Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Russian Grocery Shopping Experience


Grocery shopping in Russia has been an ongoing source of amusement for me from day one. I never know quite what a trip to the store will hold, and thanks to a very inconsistent supply chain, I'm always discovering new products (or mourning the sudden disappearance of others).  


Mini frozen squids, anyone?
I find grocery shopping almost more entertaining than museum browsing, which is fortunate, because I have to visit a store – whether it be the OKAY Express, a big store, or one of the many neighborhood convenience stores – at least twice a week. It's not that I'm under the illusion that the produce will be fresher if I buy it more often (there's no such thing as fresh produce in this country); the reason I shop often is because I can only ever buy as much as I can carry. And even then I've become a discriminate shopper. Juggling more than two or three shopping bags on the metro or mashrutka (trolleybus) is just not practical, and fragile items, like eggs and lettuce, are likely to be massacred by fellow passengers.

But back to the stores themselves.... I've never seen a place that has such a diverse shopping landscape as the one I've found here in St. Petersburg. Entering one of the produkty (general goods) or napitki (“drinks,” selling mostly beer, vodka & soda, and cigarettes) that line the basements of the buildings downtown, I often feel as if I've walked into a third world country. I'm sure that many Americans have never walked into a store to find most of the shelves completely bare, and I will tell you that the first time you find yourself in such a situation, it feels quite eerie. Just two nights ago I was craving a Nestle Ice Tea – arguably the number one or two most popular soft drinks in Russia – and popped over to the napitki across the street from my apartment. The vodka section was pretty well stocked, but the cooler containing soft drinks had a few 20 oz. cans of Monster energy drink and three two-liters of Pepsi. That's all. There was a guy crouched down stocking a mostly-empty beer cooler next to it. So I moved on.

I call this the "pickled salad bar"
- nothing fresh,everything pickled.
A little bit further down the street, I ran into a produkty. I immediately saw the Nestle bottles in the cooler and started to get excited – they even had three different sizes, a real jackpot! Of the raspberry, lemon, peach, and green tea flavors that it comes in, my favorite is peach, and at that moment a Peach Nestle Tea was the only thing in the world that I wanted. But alas, no peach. It was one of those moments where you just have to say “That's Russia...” and shrug it off. Moments like this are pretty much a daily occurrence.

Pickles, pickled olives, pickled onions,
pickled mushrooms....
So there's my first example: the third world shopping experience in empty stores. But as I mentioned before, Russia has the most diverse range of grocery options in any country I've ever been to (and I've been to 22, so I feel like I have a little credibility here).

When I visited Stockmann's during my second weekend in St. Petersburg, I immediately felt at home. This Swedish-based chain is an all-imports Euro grocery palace – like Harrod's in London. Of course, it's not quite of the same caliber as Harrod's, but definitely the closest you'll find in this country. It's certainly nicer than even the nicest Safeway in the States and follows a layout that is familiar to Western shoppers. And they have all the favorites: French cheese, peanut butter, Swiss and Belgian chocolate, an extensive dried fruits and nuts section, even Bush's baked beans!The only hangup is the price: I paid about $80 for about one week's worth of groceries for just me!
Stores here are really into the self service when it
comes to frozen foods

I've ended up settling for a nice, high-end grocery retailer called “Land” that provides good quality food and many foreign imports, but doesn't break the bank. With the rewards card that I bought for $3.50 I even get 8% off everything I buy there. I also visit a little less-nice but still above average Russian chain called OKEЙ (“OKAY”).

But even in these Western-oriented stores, there are still a few quirks:
You have to pay for regular-sized shopping bags (about $1 each), and yet the cashiers insist on putting everything into its own little clear plastic sack. It's like they're trying to pack your lunch or something. And so I get home and this is what my counter looks like when I'm putting away groceries. 


I'm still a little bit bitter about the produce situation (this coming from someone whose diet is limited to vegetables, fruit, and meat). Produce is extremely expensive (think $4 for a little bundle of Romaine that will make salad for one meal), but sometimes I just have to laugh.
Men's mix? Girls' mix? Since when does lettuce have a gender?

One thing that Russians do well is the dairy section. Cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt, pudding, yogurt-ish drinks...my favorite new discovery is a tvorozhny creamy dessert, with a consistency about halfway between cottage cheese and yogurt. It's almost exactly the same thing as fromage blanc (literally “white cheese”) which I used to eat in Belgium. The tvorozhny yogurt that I like the best is lemon flavored. It must be the 8% fat content which makes it so deliciously creamy compared to the fat-free products that have taken over the American dairy market. People here are certainly not afraid of fatty foods, yet interestingly enough, an overweight Russian is almost an anomaly. Instead, their stores are loaded with products that advertise “hormone-free,” “no preservatives” and “MSG-free.” In their eyes, natural is better, and over-processed is unacceptable. I like this Russian philosophy about food.

2 comments:

  1. Shirah, what an interesting blog. I would never have thought the Russian markets would have shelves so sparse. And no fresh veggies and fruit! No wonder they drink so much vodka! Thanks. Enjoyable reading your adventures. xo

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  2. Oh no. We have a lot of goods. May be in supermarket it`s a poor and some expensive choice of fruits and vegetabes. But we buy them on special markets! They are cheaper and more natural there.

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