Brighton Beach Is a Paradise of Pickles and Cow Feet

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Brighton Beach Is a Paradise of Pickles and Cow Feet

To learn more about the salty fish and cabbage that I'd briefly flirted with in my youth, I headed to Brighton Beach—a middle-class, heavily Jewish, and Russian-speaking neighborhood deep in the southern part of Brooklyn—for a bit of former Soviet...

Welcome back to Ashok Kondabolu's (a.k.a. Dapwell) column, Aisle Check, where he focuses on the concept of "ethnic" grocery stores. Aren't all grocery stores "ethnic" in the scope of the world? And aren't they all just grocery stores?

Russian food is something I've only ever eaten a handful of times. At one point my father had a job in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and I'd come home from school to find him sitting with two or three Russian Orthodox Jews in the living room, politely attempting to eat something he'd never had before. At that time, my dad's tastes ranged from the South Indian food he'd always eaten to occasional forays into take-out Chinese food. That was it.

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Later that night I'd usually eat whatever was left of the food (which was usually a lot) before my mom would take it to work the next day to give to her co-workers. I remember cabbage, fish that looked like fish but tasted like salt, and a lot of bread. I liked it, and it was the furthest thing I could imagine from the South Indian flavors my mom was cooking up.

My next true foray into the world of Russian food (not including a disastrous attempt at making pelmeni with my friend Olga and her mom in Hoboken once) was not long ago, when my photographer Katy and I hopped into a rented Chevy Cruze and drove up to Washington Heights to meet up with one of my oldest friends, Aleksey Weintraub (a.k.a Lakutis), and his mother, Elena. Aleksey and I met through a mutual friend when we were 16, and spent that night in Riverside Park beating discarded mannequins we'd found outside an Express with an aluminum pole. I'd eaten at his house a few times, but it was either not Russian food, or I was drunk and can't really remember what I ate. Elena also made a rum-soaked cake that I remember liking a lot, but I don't know if that counts. (Do Russians drink rum?)

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The author with Aleskey's mother in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. All photos by Katy Porter.

We hopped in the car and prepared for the long trek to Brighton Beach, a middle-class, heavily Jewish, and Russian-speaking neighborhood deep in the southern part of Brooklyn. Aleksey knows the neighborhood from occasional shopping trips for Russian goods with his mother. Having spent almost his entire life in uptown Manhattan, every time we go to dense, multi-ethnic enclaves like Brighton Beach or Jackson Heights, he insists he's going to move there with his motorcycle. I don't know if I believe him, but it sounds like a good idea.

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It was a cold day, but there were many vendors selling various cookies and pastries on the street. Our first stop was the Brighton Bazaar, a supermarket that's popular with area residents for most of their shopping needs. At one point, an employee followed us around to make sure we didn't take any photos, but we managed to get off some shots anyway.

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"This is one of the biggest stores after the demise of International Foods, which burned down and still hasn't come back to life. It's loaded with Russian foods, from cold cuts to produce, and all sorts of imported sweets and home-made sausages. Russian Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians Uzbeks, and Israelis move here for the beach, and they like the produce being a little bit better than in the city."

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"This is the red currant. They're very sour and not very popular here, except for jelly. In northern Russia, it is a shrub. It grows where I'm from (St. Petersburg). There are three kinds: red, which is sour; white, which is between sour and sweet; and the blackcurrant, which crème de cassis and juice is made out of. Loads of vitamin C."

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"In America, people know the sour and half-sour. Russians, we pickle everything. You eat them with meat, with hummus. You can pickle mushrooms, watermelons, apples, sauerkraut, tomatoes, small eggplants. Because it's pickled and not heated, it preserves some of the nutrients."

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"These are Russian pastries, as many as two hundred kinds. Ladyfingers, birds' nests—they each have a name. The Russian tradition is to purchase them hot on a cold day on the street, and eating it right away."

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"These are Russian version of UGGs with fake animal heads. Not for the PETA people. Russians like embellishment, and this is a very good example."

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"Matryoshka are Russian symbols of abundance and prosperity. You open one, and there's another one, and so on. Everybody who comes from Russia brings them to the USA; you always have a few kinds at home for no reason whatsoever."

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"Here we have all sorts of fish, lox, half-salted on the right. Cold-smoked semga. For some reason, they write the English words in Russian letters and the Russian words in English letters. This is all smoked. You mostly make sandwiches with them. You can eat them with boiled potatoes, but the potatoes should not be salted because these fish are salty. It's all called zakuska, which is to accompany drinking vodka straight. Whatever chases the vodka is zakuska, the best of which is salty fish. Herring, if you're poor, but if you're rich, a status symbol is red fish."

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"This is a famous advertisement which means 'Don't talk too much!' It was done in the times when they claimed everybody was surrounded by Western spies. It's kept in the store sort of as a joke, a play on words."

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"Crabmeat used to be so popular in Russia. I have to tell you, the Russian preserves are slightly different—different spices and techniques. I have never eaten anything as good as Russian crabmeat from the can. But these are not it. It would be difficult to get one can. We'd save it for years and make a salad to beef it up and drown it in mayonnaise."

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"Cow feet, frozen. They're used for a popular dish meat in aspic. You cook it to death, for six or ten hours, adding all kinds of meat—but you must have cow feet. When everything falls apart, you take the bones out of there; it's so concentrated, it becomes a jelly. It becomes similar to a headcheese and is eaten with horseradish once it's cut into slices. A slice is like two bowls of soup."

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"This is imported milk. The different cows make different tasting cows. It's no joke."

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"This is Russian cognac. Ararat is Armenian. It used to be very popular, and Russians like it still. Pushkin, the famous Russian poet, said, "Habit is a person's substitute for happiness." That's why they drink this thing—it reminds them of the past."

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"This is Russian Standard."

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"A Russian version of champagne, which is also horrific stuff. It's cheap. It says "Soviet Sparkling." Soviet Champagne is a famous brand. More Russian nostalgia."

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"Some people prefer this store to Brighton Bazaar. 'Gold Label' was the name of the cocoa powder everybody was buying, so it's a recognizable name."

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"This is a Russian version of marshmallow called zefir. I think they import this from Russia. It's horrific."

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[laughs] "It's just bologna, a famous company."

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"Bread is a huge thing in Russia. This loaf made with rye with caraway seeds, and all kinds of spices. Spicy rye bread is a staple of Russia. It's a heavier, dense bread. Some people would survive on bread, so you better fill it up with a mix of different flours."

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"There's more nostalgia here in ice cream form. Everybody claimed that Russian ice cream was way, way better than American ice cream, so they started to import it. They use different milk, but I'm not a big ice cream person, so I don't know."

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"This is horseradish mayonnaise. There's more Russian word play here, like 'f'ing mayonnaise.' On the right is tkemali. It's a Georgian sauce made of wild plums, herbs, and spices. It's really good. You eat it with shish kebabs, lamb. It cuts a gamey taste, like goat or venison, quite well."

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"This is a typical Russian thing called kissel, a little jelly. You drink it, but it's like a dessert—a drinkable Jell-O. Put a few tablespoons in hot water and here you go. It's very Russian—nobody else likes it!"

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"Pelmeni—Russian dumplings. When people got snowed in, we'd all sit down, roll the dough, combine the meat. The entire family would make hundreds of them. You'd put them in sacks outside and bury them to freeze them. When you needed some, you'd break off some, and boil them and eat with sour cream or vinegar. Siberians mix pork and beef, chicken ones, veal ones. The classic is pork, beef, and lamb."

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"These Polish wafers are very popular—it's called Torcik Wedlowski. It was very hard to get in Russia but everybody wanted it. Here it is with some red currants. We do this here in America because it looks good."

After we left Brighton Beach, we drove back to Washington Heights and ate some of the food we purchased. Nobody was into the red currants (as predicted) but the wafer was pretty good. Elena talked about the closing of a lot of Russian businesses in Brighton Beach, and how a lot of the newer stores were opening in Forest Hills, Queens, where the activity is centered around 108th street. I learned a little about Russian food and a lot about Brighton Beach's privacy and uniqueness in an ever-homogenizing New York. All in all, a good trip.