“What in the world am I going to eat?” were my initial thoughts when I decided to venture out for a month-long stay at my grandparent’s house in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Dubbed as one of the worst countries for vegans by a recent article in the Huffington Post, I became petrified of what was in store for me.
As a whole, Russia is still fairly conservative to vegetarianism/veganism in comparison to its Western counterparts. Leo Tolstoy, a prolific Russian writer, best known for his work War and Peace, was an advocate for vegetarianism, and spurred the vegetarian movement in Russia in the 1890’s. Tolstoy regarded the refusal to consume animal products as the regeneration of a moral life, and published several essays on the topic during his lifetime, stimulating interest all across Russia. Despite his efforts, after the Russian revolution, authorities officially banned the vegetarian movement, making the matter a subject of taboo. However, in recent years, Saint Petersburg has seen an upheaval in vegetarian and vegan restaurants and interest is back on the rise.
I warned my grandmother, who is the self-proclaimed chef of the household, that things are a bit different since my last visit, and that I no longer consume animal products. “But what about fish?” She prodded. No, grandmother, those lurking “sea vegetables”, unfortunately, are off limits.
After a 13-hour journey, which included a layover in Moscow, my boyfriend and I arrived at my grandparent’s house, and my grandmother immediately whipped out the skillet and started frying up some fish. Meanwhile, my grandfather nudged a piece of some unidentifiable white slab at me, “Try some, it’s good for the heart.” Turns out, it was salo, a delicacy in Eastern European culture, which is quite literally pure pig fat. I laughed. I could tell the month would be a lesson in patience on both of our parts.
A visit with my aunt proved to be equally as frustrating when she attempted to quibble with me regarding the nutritional adequacy of a vegan diet. “It’s pure propaganda,” she told me, “the brain needs animal products to function properly.”
Despite the hesitancy and resistance I found from my relatives to accept my new vegan lifestyle, or “strict vegetarianism,” as they called it, I found Russians, as a population, to be charming animal lovers. As I walked through the woods near my grandmother’s house, I was stunned by the amount of bird feeders that were hoisted up in the trees. People of all ages took pleasure in the boisterous nature of the park squirrels and excitedly extended their hands, full of nuts, to the perky critters. Strolling through the sleeping districts, elderly Russian women, coined as “babushkas”, huddled together on benches, simultaneously gossiping and attending to the neighborhood cats, feeding them homemade oatmeal from hand-crafted serving dishes. A walk near the lakes would find small groups of park-goers clustered around the waters throwing small bits of black bread to the neighborhood ducks. It was a connection with nature, and with animals, that I am not sure I have witnessed quite as beautifully and as openly anywhere else. My grandfather proudly boasted of his neighborhood nickname, “The Father of the Cats,” which was given to him because of his unrelenting dedication to making sure every stray cat had a bite to eat. Perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Despite the initial stumbles, my grandmother, a stereotypical grandma, who doesn’t let anyone starve under her watch, undertook the mission to whip up an entire new vegan menu on behalf of my lifestyle change. Through her love and dedication, we discovered that, in spite of their love for meat, Russian cuisine actually has a lot of dishes that are “accidentally” vegan!
A typical breakfast at my grandmother’s house consisted of a heaping serving of kasha, which is roasted whole-grain buckwheat. Most people commonly mistake it for a cereal grain, but it is actually a fruit seed with a bold, earthy flavor, and it is an excellent source of protein, providing all eight-essential amino acids. It tastes great served hot or cold, and it definitely provides the energy to get you going in the mornings!
For lunch, a serving of borscht was usually dished out. Borscht, a sweet vegetable soup, which originated in Ukraine, is packed will all sorts of goodies, such as cabbage, beets, onions, potatoes, carrots, beans, and tomatoes.
Dinner consisted of Russian red lentil soup, a sweet and sour dish, which was mouth-watering, especially paired with Russian black bread.
In typical grandmother fashion, to ensure we didn’t starve in between meals, my grandmother stuffed the fridge with salads, our main form of snacks. My favorite, in particular, was Russian vinaigrette, a vibrant salad with crunchy zing. I devoured this on a daily basis!
By the end of the month, my grandfather declared that perhaps he could be vegan. “Not a chance,” my grandmother snapped back. Well, there’s always hope for the future. I walked away happy to have learned that being a vegan in Russia was actually possible!
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Photo: Cristina Lescay Megret