I’m a firm believer that if you want to understand a country (or any area, really), then you need to shop at the local grocery store. It’s the only place where you’ll find aisles of regional favorites that the locals love alongside the imported foods residents think are worth bringing in other regions. It’s the former that gives you the best taste of the place, though, and in Russia, that partly means at the most grocery stores you’re likely to encounter tinned bear meat, herring, and vodka.
A Russian TikToker, @nikiproshin, recently filmed two videos where he walks through a grocery store in his home country to find the most iconic foods of Mother Russia. In the first, he starts with a tin of bear meat ($8), followed by a baby cup of vodka ($1) that he says pairs best with a pre-set, plastic-wrapped container of herring, onion, and boiled potatoes ($1.50). There’s also a package of pickles, of course, for $2, and a type of mayonnaise that he says Russians “are crazy about.”
In a follow-up video, he has his “foreign friend” do the same: find five of the most stereotypical Russian products in five minutes. (He later clarifies in the comments that his friend is Russian, but “entirely raised abroad.”) The friend starts with a big bar of Alyonka chocolate, which has a startled looking baby on the packaging and is a beloved treat from the Soviet era. That’s followed by kvass (a fermented rye bread drink), artificial caviar, and “Russian Champagne” — which is a sparkling wine made domestically. One of the more interesting items is what @nikiproshin calls curd snack, which he says is his favorite snack in the basket and clarifies in the comments that it’s “a sweet thing made from tvorog/curd cheese, covered in chocolate.”
Do these choices lean a bit on stereotypes? One baby cup of vodka says yes. But dig into the history of Russian food a little more and you’ll understand why these items made it into the video. One good place to start is The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, which the podcast 99 Percent Invisible recently featured in a story about Soviet-era recipes, food security, and Anastas Mikoyan, who producer Lasha Madan dubs the “Soviet Chef Boyardee.”
Some (or maybe all) of the foods in the video might be unfamiliar to people outside of Russia, especially those who aren’t familiar with the complicated history of Soviet cuisine and the lasting influence it has today on Russia’s modern culture. Others spotted some items they recognized in the U.S. One commenter who lives in New York City’s predominately Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach noted that they now “have confirmation that all the supermarkets [in Brighton Beach] sell the same brands and items.”
And that’s the beauty of a grocery store run: You always leave with a little more insight about what people eat elsewhere, and how that connects to seemingly disparate people around the world.
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