactured in Philadelphia—and plops them in my basket.

“You boil them, take them out, and then dip them in a little sour cream and white vinegar,” she says. “I’m telling you, it’s the best. Nothing will warm you up better.”

By this time we have worked our way around to the extended deli case that lines the north wall. This is what intrigued and baffled me about the place from the outset: so much amazing-looking, indecipherable food. Irina proceeds to offer a tour, from the prepared foods at one end (including breaded meat cutlets) to the dried, salted fish (“Kind of equivalent to picking crabs here in Maryland,” Irina says) to the cakes and desserts at the other. She zeroes in on a few staples. First, there are two classic salads: “vinaigrette,” a vibrant purple concoction made with diced beets and potatoes, and “olivye,” a Russian variation on potato salad, mayonnaise-based with peas and diced eggs and ham. Then sunflower seeds, black, unsalted, and smaller than the American snack variety. “This, other than drinking, is the pastime of Russian people,” Irina says, putting a bag in her own basket. “I come here just for these.”

I had previously estimated that there must be 20 different varieties of sausage and salami lying behind the cold glass. I now realize I underestimated by at least half. “They have everything—the captain’s sausage, the Moscow sausage,” Irina says. “That’s Hungarian and that’s double-smoked, so it’s really dry. This is the ‘Jewish’ sausage, which wouldn’t really be a Jewish sausage ’cause it’s pork. Georgian, Ukrainian, every republic and every nationality has its own way of doing it.”

By this time, our number is up and Irina rattles off rapid Russian to the woman behind the counter, ordering salamis. When she was growing up, Irina says, “a traditional Russian lunch [was] like a hard-boiled egg, a couple of slices of salami, Russian bread, and a fresh tomato or cucumber or, if it’s wintertime, pickled stuff.” She laughs: “And now I’m getting hungry.”

Even with a knowledgeable guide, the options remain dizzying. While we gaze at the deli case, a man emerges from the back carting perhaps a dozen large skewers, each speared through perhaps a dozen pieces of seared chicken. He plops the whole pile of hot metal and sizzle down on a towel on top of the deli case and sticks a sign on top advertising shish kabob in English and Cyrillic.

“There’s stuff in here I don’t know,” Irina says of Stolichny. “Shish kabobs aren’t authentically Russian, they’re Asian. The Armenians make them, the Georgians make them. My mom used to make pilaf, like a Dutch oven thing. Once again, that’s an Asiatic dish—where we were in Siberia, we were very close to Kazakhstan.” Stolichny probably can’t claim to represent all of the republics that made up the former Soviet Union, much less the dozens of individual ethnicities. But clearly there’s more to be discovered than a quick walkthrough reveals.

Irina checks out and bids me goodbye. I hit the wall of sold-by-weight candy (since almost all of it is labeled in Cyrillic or Turkish, I just look for interesting wrappers), check out, and head home.

Unpacked later as appetizers for a small dinner party, the canned pickles are briny and slightly rubbery; whatever they put in your average American deli pickle to keep it bright green is missing here. The tomatoes prove to be slightly vinegary little orbs that squish in your mouth, sans the satisfying cherry-tomato pop but with a subtle, almost smoky flavor. We unpack the four varieties of salami Irina ordered and serve them with crackers and a little grainy mustard. The salami given to me as “Georgian” is dark and dry, richly marbled with fat and super smoky—it’s the hit of the platter. The “Kiev” salami, sliced thin, features perfectly round fat globs, like the pearls in bubble tea. The “Moscow half-smoked” is mild and light, bordering on bland, almost like American lunch meat. Likewise, a “Hungarian” sausage offers only salty, meaty tang. (The quotes are there, in part, because during a return visit, I tried ordering some of the same salamis and ended up with a completely different, although equally worthy, selection.) Various children gobble up the candy (mostly chocolates) before I have a chance to try any.

The kefir I brave on my own. When I pour it into a glass, small globs of something plop in with the thick white liquid. It’s a bit like drinking plain yogurt—not something we did a lot where I grew up in the South. The taste is not nearly as alarming as the way it coats the inside of the glass, like watered-down whitewash. I’m with Irina on this one.

A few nights later, the pelmeni serve as the center of a Russian supper. Courtney makes a quick pickle of cucumbers and onions. I sautée some mushrooms with a little garlic and thyme and drop the frozen dumplings into a pot of boiling water. Four minutes later, they rise to the roiling surface, done. And Irina was right about pelmeni too. I can’t speak to their essential Russianess, but they combine the starchy compactness of tortellini or pierogi with a dusky, meaty center. Dipped in a bit of sour cream alone, they gain an extra silky, creamy note; dipped in sour cream and then a ramekin of white vinegar, they burst into a whole new realm of flavorful, the bite of the vinegar cutting through the doughiness and setting off the filling’s savory notes. Delicious. (And this is the frozen, made-in-Philly kind.)

Despite Irina’s kind efforts, much of Stolichny remains a mystery. I didn’t try any fish. Or the pickled mushrooms. And this is just one of the local Russian markets, given a rundown by just one native selected pretty much at random. But next time I don’t think the counterworkers’ brusque-bordering-on-rude customer service (also authentically Russian, Irina says) will put me off. I’ve still got tons of questions. And I’m hungry.

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