Why Russia is a (surprisingly) good place for Vegans, Vegetarian and healthy food lovers
‘‘Are you kidding me?”
“Do they really have soups with no meat?? Here? In Altai… next to Mongolia, in the mountains?”
“I can’t believe it.’’
These were my words of excitement at a tiny local cafe found while traveling through the Altai region of Russia.
There are places around the world where as a vegan or vegetarian you struggle more than in others. There are places where the only option I”ve had while eating out as a vegan is plain rice.
Russia is not one of them.
The biggest country in the world has a long list of traditional, unique, extremely tasty local dishes, many of them not vegan or neither vegetarian.
So if you are planning to eat out three times a day and you are planning to leave the big cities, yes you might have fewer options as a vegan or a vegetarian. If your plan is to visit the local markets, supermarkets, plan your meals, cook, experiment… in that case, Russia is the place to be and it will welcome you to the tasty universe of grains, pulses, legumes and seeds like few other places in the world will do.
Some of the staple traditional Russian dishes have extremely healthy and vegan ingredients in them such as rye and whole grain flour, potatoes, berries, cabbage, seeds, and raw grains. Yes, Russians love meat and dairy products so they tend to add them to all the amazing ingredients above but the base is there, extremely available, easy to find, and, compared to other countries, extremely inexpensive.
In big cities and towns even eating out will still provide you a great local experience since there are a lot of vegan and vegetarian cafes, dedicated grocery shops and restaurants offering cuisines from almost every corner of the world.
While traveling through the biggest country on earth you will notice as some dishes will never leave you and how you will always be able to find some Gretcka (buckwheat, the “Russian rice”), one of the staples of Russian home cuisine, you’ll find mashed potatoes, Kasha (oat) and fresh salads in any Stolovaya (Soviet self-service cafes with home-cooked style food at a great price).
Yes, in rural remote areas you may find that meat and dairy will be the only options on the menu but you will always be able to get a plate of plain buckwheat, oats, rice, or tasty rye bread.
Russia always surprises me by the huge number of cafes, small tiny grocery shops, supermarkets, veggies, and fruit stalls. I find Babushka (old ladies) selling the daily harvests of their gardens literally everywhere.
In any supermarket, even the smallest one you will find a great variety of lentils, dry beans, and peas, buckwheat, rice, millet, bulgur, couscous, and more. Seeds and nuts fill the Central Asian bazaars located in any big Russian city or town.
These bazaars are without any doubt my favorite places to go grocery shopping where I find a great number of Central Asian immigrants selling their homelands products while they tell you of Uzbekistan or Georgia, their beautiful homelands. The products found here are fresh, they have a great value, and are sold by weight (not pre-prepackaged! Yippie!!).
Look for the Tsentral’nyy bazar (central market) in any city, grab your reusable bags, and get ready to step on the Silk Road.
In supermarkets, from the medium sized to the biggest ones you will always find a dedicated section to healthy and vegan products. Soy meat is widely available and dairy substitutes are becoming very popular. You can find oat milk in many different variations available pretty much everywhere for a bit more than a dollar (US) a litre.
In every city and medium-size town, you will always have a vegan, organic, or natural products shop with a great selection from detergents to tea, from oil to seeds.
Cafes are now offering plant-based milk, and falafel wraps are deliciously made in any Shawarma cafes. Shawarma has become one of the most popular street food choices popping up by the dozens in every city or town.
Even while camping and backpacking around Russia I was still able to enjoy my healthy diet: most of the grains available are also sold in their “fast cooking” option. You just need a tiny gas stove, veggies, and a few minutes to boil your lentils or beans or kasha to be happy, healthy and full while moving from forests to lakes and from mountains to the Taiga.
A number of Russians, especially young ones, are embracing vegetarianism and veganism. Even more are extremely open-minded, understanding, and interested in the subject.
Given its history, Russia inherited a healthy lifestyle and diet from the time of the Soviet Union before Western fast foods and imported products became widely available. This has largely kept the country away from refined products, sugar, high calories food, and the whole ‘fast food’ idea.
Chai is still way more popular than coffee, with thousands of varieties of local wild herbs. Kasha is the healthiest and most common everyday breakfast. Buckwheat is never missing from every house food pantry as well as pickled veggies from every fridge.
The entire country seems to go to the forest in Summer to hand-pick kilograms of berries and mushrooms. And fruits, veggies, and nuts have been traveling to the North from the Garden of Asia (the “stans” and the Caucasus) since the time of the Silk Road, enriching the tables and the traditions with unique, healthy, and incredibly tasty new flavours.
Russians love to spend time at home, cook, and enjoy long meals. Embracing this as a food enthusiast has given me more opportunities to discover and enjoy this fascinating culture and its people while settling into my “Russian chapter”.