Being Vegan in Russia

The previous time we visited Russia was in 2006, when we were still omnivores. Having been vegans since 2010, we were a bit skeptical of what the Russian kitchen could offer us now when mettwurst, grilled chicken, smetana, and caviar were out of the question. Veganism is only emerging in Russia, and it is generally regarded as a folly. It raises eyebrows and wonder: "What do you eat then?"

Russia is, at the moment, one of the world's cheapest countries for Europeans and Americans. The ruble has collapsed due to the plummeting oil price and the Western sanctions. While great news for travellers, the situation is less flattering for locals. Some, particularly pensioners, have to get by with US $4,50 a day. That is not much, but by eating vegan food, we managed to eat sumptuously with that sum.

Russia 2016

An Ode to АШАН

We enjoyed the wide variety of grains, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, different sorts of bread, halva, dark chocolate, and red wine. We became regular customers in a French supermarket chain called Auchan [АШАН]. It is one of the cheapest hypermarkets in Russia, frequented by common people and the middle-class alike. Luckily enough, one Auchan market was within a one-hour walk from where we were staying. There are many others stores as well, but they are not as affordable and versatile as Auchan. Perekrestoka and Metro, for example, are pricier and Azbuka Vkuza, an upscale grocery store mainly sells imported products. We preferred to experiment with regular local food instead.

Having a kitchen was a life-saver. In fact, we didn't try eating out at all. Our Russian is limited to basic greetings and questions so we wouldn't have been able to explain our diet to waitresses. Below is a list of some of our favourites that can be found everywhere in Russia.

Top 10 Vegan Foods in Russia

  1. Ikra [икра], an eggplant/squash spread
    Versatile spread that you can eat, for example, with bread, rice, barley, buckwheat, oatmeal, and potatoes. Simply delicious, and good to eat on the road as well. Made from eggplants or squash, sometimes also from cabbage. Other ingredients include oil, onion, tomato paste, salt, black pepper, parsley, and garlic. Because ikra calls for just a handful of simple ingredients, it is also called 'the poor man's caviar'.
  2. Sauerkraut [kвашеная капуста]
    A Russian classic of finely cut cabbage and carrot that have been fermented by lactic acid bacteria. Sauerkraut is classified as a one of the new superfoods that are packed with nutrients. It is salty, though, so it should be consumed moderately.
  3. Gherkins [Огурцы]
    Often eaten as zakuska [закуска] before the main course or in drinking parties. Goes well with rye bread or basically anything, just like sauerkraut and ikra.
  4. Fruit [фрукты] and vegetables [овощи]
    These are super-cheap, even cheaper than in Asia, a paradise for vegans! The most common vegetables include cabbage, carrot, potatoes, and yellow onions. All cost around 10-20 rubles a kilo (US 15-30¢). Bell peppers are great in the fall as well as grapes, plums, watermelons (10 rubles/15¢ a kilo when in season!), and apples, although you can also find apples for free in many deserted gardens and yards. Bananas come from Ecuador and are good value for money. In addition, there are plenty of imported exotic stuff if you prefer e.g. mangoes, avocadoes, and pomelos and don't mind paying more.
  5. Seeds [семена]
    Sunflower seeds [семена подсолнечника] are the most popular. Many people like to eat shelled sunflower seeds, especially on long train rides, because it's a good pastime, but you can also buy sunflower seed kernels.
  6. Nuts
    Auchan is wonderful for buying nuts, because you can buy them in bulk. All kinds are available, the cheapest being peanuts [арахис] (raw or salted).
  7. Grains and beans
    Auchan also sells grains in bulk. Pearl barley [перловка], both nutritious and tasty, is one of the cheapest, costing only 20 rubles (US 30¢) a kilo. Other inexpensive grains include oats, rice, and many others we didn't even recognise. The local favourite is a bit more expensive buckwheat, which is a pseudocereal. It is related to rhubarb and also classified as one of the superfoods just like sauerkraut. Russian stores usually sell roasted buckwheat [гречневая каша], which has a great nutty and earthy taste. To get your daily protein, there are many kinds of beans [фасоль], lentils [чечевица] and peas [гороховый] available. We liked to cook pea soup that goes well with local French-style mustard [горчичный].
  8. Bread [хлеб]
    Russians love bread and baked goods are available in all stores. Rye bread is perhaps the most distinctive, although many people nowadays prefer French loaf. In Auchan, you can also get real French baguette that costs only US 60¢ per kilo. Even cheaper is dry dark bread sold under the counter for US 14¢ per kilo. It reminded us of Nordic knäckebröd.
  9. Halva [халва], popcorn [Попкорн] and dark chocolate [темный шоколад]
    To satisfy your sweet tooth, we recommend halva and dark chocolate. In Russia, halva is typically made from sunflower seeds. It's 100% vegan and delicious. Russia is famous for chocolate, and dark chocolate is easy to find (US $2.75/kg). We only wish they would also start making sunflower seed butter!
  10. Wine [вино]
    Russia has plenty of wineries, but local wines tend to be very very sweet. A common load of sugar is 40-60 grams per 100 ml. Fortunately, imported European wine is easy to find and affordable.

To sum up, we fell in love with Russian kitchen and are looking forward to return here next year when the weather gets warmer and our visa allows us to return. Unfortunately a one-year Russian visa permits you to stay in the country only 90 days in every 180 days.

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