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From Russia, With Taste

Shopping and joking at Nadia's European Market with Yakov Smirnoff. (Plus bonus photos.)

From Russia, With Taste
Photos by Kevin O'Riley
Yakov explains to Jeff the finer points of caviar.
I arrive at Nadia’s European Market and Yakov Smirnoff greets me with a hug-hello. He’s affectionate like that. It’s comforting because this was no regular trip to the grocery store. It is my first time going to a Russian grocery store and my first time going to any grocery store with the famous Russian comedian.

Before we can make it inside, a woman with her children stops Yakov for a picture, and he gladly obliges. This is not that out of the ordinary for Yakov.

Inside Nadia’s (3023 E. Sunshine St., 417-886-4446), he is at ease. He’s been here many times before. It helps that he knows what the strange Russian letters mean. He waves down to the counter to Nadia, the owner, and greets her with a blend of Russian and English. You know, Russglish.

The store has a surprising variety of foods, herbs, medicine, and even a deli counter. The truth is the market is not just limited to Russian food, there are many options from all over eastern and northern Europe.

“This is what I ate this morning. It’s eggplant.” Yakov explains. He has made his way to the aisle against the wall with an assortment of bottled spreads. “They called it caviar, but it’s really not. It is pretty tasty. I’ll probably buy a bunch of it today.”

Yakov meanders to the next shelf. He’s just getting started. “This is the Russian version of the Twinkie, this will survive nuclear holocaust and multiply after that. There is sugar with sugar on top of sugar.”

Yet Yakov, of course, spent much of his life in Russia, so this is not just a trip to a market. It’s also a trip down memory lane. “Taste and smell has an amazing ability to take you back,” says Yakov. Nadia has given us samples of candy from the wall behind the counter. The candy with the polar bear cartoon wrapper takes him back. “This reminds me of my communal apartment and standing in line for food. This would be a treat after standing in line to get bread. Then
you get the candy mom or dad buys you,” recalls Yakov.

An unusual package catches my eye that I have to ask Yakov about. It’s a package with dried fish that looks like it might be a cousin to beef jerky, if beef jerky had gills and scales. Yakov is not familiar with it, but adds, “Doesn’t it just make you want to get in the car and chew on it?”

Nadia’s European Market is a fascinating store with a wide variety of food, reasonably priced. The food ranges from some that looks like it would be in a local grocery store (cereals), to items with a taste I could acquire (specialty sausages), to a handful of things that I would eat only on a dare (dried fish). I’ll definitely be coming back when I want something a little out of the ordinary.

Yakov is hooked on what Nadia provides. “This has been a cool addition to my life,” he explains, “It’s really helpful if you have a Russian fix. She’s my bookie, she’s my junkie, something like that. She’s gives me the good stuff.”

In Soviet Russia, Taste Tests You!
Reviewing a few items you might find in Yakov's kitchen

Nezhin-Squash Paste a.k.a: Vegetable Caviar, $3.39:
Yakov: “I got hooked on this, when I saw it in the store I started salivating.”
Jeff: The taste doesn’t fit into any flavor category of mine, but is really good spread on a piece of bread.

Kvas Monastyrkiy—Non-alcoholic beverage made from malt concentrate, $2.90 (2 liters):
Yakov: “It’s one of those things that’s also a taste of, ‘Oh I could live without that.’ But if you grew up there you love it.”
Jeff: It smells like alcohol and tastes like flat soda without as much sugar… in a good way. The cartoon monk on the packaging and I agree that it’s worth a hearty raise of the stein.

Halva (A sweet treat made with sunflower seeds in really cool packaging), $3:
Yakov: “It’s one of those tastes that no matter who tastes it they say they love it, they’ve just never tasted it before.”
Jeff: “I love it, I’ve just never tasted it before.”