Walking the streets of St. Petersburg, on Restaurant Day

Under the facade of its cold, gray skies and the uniformly stoic pre-Soviet era buildings, St. Petersburg (SPb) is at least not uptight. There is an air of conviviality as summer has melted away the grim cold winters. It is also after all brimming with enthusiastic people who prove their ability in cooking up gastronomically diverse cuisine by putting up stalls to sell home-cooked food.  I got to see this on display on the Restaurant Day on 16th August, quite the day I landed in SPb.

Crowd milling in front of a food truck
Crowd milling in front of a food truck
A couple sharing a moment during business
A couple sharing a moment during business
An Isreli chicken wrap - Sabich
An Isreli chicken wrap – Sabich

With not much excitement going on in Russian cuisine, the citizens have quickly looked elsewhere bringing in a host of dishes from outside the country, thus making the food scene more exciting. Sure, their beef stroganoff is a killer so is their sorrel soup, but there isn’t much of a diversity because vegetables or pulses are not available in Russia throughout the year owing to the harsh climate.

My buckwheat is better than any other
My buckwheat is better than any other
Georgian food, anyone
Georgian food, anyone

I found stalls, hidden in the alleyways, in front of its ornate, ancient Churches and in old industrial godowns converted into art projects selling Israeli, Mexican, Indian, American (read burgers) and Italian cuisine. Sure, nobody makes money out of this venture because it is a one-day affair. But it provides a platform for closet cooks and people who nurture the dream of opening a restaurant into affordable reality for a day.

Taste my homemade jam
Taste my homemade jam
Homebrewed beer
Homebrewed beer

Restaurant Day has a website and its About page reads thus: “Restaurant Day is a food carnival created by thousands of people organizing and visiting one-day restaurants worldwide. The idea of the day is to have fun, share new food experiences and enjoy our common living environments together. The event is facilitated by a team of volunteers who also maintain this website. All restaurateurs are personally responsible for all actions related to running their restaurants.”

Purple macaroons are 50 rubles each
Purple macaroons are 50 rubles each
Russian pancakes
Russian pancakes

There was home-brewed vodka in flavors of horseradish, orange and various spices. There was even home-made beer and buckwheat ice cream. And vegan is big here in Russia, as I hear. So is India. Each venue had at least one Indian themed stall that sold vegetarian food. One was even called Saregama, though the owner had not much of an idea what it meant other than that it is a name resonates with the idea of India.

Two girls channeling their Indian elements
Two girls channeling their Indian elements
Vegan brownie with banana, avacado et al
Vegan brownie with banana, avacado et al
More Indianness
More Indianness
Happy customers
Happy customers

And I met Big Lebowski. He is now grilling batches of spring onions wrapped in bacon strips at a food stall with his partner. Quite a domestic life, you might think. But the man’s drama of grilling with flair elicited a lot of responses from the patrons and he posed happily between his job for pictures, his black bathrobe whipped by the cold breeze.

Big Lebowski
Big Lebowski

Do you know of a famous Russian dish that I should try? Leave a comment and let me know.

I am going somewhere exciting (hint: it involves long train rides, dinosaur fossils and zen gardens).

At this moment, I am terribly excited, slightly apprehensive and extremely unprepared.  I am going on a six-week long trip across Russia (taking the Trans-Siberian train line), Mongolia (continuing my journey in the train in the Trans-Mongolian line now) and entering China (at this point the entire trip would be called Trans-Manchurian though of course if you are taking the Trans-Manchurian route from Moscow, the train would take a totally different route). After that I fly to Japan.

The Trans-Siberian train route near Baikal
The Trans-Siberian train route near Baikal. Image: Valery Chernodedov, Flickr

Thanks to my Indian passport, my trips have to be planned within the confines of the very short duration of the visa (for instance, the Japanese visa is valid for three months but allows you to stay only for 15 days at a stretch).  There is no opportunity to linger anywhere even if serendipity strikes. While Russia allows you to stay in the country so long as your trip duration based on the visa application, Mongolia and China graciously offer a 30-day visa (more on visas later and an amazing guy who helped me secure these visas without a glitch, in a different post). 

Summertime in Moscow
Summertime in Moscow. Image: Nikita Bukin.
A summer scene in St. Petersburg
A summer scene in St. Petersburg. Image: Alexandr Kim, http://www.sputnik8.com

So I am packing my bags and heading on a train journey that exposes me to three different cultures in the span of a month. The beautiful cathedrals and UNESCO sights of interior Russia, Ural mountains, Baikal lake, the Gobi desert, Dinosaur Fossils of Flaming Cliffs and the sights of the megalopolis of Beijing are included in the itinerary.

A pastoral scene in Mongolia
A pastoral scene in Mongolia. Image: Stefan Schinning, Flickr

I am also excited about Japan. Plans are still sketchy but I am dreaming of the country’s umami flavors, the iconic Fuji san and zen gardens. Osaka and Kyoto might figure in the list but with the available ten days I am not sure how much ground I am going to cover. And, as you might have surmised, covering ground is never in the scheme of things for me anyway.

A tri-shaw in China
A tri-shaw in China. Image: Bilwander, Flickr
A zen garden in Japan.
A zen garden in Japan. Image: Hakon Skogsrud

I am checking things off my packing list, sealing my shower gel and sunscreen bottles with sellotape so they don’t explode during transit and leak into my bag. Before, I leave, I will also go eat masala dosa at the neighborhood restaurant. Not that I will miss it during my travels, but if there is one recent food memory I want to travel with, it would be the memory of biting into a masala dosa.

So do follow me on Facebook and Instagram for constant updates during the trip. Leave a comment and let me know if you have been on the Trans-Siberian train or to any of the countries I am going to. It would be lovely to get some tips from you.