A Vegetarian’s Guide To Survival In Russia
How often do you come across people who can’t help but raise eyebrows when you tell them that you are a vegetarian? This has happened to me on many occasions. In my experience, being vegetarian is still a fairly new concept in Russia and you may find people, especially the older generation, who would simply dismiss this as a short-lived enthusiasm, adding that one will grow weak and will get sick if you remain on such diet for a long time. 10 years ago, when I came to this wonderful country to meet my husband’s family for the first time on New Year’s Eve, I received a warm welcome with a lavish spread, prepared by my mother-in-law, consisting of different Russian delicacies. When I told her I am a vegetarian, she happily removed all the traces of chicken floating in the shchi(cabbage soup) from my bowl, saying that I could now enjoy the soup. I welcomed the New Year, gobbling up all the vinnegrate(Russian beetroot salad) and bread that was on the table. Of course, my husband and mother-in-law were amused and to this day we have a good laugh about it.
I come from India, a country where majority of people are vegetarian, and we have many different varieties of fruits and vegetables available all the year round. We are also known to use lots of spices in our cuisine to enhance the flavour of the food. The spices not only improve the taste, but also have medicinal properties. Contrary to popular belief, we do not add curry powder or random spices to all the vegetables while cooking. Each spice serves a purpose in the dish. For instance, while cooking green beans, cumin is added as it balances the flavour of otherwise bland vegetables. Sauté pumpkin with red onions, add fennel and fenugreek seeds and you will make any staunch hater of pumpkin fall in love with it.
Thankfully, nowadays we have supermarkets flooded with different vegetables from other countries. While most people tend to think that buying all these exotic vegetables in any of the up-market places is an expensive affair, I would recommend exploring the weekend farmers’ markets. I have made friends with ‘babushkas’ who grow and sell vegetables from their kitchen garden. I have even shared the recipes with random sellers who are curious about different ways of preparing the veggies. I also get curious glances while buying vegetables like sweet potatoes, daikon radish, tamarind and ginger and I happily share with them what I know. Summer and autumn wake up the ‘ant’ in me and I enjoy my time buying fresh seasonal vegetables in bulk, washing, peeling and freezing them for use during winter. Hard work but it’s worth it.
Some of the big supermarket chains have spices sections as well that offer a wide range of good quality spices. If you can’t find what you are looking for, you can always get them from your nearest Indian spices shops or order them online.
Adding dry fruits to the food also enhances nutritional value and luckily there are many places in Moscow where you can buy them, my favourite place being ‘Tvoi Dom’at Vegas Myakininowhere they offer good quality at a reasonable price.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and be adventurous with flavours. I have done this a lot myself and have absolutely no regrets! Who says only non-vegetarians can enjoy pelmeniand vegetarians have to be satisfied with its poor cousin ‘vareniki’? Try using different vegetables along with cheese and spices as fillings for your own vegetable pelmeniand enjoy these with your own homemade dip made from fresh tomatoes, onions and garlic. I make a good amount of different chutneys from fresh tomatoes, mint and put them in the freezer as I personally don’t prefer adding preservatives. Coconut chutney is made in a matter of minutes and can be enjoyed as a dip or with lentil soup and rice. Cabbage is a staple in Russia and it can be stir fried with coconut shred mustard seeds and a hint of garlic. Enjoy with a fresh toast!
Impress your friends with your own version of dranikithat does not require any eggs. Use semolina instead of flour and add in kefir. Add finely chopped onions, sauerkraut(yes, you read it right!), grated ginger, cumin seeds and shallow fry. My mouth is watering as I write this.
During autumn, when you have aubergine and green bell pepper in plenty, try preparing them using different fillings. A filling consisting of four spices, namely, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper and crushed fennel seeds can turn a plain aubergine into a finger-licking side dish.
Wondering what to do with all those beans and lentils resting on the supermarket shelves? How about a ‘plov’ or soup with these? Red kidney beans and chickpea go well with plain rice. Don’t fancy plov? Try topping plain boiled rice with the onions, caramelized on low heat. You may also enjoy fritters with different vegetable like potatoes, onions, spinach, sorrel, dipped in gram flour (нутовая мука) batter, that can be easily found in many supermarkets. You may also use circassian cheese (адыгейский сыр) cubes along with vegetables. That makes a perfect snack for a cold autumn or winter evening.
All the aforementioned recipes not only taste good, but can be prepared on a daily basis. Furthermore, it only takes 45-60 minutes to prepare most of these meals. Some require preparation in advance and are best left for the weekends. For example, beans and chickpeas take longer to cook and have to be soaked overnight.
The tips and recipes mentioned in this article are by no means exhaustive and I would be happy to share ideas with anyone would like to explore this amazing world of vegetables. I would love to hear from other fellow vegetarians about their experiences. You may visit my Instagram page-russianlanguage9 for more information and ideas.
Preeti is a Senior Learning Assistant at Brookes School Moscow, and runs an international cookery club at the school.