Kyra Giorgi on Berlin’s Russian supermarkets – and what to buy in them..
Russians and Russian speakers have long made their home in Berlin. The foundations of today’s community can be traced most definitively back to the immigration of the 1920s triggered by the Bolshevik revolution, when the likes of Nabokov and Kandinsky enjoyed the political and artistic freedom of the Weimar capital.
They settled mainly in the Western part of the city, in Charlottenburg and surrounds (hence its alternative moniker, Charlottengrad). More waves of immigration followed: post-WWII, many Russian POWs opted to stay in West Berlin, while the Russian sector housed a moving population of troops and functionaries and their families.
A steady trickle of dissidents and intellectuals from the Soviet Union increased in the 1970s and continued into the 80s, when Russians of Jewish heritage were permitted to emigrate. While many went to Israel, some stayed in Berlin. In the decades after the collapse of Soviet communism, the city has continued to receive people from all over the former USSR.
Catering to around 300,000 Russian speakers, as well as a great deal of German-speaking locals, Berlin’s many Russian supermarkets are wonderful repositories of the culinary cultures of the Soviet Union. The USSR was, despite the centralisation of power, a multi-national state of myriad ethnicities, religions, languages and traditions.
The variety of food found in Russian supermarkets in Berlin reflects the huge amount of cultural crossover that occurred both within the USSR and at its borders. East Asian, Persian, Mongolian and Middle Eastern influences suffused with Caucasian, Central Asian, Balkan, Baltic, Austro-Hungarian and Slavic traditions.
The sheer scale and diversity of the former Soviet Union has led to everyday food shops that are also museums of cultural and culinary cultures. As with all museums, however, it does help to have a guide…(scroll down to the bottom to find a list of recommended shops and supermarkets).
Russian supermarkets stock many foods you will find elsewhere in Berlin. German staples such as smoked fish, pickles and sauerkraut, marinated mushrooms, sausage and quark are common here too, while foods such as sunflower seeds, ayran and ayvar, which are popular from Azerbaijan to Bulgaria and the Balkans, are standard in all Turkish supermarkets. The items listed below, therefore, are those that are imported or are not typically found elsewhere. Or which – as in the case of vodka – simply cannot be found in quite the same variety or volume.
Salads from the Far-East – Koryo-Saram is the name given to ethnic Koreans in Russia and the former USSR. On the island of Sakhalin, in the far east, the Korean minority derives from indentured labourers brought by the Japanese; there are also sizable Koryo-Saram communities in Central Asia. Korean-style carrot salad, which consists of julienned carrots with oil and spices, is thought to be a variation on kimchi – with no cabbage at hand, the Koreans resorted to pickling carrots instead. Also of Far East Asian origin are the seaweed salads that usually sit on the shelf beside it.
Sulguni – A Georgian speciality, this chewy, pneumatic cheese is sold in solid rounds and sometimes smoked. A little like haloumi, it also fries well. Sulguni is traditionally served with cornmeal porridge and often provides the filling for deliciously artery-hardening khachapuri bread.
Salo – Ukrainian pork fatback, very similar to Italian lardo, is the natural companion to a piece of rye and a tumbler (stakan) of vodka. Dense in fat and calories, it is an excellent source of energy for cold days – a ‘tongue’ of salo might be as useful in an iced-up Alexanderplatz on a Sunday as in the middle of a Siberian winter. Small birds, especially tits, also like to nibble on it. Hang a strip outside to give them a special treat.
Caviar – Caviar, or ikra, is sold by the kilo and in jars of varying size and quality. Red caviar, from salmon is cheaper than the black caviar of sturgeon. It is believed that the best caviar comes from sturgeons that are not under stress, hence the Caspian saying ‘Caviar must be smiling’. Although some of the larger Russian supermarkets do sell live sturgeon, sourcing your own caviar is not recommended.
Frozen dumplings: pelmeni, vareniki, khinkali, manti, pierogi, etc. – Every Russian supermarket worthy of the name has at least one enormous freezer full of these. Usually filled with meat – beef or pork or a combination of the two – and sometimes potato, quark and berries, they range from the small UFO-shaped ‘Romanov’ and ‘Intelligentsia’ type, to more substantial Caucasian fare. Georgian-style khinkhali, filled with coriander-spiced pork, should be eaten with lots of black pepper. Manti, various incarnations of which can be found throughout Turkey, the Caucasus and the ‘stans, may have originated with Uygars. Eat with sour cream, vinegar, or butter-fried onions.
Bread – Much of it is trucked in from Poland just over the border. A typical range includes Latvian black bread, Russian borodinsky (a dark and flavoursome coriandery rye), Polish makowiec poppy-seed buns and Armenian-style lavash.
Shashlik – It’s not uncommon to find a Russian supermarket enveloped in the aromatic smoke of the shashlik grill outside it. Derived from the Turkish-Tatar word for skewer (şiş), there were several entry points for shashlik onto the Russian table – Crimea and the Caucasus among them. Many Russian supermarkets also sell the shashlik skewers, perfect for a barbecue at Tempelhofer Feld.
Adjika – Where there is shashlik, there is adjika – or there should be. Russian shops are awash with condiments, but this piquant tomato sauce, full of coriander, chilli and spices, is worth a special mention. Though it comes from Abkhazia, the breakaway Black Sea region, the love of adjika knows no boundaries.
Medovnik – A tasty layered honey and walnut cake popular in Russia, Ukraine and the Czech lands. Honey (med) is a traditional health food.
Alyonka chocolate – This classic milk chocolate has been produced by Moscow’s Red October confectionary company since 1965. Although the mini-babushka on the wrapper bears a resemblance to the titular moppet of Boris Barnet’s 1961 film ‘Alyonka’, rumours circulated that the child bore an uncanny resemblance to Stalin’s daughter…
Laima chocolate – Dinner invitation? You won’t go wrong presenting your hosts with a box of Latvian chocolates named after the Baltic goddess of Fate.
Sweets by the kilo – Every Russian supermarket has an aisle with a kaleidoscope of colourful sweets and chocolates (konfety). With wrappers and names that rarely give any clue as to their contents, there is little option but to grab a few handfuls and dutifully work your way through them. Favourites include: ‘Kara-Kum’, ‘Pleasure’, ‘Little Bear of Siberia’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Inspiration’ and ‘Moscow Lights’.
Drinks (in order of strength, or ‘voltage’…)
Borjomi mineral water – Although the springs at Borjomi in central Georgia date from the 1st century, only in the 19th did doctors begin to prescribe its waters for internal consumption. Highly mineralised, with a distinctively salty, metallic flavour, it is a rapidly acquired taste. During the Soviet era it was coveted as a high-quality product, ensuring its presence on the tables of politburo bigwigs.
Ryazhenka – Fermented milk products like ryazhenka and kefir are very popular. This can be put down to the influence of the Tartars who, after the 13th century, introduced soured milk products into the culinary culture. At the centre of the traditional Russian rural hut, or izba, was the stove that after a single firing kept going all day – ryazhenka was produced when boiled milk was kept in a clay pot on the stove overnight until it became baked and fermented, leaving a rich, caramely yoghurt-cream. The many brands of packaged milk products will, however, keep you going until you can get to an izba.
Kvass – What, you may wonder, are these enormous plastic bottles of murky brownish liquid? Kvass resembles both tea and beer, and shares some qualities with both. Produced by fermenting bread, it is reputedly bursting with health properties, esp. vitamin B, as well as being ever-so-slightly alcoholic. Homemade kvass is sometimes flavoured with fruits and berries.
Zhigulovskoye beer – Formerly the beer of the dissolute and the desperate, zhigulovskoye was a top tipple of the cult writer Venedikt Erofeev, who in his novel Moscow to the End of the Line described drinking it in a cocktail with, amongst other things, anti-dandruff shampoo, insect repellent and medication for sweaty feet. Russian beers today are mostly excellent and can be enjoyed without such mixers.
Soviet champagne – The Russian champagne making tradition was born in the 19th century, when an aristocrat prince invited French experts to advise on his Black Sea enterprise. Production continued after the revolution, after which much of it was consumed as Sovyetskoye Shampanskoye – the drink of the people. Crimean sparkling wine is also sometimes found in German shops under the label Krimskoye.
Georgian wine – It seems the jury is in: Georgia is the cradle of viticulture, as well as a country where elaborate drinking rituals die hard. Try a dry white from Rkaziteli grapes, or a robust Saperavi red such as ‘Pirosmani’, named in honour of the celebrated primitivist painter.
Ararat brandy – Armenians have been producing their konyak to a high quality for well over a century. Although it now lies behind the Turkish border, Mount Ararat is an Armenian national symbol of huge mythic and cultural importance, and so it is no surprise that they named their premier brandy after it. The Russian writer Maxim Gorky famously declared that it was easier to climb Mt. Ararat than it was to leave the cellars of the Ararat factory, although whether he was referring to its stores of wine and vodka as well remains unclear.
Vodka – Taken with a meal, vodka acts as a spice, freshening the palate and enhancing the flavour of the food. Or it’s enough just to pop a pickle or a morsel of bread into your mouth before you toast. Washing a slice of herring down with a glass of vodka is another option for, as the saying goes, ‘fish like to swim’. The range is huge, from crisp and clear vodkas such as ‘Baikal’ and ‘Russian Standard’ to sweet Nemiroff-brand Ukrainian horilka, in honey-chilli and cranberry flavours.
There are over 20 Russian supermarkets in Berlin. Here are a few recommendations…
1) Rossiya, Stuttgarter Platz 36, at S-Bahn Charlottenberg. Open: 24/7.
2) Mini Mix 14 (MixMarkt), Charlottenbrunner Str.12. Open: Mon-Fri 8-21, Sat 8-21
3) Alyonka, Grunerstraße 20 (in the Alexa building). Open: Mon-Sat 10-21, Sunday 11-19
4) Berjozka, Passauer Straße 4. Open: Mon-Sat 11-20
5) Intermarkt Stolitschniy, Landsberger Allee 116. Open: Mon-Sat 9-20
6) Intermarkt Yubileynyy, Möllendorffstr. 47 – 48. Open: Mon-Sat 9-20
7) Intermarkt Stolitschniy, Donaustr. 39 – 40. Open: Mon-Sat 9-20
8) Intermarkt Russische Spezialitäten, Kienhorststr. 156. Open: Mon-Sat 9-20
9) Kasatschok, Schivelbeiner Str. 49. Open: Mon-Fri 10-19; Sat 10-17
The image of Brodsky’s painting comes from the Museum Syndicate.