Branches of a tree are covered with ice, as a plane is seen in the background, at Moscow's Domodedovo airport.
It’s not just the opulence of the tsars in imperial Russia or the awe-inspiring shuttles of the ‘space race’ that are etched in our memories. Moscow has sometimes intrigued, sometimes baffled and sometimes scared the living daylights out of us with its Cold War KGB spy stories, the legend of Rasputin and the fairytale spires of St Basil’s Cathedral. And while this love affair between Moscow and the world at large blossoms, the one thing that is getting deservedly disproportionate attention is Moscow’s best-kept secret – its fascinating little-explored food scene!
St Basil’s Cathedral
Let’s be honest: our first thought – maybe even our second and third when it comes to Russia – is vodka. And why not? This ancient drink, distilled variously from rye, wheat, potatoes and even corn, literally translates from ‘voda’ in Russian to ‘water’ and is consumed with as much (dis)interest! But unlike the simplicity of vodka, Moscow is a smorgasbord of various flavours and tastes, and draws not just from its traditional Russian recipes handed down through generations of matriarchs, but also from Soviet-era states and border buddies on the European and Asian sides. So let’s get down to business and take off on a Moscow food trail, peppered with adventure, thrills… and a few spills!
But first some ground rules: point and mime is the mantra while in Moscow since they really don’t understand English. Next, stay away from the dimly-lit eateries and bars in suburbia – this is a food adventure, not a suicide-by-food mission. And last, familiarise yourself with the Metro map – it’s comfortable, cheap and very quick to get around.
Breakfast on the go
There is an old Russian proverb that says ‘Kasha is our mother, Bread is our Father’. Kasha, a slow-cooked buckwheat porridge, is the soul of Russian culture, an integral part of all feasts and wedding rituals. Every Russian has grown up on some variation of this, mostly the sweet one with milk and berries. And the traditional ‘black bread’ or rye bread is a regular feature at all Russian meal tables. Wangle an invitation at a local’s home to taste this. You can also get to taste these at restaurants and also get a feel of a real Russian home, in places like the popular Mari Vanna. This home-style restaurant, a 10-minute labyrinthine walk from Pushkin Square, is set in a typical ’50s-style home, complete with bookshelves, pickle jars and a crockery sideboard. In fact, once you make a reservation, you get your own key to enter this cosy two-roomed flat!
Roast leg of lamb
Apart from Mari Vanna, Café Kasha and Shokoladnitsa also serve Kasha and other breakfast items in comfortable café settings, complete with free Wi-Fi. A must-try is the thick dark hot chocolate at Shokoladnitsa, where you almost have to eat rather than drink the lava-like chocolate out of the mug. Breakfast done and dusted, if the Kremlin and Red Square are first on your list of places to visit, you will start feeling a bit snacky around mid-morning. Head to the nearest shawarma kiosk. Cheaply priced and packed to the rafters with succulent chunks of lamb, these are a preferable cousin to their cabbage-filled counterparts in India. Alas, the Russians don’t know of a vegetarian shawarma, so vegetarians can step into a Teremok restaurant or visit kiosks to eat a blini (pancake).
Another good option is the fast-food chain, Kroshka Kartoshka. Here, go crazy on a variety of veg and non-veg salads piled high on a baked jacket-potato slathered with butter.
After gorging on these heavy snacks, you will want to work off the inertia that sets in. And since the cool, crisp air of Moscow makes you hungry, you should pick up Kvass, a drink fermented from rye bread with mint or berries.
Munch on lunch
Bowl of borscht
All Russians swear by their mother’s well-guarded recipe of borscht, much like the Indian mum’s recipe for khichdi. Usually a thick, hot soup made with beetroot, cabbage and a choice of starchy vegetables added in along with beef or pork, borscht is consumed by the gallon. Then there are the steamed, meat dumplings pelmeni, served with a delicious glob of sour cream called smetana, and a sprinkling of fresh parsley. A few other must-try dishes are selyodka pod shuboy, a layered salad of potatoes, eggs and herring fillets; Olivier, the original of the omnipresent Russian salad; pirog, a large stuffed pie; pirozhki, small stuffed buns and julienne, a baked mushroom casserole.
Keep in mind that many vegetarian dishes are cooked in meat stock, so check with your server specifically. Lunch can be an elaborate four-course affair in an ambience reminiscent of tsarist times, or a home-style meal at one of the restaurants. For the former, head straight to Café Pushkin. If the impeccable service and aristocratic surroundings do not bowl you over, the Tsar’s Smoked Sturgeon and the desserts will. Expect to shell out a fair bit here, but take heart from the fact that you have dined at one of the most iconic places in Moscow. But if quantity is more your thing, try one of the Yolki Palki outlets, that serve traditional fare in a kitschy country cottage. The food is good and the pricing middle-of-the-road. Although chances are you will walk straight into a life-size Holstein cow tethered casually on the sidewalk first. If you do, look for Café Mu-Mu nearby, a self-service restaurant offering a selection of Russian and Ukrainian dishes.
Moscow’s dizzying array of traditional foods includes delicious and unique dishes from the Caucasian region, chiefly Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as from Turkey, Hungary and Mongolia. So if you spot a crowd huddled around a barbecue pit in the early evening, join in for a quiet chat and a few pieces of smoky meat and veggies from the shashlik skewer, a Caucasian ritual adopted by Moscowites. And just when the street lights turn on, head to grand Old Arbat, a historic high-street lined with many restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops, which, in spite of being touristy, offers up a slice of pretty and romantic European Moscow. Step into the intended chaos of Café Bukle, a 100-year old hotspot that will transport you to a glittering ‘60s party with live jazz and blues music, gleaming wooden rails, brick walls and some very good coffee and cakes.
For dinner, just hop across to Restaurant Genatsvale for some seriously authentic Georgian food. It’s an elaborately themed restaurant with singing waiters (yes, singing waiters!), which serves some of the best khachapuri, a golden-baked bread dish of cheese and eggs. You could try the momo-like khinkali here, or just across the Moscow river at Café Khinkalnaya, which serves up some excellent home-made wines and jonjoli (pickled flowers) along with other authentic Georgian dishes.
If your last thought before hitting the pillow is what to take back home, sleep easy! The fascinating and ginormous farmer’s market at Dorogomilovsky has every conceivable fresh, packaged, pickled, and bottled food you would ever desire. Pick up a tub of
Pelmeni (foreground) and blini
surprisingly inexpensive Red Caviar, dig out a spoonful of creamy honey butter, taste some sun-dried chikoo or raspberry papad, or just gawp at the myriads of pickled and fresh vegetables and meats on sale. It’s delightful to breathe in the aromas of artisan beers, fresh-baked pies, vanilla beans, Beluga caviar, sour apples and flavoured cheeses. The prices are great, and the produce fresh. So take your pick, say your ‘Dasvidaniya’s and carry back a piece of Moscow, a foodie’s secret paradise, with you. You’ll cherish it. Diner alert
Beware of food billed per 100gms at food courts.
Soups and salads with unwanted meat or fish.
Overpriced bottled water.
Chargeable add-ons like cheese, sauces, teas and milk.
Know your soups
Schi – hot, sour, made from cabbage
Okroshka – cold, fresh, green
Ukha – aromatic, clear fish soup
Rassolnik – pickled cucumber,
barley and kidneys
Kisel – clear, fruit soup, popular dessert
Top places to grab
a drink or two Club B2 – A five-storeyed mega club with great music Darling, I’ll Call You Later – Throw your phone away and unwind Strelka – Swish setting, good cocktails
From HT Brunch, March 24
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