What a Country!

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

Moscow Market
2526 Horizon Drive, Burnsville
952.808.9000

Minsk Market
3992 Sibley Memorial Highway, Eagan
651.209.0564

European Foods
1309 East Highway 13, Burnsville
952.882.6574

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.

"People come here to buy Russian salami and cheese," Kouljinski tells me "because the quality is so much better, and it's so much cheaper than at Cub Foods"—"Cub" comes out as "Cahb"—"and you see on TV how American cows live? They live in little boxes all their lives and never see the sun and never taste grass."

I'm also here for great deals on dried and brined wild mushrooms, and for jam and juice flavors that Americans would love if we just gave them a chance (like elderberry and black currant) and others that I know really wouldn't make it in Cub and Rainbow (like birch juice and green walnut preserves).

If I were Russian, however, I'd be filling my basket with other things: jars of pickled vegetables—everything from tomatoes and peppers to eggplant and squash—and dairy products that are just different enough from their American equivalents to taste like home to a homesick Russian. I'd probably also grab some kvass, a soft drink made from fermented rye bread. It's sweet and lightly sour and only mildly carbonated. To me it tastes and smells like a hot, smog-filled city and melting asphalt, because in Russia it is sold from mini tanker trucks parked on urban corners in the warm months, and that is my only association with it. But I know that for most Russians it is the flavor of summer refreshment itself.

I did pick up one very Russian thing: a small plastic jar of spiced dried fish, meant to be a good drinking snack. I couldn't resist the illustration on the front, which looked just like a happy sea monkey. I left it on the kitchen counter at home and my husband absentmindedly moved it over by the cat food.

 

At European Foods, a more modest store down the street by the Humane Society, the fare is largely the same. A tow-headed family is picking out candies with fairy-tale wrappers. It looks like the fun end to a long Saturday morning of shopping.

Sveta Kirkova, the young Ukrainian woman behind the counter, says the store gets a lot of Polish customers, along with plenty of people who aren't from Eastern Europe at all, but are looking for alternatives to heavily processed foods.

"What I like [about Ukrainian food] is that it's so natural," she says. "So much food here is not. And [American food] has so much fat," she says. She admits to liking American candy, though, and appreciates that "you can cook food so fast here."

The crowd is heavier at Minsk Market in nearby Eagan. A line snakes through the low-ceilinged store. A middle-aged couple are discussing whether a one-pound tub of red caviar is worth buying. They're not talking about the outsized wonder that is a one-pound plastic tub of caviar, or whether $30 is too much or too little for such an oddity—just whether the quality will be sufficient for their guests. Their basket is full of sliced cheeses and sausages wrapped in butcher paper, ready to be made into the open-faced finger sandwiches that are the centerpiece of a typical party spread.

When they get to the register (they do buy the caviar), the man hands a rented DVD on the life of the poet Sergei Yesenin to the shopkeeper. She asks when he borrowed it "more or less," then licks her thumb and pages through a loose-leaf binder. Finding the right entry, she crosses his name out with a ball-point pen.

A hearty man with a tanned face and denim shirt tucked in over his stately gut greets most of the others standing in line by name and introduces them to each other. Everybody advises the young couple searching for an appropriate box of chocolates for a hostess gift to look for the heaviest one (for a better ratio of chocolate to packaging, of course).

The pastry case at Minsk Market is packed with the elaborate cakes that are equivalent with social celebrations in Russia, all of them precise configurations of very thin layers: sponge cakes, puff pastry, waffles, cream, and icing. A young, dark-haired woman stands behind the combined pastry and deli counter, wearing a ruffled turquoise apron that wouldn't look out of place in 1980s Moscow. She chats with customers about their favorite salamis and where to find Russian-speaking child care as she slices meats and cheeses.

And, just as I am starting to feel out of place among all this old-country camaraderie, she inquires after my heavily accented Russian and says warmly, "Prikhodite!"—"Come again!"

And I will, next time I'm homesick for Mother Russia.

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