Food is such a pivotal aspect of any culture, and some time ago I must have swung around that pivot without quite realizing it. Today, as I stood in the grocery store with my bag of kefir, it hit home: I grocery shop like a Russian.
My first night in Russia, Tatiana Petrovna sat me down and asked if I would like some tea. I said yes. I was dead tired, had been traveling for over twenty-four hours straight, and had not slept much, but I wanted tea anyway, just to feel like I belonged in the place. My big, Russian land lady put the pot on to boil, sat me down, and asked if I’d like a sandwhich. I didn’t, but I took some bread and cheese to be polite. Those two, thick, dry slices of plain bread with only a slice of cheese in between stuck to my mouth so that I could hardly swallow. It was an effort to choke them down, and I thought maybe I was doing something wrong. Apparently I was, because between Tatiana Petrovna’s gesturing and exclamations, I somehow made out that I was meant to make an open-faced sandwich. Then she gave me tea. I remember wanting milk in it, but I don’t remember if I got any. I have since ceased to ask for milk in my tea.
At first, I had a hard time feeding myself. On my first trip to the grocery store, I bought some yogurt and oats, thinking to mix them the way I do at home (but which I had learned in Germany). Only, the oats were not the fast-cooking variety, and the result was less than palatable. I spent most of my first month living off of omelets and spaghetti noodles. Tatiana Petrovna brought home a bag of corn flakes for me following my early breakfast experiments, presumably because she thought I was a bit incompetent.
In the beginning, my difficulties came from an inability to find ingredients I was used to in the grocery store. It is very hard to predict what you will or won’t be able to find, even in relatively normal places like Scotland. You assume there will be graham crackers, and then there aren’t. Later, you are surprised to find peanut butter. You learn to adapt, to bring along and treasure ingredients you expect to be short of, and to substitute for those you can’t find at all. But cooking, like language, translates poorly.
Little by little, I began using Russian foods. It began with bags of frozen pelmeni. Soon I discovered what a great topping adjika makes. One day I bought buckwheat, which I’d always enjoyed, but never dared to prepare myself. Turns out it cooks up like oatmeal, but is far more savory (as well as being high in fiber, good for your heart, and good for lowering cholesterol!). Eventually, I had to crunch my budget, which had the effect of doing away with what few luxuries I had tried to keep in tact: no more bacon, no more cheese, no more milk in bottles. Learning to make blinis changed my life. The cheapest way to eat in any country is just to give up swimming against the stream, and allow yourself to eat what is normal for your area.
Thus: kefir. It’s a dairy product, something like buttermilk, or really runny yogurt. It’s too sour on its own, but blended up with a banana and a little sugar, it makes an excellent smoothie. You can buy it in bottles, but it’s cheaper to get it in plastic packets. If you set the packet upright in a plastic pitcher and cut off the tip, you can pour it just fine. You can also use the few extra rubles you save to justify a chocolate-covered tvorog bar.
I’m thinking of trying out a borscht recipe later on this week.