What a Country!

Where can a good comrade go to find caviar in a one-pound tub?

Moscow Market
2526 Horizon Drive, Burnsville

Minsk Market
3992 Sibley Memorial Highway, Eagan

European Foods
1309 East Highway 13, Burnsville

The food may be delicious, but don't accept change in rubles
Bill Kelley
The food may be delicious, but don't accept change in rubles

I know from personal experience what American expats in Russia crave when they're thinking of home: Cheerios and fresh bagels topped the list for me. But, really, with enough cash in their pockets and time on their hands, hungry Americans can hunt down just about any favorite food in Moscow or St. Petersburg, from peanut butter to Pop Tarts. It doesn't take much ingenuity to put together a full Thanksgiving dinner, a batch of American pancakes, or an iconic apple pie, even in a cramped Soviet apartment kitchen.

But what about when the situation is reversed? When Russians making a new life here in Minnesota long for a little bit of the old country, what foods do they miss most?

Nina Kouljinski answers this question with a wave of her hand around her store, Moscow Market, in Burnsville.

"People come in for jars of borscht they can heat up, for good cheese, for sausage, for little cheesecakes covered in chocolate or strawberry," she says. Those little cheesecakes are called siroki (emphasis on the final "ee" sound)—divine little calorie bombs made of a full-fat curd cheese and plenty of sugar. They are cold and a little sour and about as refreshing as 400 calories compacted into the space of a matchbox car could be.

There are more than 12,000 Russian immigrants living in Minnesota, most of them in the Twin Cities, in addition to thousands of people from Ukraine, Belarus, the former Yugoslavia, and other parts of Eastern Europe. When they get a hankering for the tastes of home, they have, by my count, six options. Three of those options—Moscow Market, European Foods, and Minsk Market—are located within a five-mile span along Highway 13 in the southern suburbs of Eagan and Burnsville. (The others are Kiev Foods in St. Paul, Euro Gourmet in St. Louis Park, and Russian Market in New Hope.)

Moscow Market, which Kouljinski and her husband Igor (call him "George") opened three years ago, is the brightest and most welcoming of the three. The couple also own the restaurant next door, Nina's Grill, which serves burgers and chicken fingers alongside Russian borscht, stroganoff, and cabbage rolls. "People tell us we have the best bar food south of the river," she beams.

Kouljinski, a smiling, motherly blonde whose every English vowel starts as a bubble in the back of her mouth, is proud of the flavors of her homeland and happy to share a few moments of Russian boosterism, despite her 17 years as a proud resident of Burnsville.

"[Russian] candy is the best," she says. "You know Godiva? Three or four times the price and not as good!" Kouljinski puts her hand on her chest and raises her eyes just a bit, as if some childhood memory has transported her.

On cue, a young man ducks into the store. He grabs a vacuum-packed ice-cream cone out of the case, despite the October weather, and makes a crack about the mafia arriving. With his black Adidas tracksuit and shaved head, there's a possibility that he's not actually kidding. Only his broad, open grin gives him away. He and Kouljinski have a good laugh, his Russian punctuated by "Yah, sure, you betcha," and another big grin.

Kouljinski hails from St. Petersburg, where cones like these are sold by shivering street vendors at the entrance to nearly every subway station, even in weather so cold there's no danger of the ice cream melting. She imports them all the way from Russia and pooh-poohs the idea that shipping ice cream across 8,000 miles is excessive.

I happen to disagree with Kouljinski about Russian chocolate—I think it tends to taste more of vegetable oil than cocoa. And I think Russian ice cream is generally denser and less creamy than my favorite brands here. But I keep mum and let myself be talked into a beautifully packaged bar of chocolate and a bottle of Sovetskoe Shampanskoe. This bubbly, sweet wine carries such nostalgia and pride for millions of Russian consumers that no one could bear to drop the "Soviet" moniker, even as buildings, streets, and whole cities changed names overnight.

"For something very chic, very sexy," Kouljinski instructs me, "drop a piece of chocolate in the champagne."

I'm not here for sweets, however. I'm here for bread: dense, sour loaves that redefine bread not only for the Wonder Bread generation, but also for baguette and ciabatta snobs. Moscow Market's loaves, a little bigger than a brick and weighing about one and a half pounds each, are baked in Chicago, but other markets import them from Latvia and Lithuania.

I'm also here for cheese: infinite variations on pale, mild, sweet, nutty cheeses, as if Emmentaler had a dozen cousins no one outside the family could quite tell apart. A few daring smoked cheeses sit alongside these, the black sheep of the family.

I'm here for sausage: skinny, hard-cured tubes studded with more fat than the surgeon general should allow; fat, frighteningly pink bologna-like sausages, usually labeled "children's" or "doctor's"; blood sausage; tongue; slabs of cured pure pork fat called salo. Okay, I don't actually eat those last three, but I do like to see them there in the case, as if they're right at home in America.

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