I believe food choices are personal and never dictated by the place itself. For instance, most Indians believe finding vegetarian food outside of India means living on salads and potatoes. Similarly a number of people we met in Russia believed it was almost impossible to get meat in India, whatever happened to all the biryanis and kebabs!
Faced with the daunting task of being a vegetarian traveller in Russia, we consulted a friend. Sadly, he agreed that we might have to give up vegetarianism if we had to travel in Mother Russia. Turns out he was wrong!
Befriending locals and breaking stereotypes
It is always useful if you have a friend or host who can help you out with local food options. We were lucky to have a friend who served us a modest yet tasty lunch consisting of Borscht, bread and sour cream (yogurt). Borscht is a vegetable stew made primarily with beetroot, potatoes and onions; it is of Ukrainian origin though. As with most European nations Khleb or bread is popular in Russia too and is delicious on its own. Smetana or sour cream was the comfort food we had with almost everything we ate.
Thanks to all the warning we embarked on the Trans Siberian train ride with khleb, Smetana, loads of Tomato juice and some ready to eat food from India. But we soon realized vegetarians could actually have a feast on these journeys. Our co-passenger revealed to us that the sweet smelling snack sold on the trolleys inside the coach was indeed vegetarian! Kapoosta piroge or cabbage filled pie and Kartofel piroge or potato pie are your options for a good evening snack.
An English gentleman was kind enough to get a menu card from the in-house restaurant and marked everything that was vegetarian on it, this took care of the rest of our meals on the train. We had one of the best borscht, the best grechika (or buckwheat) and also some buttered rice with sautéed potato.
Local Canteens and Buffets
A very interesting dining option in Russia is the buffet on offer at several chains. These invariably have a number of vegetarian options and are pretty cheap. A popular chain called Mu-mu amused us with the numerous options it had on the menu, we realised that Lobio or black-eyed peas is a staple here along with numerous salads and bread. You should definitely try Vegetable Solyanka which is a soup and the local beverages.
We also had dinner at a plush looking restaurant called Grabli after watching the Nikulin circus. Here we had an elaborate dinner with several vegetarian options for under INR 500 for a couple! Buffets in Moscow are charged based on what’s on your plate so one need not worry about paying more for having lesser options.
Happy cow App
As travellers who like to walk to most places it was important for us to locate eateries accordingly, which is when apps like Happy Cow came to our rescue. Happy cow usually lists restaurants even in remote towns and cities, and so while we were in Irkutsk, Eastern Siberia we didn’t get much information from the locals but we easily found at least three Vegetarian restaurants within walking distance from our hotel using this app.
The Krishna consciousness around the world- Thank you ISKCON!
How much Russia is influenced by the ISKCON movement is for another time but thanks to that we found places like Govindas in Irkutsk and Jagannath in Veliky Novgorod which are both very small non-touristy towns. Although they do not serve typical Indian food but they serve pure vegan prasad in the form of kebabs, curries and even sumptuous cakes and pastries!
Consumerism Overtakes Communism!
If we were to travel to Russia a few years ago we probably wouldn’t be lucky enough to walk into familiar spaces like The Subway or McDonalds. But thanks to the end of communism there are plenty of globally well known brands serving something familiar to our palate. The morning breakfast at McDonald’s especially came to our rescue in Moscow as the city doesn’t have many restaurants opening early for breakfast. You could opt for hash browns, berry filled pies and some coffee just to kickstart your day! We also noticed that though Subway doesn’t have a vegetarian option on the menu, it’s not very difficult to request for a custom-made one.
Learn the basic words for “meatless” in the local language!
Occasionally even the locals, mobile apps and signage don’t help. When we were in Listvyanka, a tiny village on the banks of Lake Baikal, our host made it seem like a joke that we enquired about getting vegetarian food around the village. We didn’t lose hope and all we did was peep into eateries and shout out ‘bes myasa’, which means without meat and we discovered lots of fresh vegetarian food.
Useful TIPS to get authentic vegetarian food at least in the cities in Russia:
- If you choose to stay in well-known hotel chains like we did in Irkutsk at Ibis, chances are that the breakfast spread will include the basic vegetarian options. Also most breakfast buffets in Russia have porridge made out of various millets especially buckwheat.
- Vareniki are traditional Russian dumplings, an influence from the East and ‘Varenichnaya’ a restaurant chain serving this has plenty of vegetarian options both in sweet and savoury flavours. We tried Vareniki with spinach at the Red square outlet and became absolute fans!
- Another popular chain that we absolutely became fans of is Teremok which is popular for our other Russian favorite Bliny. This is basically Russian crepe or pancake and yes it can be customized to be made without eggs like Ranjani ordered! They also serve grechika in the most innovative way.
*Teremok opens early for breakfast and has several branches both in Moscow and St.Petersburg.
- Do not miss these local non-alcoholic beverages like Kvas which is made out of fermented rye bread, Mors which is made from Lingonberry and cranberry, Kefir which is an equivalent to buttermilk and packaged Tomato juice which you absolutely a must-try in Russia. We hydrated ourselves with litres of these, as the summers can get pretty hot even here!
- It would be a sin to visit Russia and not have hot cocoa at least once,.In fact I had one every day for 22 days! However, if you ask me to pick a favorite, surprisingly it wouldn’t be a tough task. My best memory is from the “Literary Café” which is as old as the country itself, writers like Pushkin used to sit here and sip their hot chocolate and write some of the most famous plays and poems. It’s thick molten chocolate sans a marshmallow (sticking to traditions), in fact it is served with a glass of water so that you can gulp the last bits of chocolate.
- Lastly, we enjoyed cooking several meals at the hostels’ common-kitchens and kitchenettes of hotel rooms. Fresh fruits and vegetables, bread and smetana were basics we always carried and most hostels provide staples like rice, pasta and kitchenware. It saved us money as well as gave us a break from the occasional boredom.
We spent close to a month in Russia without feeling homesick .It is quite refreshing to talk to so many people and learn about their food, culture and break common misconceptions, for example we learnt that during Lent which falls around end of March about 3 million Russians turn Vegan! We hope through this blog that food will no longer be your excuse to not put Russia on your travel bucket lists.