Monday, March 19, 2012

Shop Locally... Great Food Markets in Russia and Ukraine


Caviar, Caviar, Caviar
People have all kinds of rituals when traveling. Some always buy the same souvenir in every country they visit, let’s say an espresso cup or an edition of Saint Exupéry’s  Little Prince in the local language, some like to take a picture of themselves in the same funny pose in front of every major monument.

Between museums, galleries or palaces, I try to squeeze in a local market or a grocery store. Not just to run in to buy a quick snack, but for a real tour. I guess everyone visits a local market or a bazaar, but there is something different about a grocery store and I mean a regular one not a fancy gourmet shop for tourists. Seeing people thinking about what they will cook for dinner, looking for their choice of shampoo or discussing different cuts of meat with the butcher is just as fascinating as strolling through a museum, albeit slightly voyeuristic. You can find local grocery stores on every corner in Moscow or St. Petersburg and I highly recommend peaking in, if only for the fun of seeing products you know (like M&M's or a Coca Cola) in an unfamiliar wrapping with their names spelled out in Cyrillic.

If you are looking to visit the best farmer markets, there are some excellent ones in Eastern Europe as well. Surprisingly, they feel exotic in comparison to the US markets, mainly due to the ubiquitous caviar that is displayed in mind-boggling abundance. They also look like museums of anything pickled as there is simply nothing that Russians could not pickle and the colorful jars and bottles make for a wonderful décor of the market stalls. In Moscow, the best people watching, snacking and shopping for last minute gifts for your foodie friends is to be had at the Eliseevsky Gourmet Store on the Tverskaya Street that is convenient to anyone staying in the center. The best farmers market, Danilovskiy, is found outside of the city, but the journey is well worth it. The variety of produce is shocking for anyone whose mind is stuck in the Cold War stereotypes and imagines Russians still struggling to find food in empty grocery stores. In St. Petersburg, the best market is the Kuznechnyi Market, again offering a wide array of Russian food and produce and centrally located. My most recent visit to Eastern Europe took me to Kiev, the highlight of which was definitely a stroll through the Besarabsky Market right on the city’s main avenue, the Kreschatyk. The sellers don’t speak much English as these markets really cater to the locals, but they are eager to show you and let you taste their products and any attempt by you to speak their language is extremely appreciated.

If your travels take you to Russia and Ukraine, find the time to visit these markets to get the best taste of local life.