My First Three Months in Russia: a Culinary Journey
I just got home from the second leg of my year abroad, an invigorating semester-long stint in St Petersburg. Whilst I can honestly say the past four months have been the best of my life, winter in Russia wasn’t without its challenges – for example, the problem of not being able to go outside without feeling like your skin was being peeled off. I also spent a decent amount of time weighing up whether my eyeballs would ice over before the bus finally turned up.
Russia’s not exactly considered a culinary capital – and for good reason. In a place where the ground is frozen solid four months out of the year, access to fresh food is patchy at best and laughable at worst. There were times, in deepest March, when I would Google pictures of salad Niçoise to remind myself that green, leafy stuff did still exist. I still remember the first time I walked into a Dixies, the ubiquitous discount supermarket, and wondered why someone had left so many festering snakes where the courgettes should have been.
Consequently, not wishing to succumb to rickets like so many of my peers, I had to develop a few new habits. Every day is a learning day, as my French teacher used to say, and in Russia I had 125 days to learn how to photosynthesise for nutrition like an aspidistra.
This might seem obvious. If your diet isn’t providing you with enough of those oh-so-crucial letters, shop-bought alternatives can give your immune system a boost.
The one problem with this logical, well-thought-out scheme is that it didn’t occur to me until the 11th of June, exactly four days before I was due to return to Europe, land of plentiful vegetables. At that point it seemed like putting myself through a potentially harrowing experience – trying to negotiate a handover of Vitamin C at an аптека – would be needlessly degrading.
All in all, I have only two regrets about my stay in Petersburg: not getting my hands on industrially-produced wellbeing sooner, and cheerfully repeating swear words I’d heard in bars to my scandalised teachers.
Your friends are your enemies. Their over-edited pictures of a Thai raw salad will poison you with jealousy.
Lie in the sun
I wasn’t in Russia long enough for this to pay off, but I’m pretty sure photosynthesis is 80% persistence. What I’m saying is that I reckon if you lie in the grass long enough you’ll start converting sunlight into food. I’m not a scientist, though, so proceed with caution.
Столовая, столовая, столовая
Those runes are the Russian word for dining room. Cities and towns across Russia are full of these – the format is pretty much the same as school canteens, with dinner ladies, sneeze guards, and certain disappointment if you arrive after the lunch rush. The main difference between a столовая and the refectory at my secondary school is that the former requires slightly more apologetic pointing and a lot more unrecognisable dishes.
It’s not fine dining, sure, but there aren’t many other places you can go fill your tummy for under 200 roubles (~£2). What’s more, whilst you may not always love what you’re eating, a столовая is bound to have, as well as the obligatory buckwheat and cutlet, some vegetable dishes on offer – most commonly, vinaigrette, Greek salad, and a bunch of different kinds of coleslaw.
Plus, if you happen to be able to find, as I did, a vegetarian столовая, your vegetable intake is bound to increase tenfold. I lost a lot of weight when I first came to Petersburg (mostly through shivering and mistrusting meat products) but when I found Samadeva, the so-called philosophical cafe on Kazanskaya, I gained it all back and then some. When it’s -25° out, you really can’t beat a plate of beans, spinach and mash.
Tinned peas are your friend
Up to now, you thought tin peas were what children were given as a punishment. These days you see them as the heroes they are.
The most dismal meal I ever made was half a tin of peas, boiled in their own juice, with one potato thrown in for bulk. I had no other food in and, looking outside, I knew I would perish before I reached the nearest supermarket, so I made do, hunkering over my ersatz soup and wishing I’d chosen a degree that would’ve meant me spending summers in France.
Redefine your conception of fruit
Last resort, OK, but if you really, really concentrate and try very hard, you can just about trick yourself into believing that green tea counts as one of your five-a-day.
If you’re dedicated enough, you can convince yourself that beer counts too.