When chef Vitaly Paley was a child, Soviet supermarkets weren't much to speak of.
"You'd walk in into a regular market in Russia back then, everything would be empty," he says. "Banged-up cans of this and that you wouldn't wanna touch with a 10-foot pole. That was what I grew up with. You stood in line for bread. You didn't know, but at the end of the line, you may not get any bread. But you still stood in line. Because what else were you gonna do?"
I didn't know this when I reached out to the celebrated chef, whose projects include his eponymous Paley's Place on Northwest 21st Avenue, Headwaters and Imperial in downtown's Hotel Lucia. If I had, I might not have asked him to come with me to the other Imperial, a Russian market on deep Southeast Powell Boulevard.
A simple trip to a supermarket can be an emotional journey for someone who didn't want to remember his Belarusian upbringing until fairly recently. People weren't starving under Soviet socialism, Paley says, but they lived "in the cracks" of an empire spanning two continents.
"You had to know people," he says. "People would leave stuff for you under the counter."
Paley has vivid memories of the first time he walked into a Western grocery store in Vienna, where his family went after escaping socialism on the path that eventually brought them to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where his parents still live.
"There was just so much stuff, just sitting out on the shelves!"
There's a lot on the shelves at Imperial Market. Most of it was totally unfamiliar to me—though my Polish-speaking grandfather was the first in his family to be born here, after his parents and older sisters emigrated from Belarus. So I asked Paley to narrate a tour.
At this point in his life, he's happy to do it.
"I walk in here, and it just puts a smile on my face, because I know all of it," he says.
Bagel-shaped tea crackers
"Sushkis are small, tiny little bagels. They're dry and hard, and sort of the Russian version of biscotti. People eat them with tea. Normally, you would see them hanging on the samovar. If you go to Headwaters, you'll see them hanging on a big ol' string on the samovar. Sometimes you eat them, sometimes you put them out for display. They really don't taste like much."
Baked milk drink
"The center of a Russian home is a pech, which has a wood-fired chimney with multiple cabinets for different things. In Russian culture, the house was built around the pech. It warms your house, it cooks your food, the elders will sleep on it at night. I grew up in a small one-room house with one of those in it. It heated up our house. My grandmother slept on top. And then all around, we have cheese from the leftover milk. So what you would do is, you would take the milk and put it in the oven overnight, low heat. You would do this baked milk thing where it would turn caramel color. So not exactly like dulce de leche like they like, like you would do in Latin America, but just shy of that. It's still drinkable."
"Honey is also very medicinal. Russians like to use honey as medicine. When I grew up as a kid, when we were sick, it was milk and honey. Warm milk and honey, that's what cured you. I had to down it—I hated it, I hated it as a kid."
Sunflower seed oil
"Sunflower seed oil, from what I understand, was the oil used around the world before canola oil came in. My aunt still lives in a little city called Rostov next to the factories that make refined sunflower seed oil. Every summer, she'd come for holiday and she would bring this muddy-looking bottle with sunflowers still in the bottom, and it would taste like sunshine. And I cannot find any of it. That, to me, is like, I want to find some of that. That's the flavor I remember. I just can't get it out of my head. I've been, I've been searching after it for quite some time."
Sweetened nut butters
"When I was growing up as a kid, you would go in the market and there would be this counter and there would be these three big blocks of halva they would sell by kilo, or by gram. You would have three different kinds, four different kinds—like chocolate swirl. As a kid, that was, that was my candy."
Salt-cured roe served on buttered bread
"What little exposure we were able to get—caviar was always the big deal in our family. We always ate it with black bread, butter, and then caviar over the top. It was never blini. It was always, we call them buterbrod. They're Russian open-faced sandwiches."
Fermented bread-based drink
"It's basically a yeasted bread drink made with flour. When I was growing up as a kid, normally, you'd go and side by side there would be a cistern on wheels of beer and then a cistern of kvass. And so my uncle and I would go to the beach or something, and right as you enter the beach, there would be two of them right next to each other, and he would grab a mug of beer, and I would grab a kvass. That was my treat as a kid."
"Another big thing in Russia is canned peas. It's one of those ingredients—if you were to make a salad called salad Olivier, which would be a Russian potato salad, this would be one of the ingredients you have to use. I don't when I make mine. I usually use either frozen or fresh because of the color. But this would be the unmistakable flavor component in that salad. It's just one of those salads that's iconic Russian."
Sour apples and cherries
Russians love making sweet things sour
"Russians developed a taste for sour many centuries ago, and it just stayed with them. Russians definitely love sour. Sour and salty. It goes well with vodka."
"Georgian mineral water, from a little city called Borjomi. Again, this is pretty salty. It's even saltier than Badoit. But you, but you'd go to Borjomi to heal yourself in the mineral springs."
"If you were to say, 'What's the most Russian ingredient?', I would say buckwheat would be the one. It goes back centuries. Buckwheat and black radish. There areactually fairy tales about buckwheat and black radish. When I was a kid, you would eat this with milk—milk, a little sugar and honey."
Birch tree juice
"I've actually tried to extract my own—it's almost like a maple juice before maple syrup gets made. In the northern parts of the country, you could tap the birch tree. There are two, three weeks during early spring when the snow subsides and the trees start growing leaves. As soon as the buds start forming, the roots send this juice up to the branches to form leaves, and that's when you tap it. I started working with this company out of Alaska to bring some fresh—it's pretty volatile, so they've gotta either freeze it, or they make birch syrup out of it. But the birch juice is very little known. It's, it's what the Russians would call—I would say this would be a Russian version of coconut water."
In a soft pack
"Mayonnaise has a cult following in Russia. Mayonnaise was something that was actually brought over from America back in the '20s—mayonnaise was a big deal. The jars were repurposed as flower vases. When I talk about mayonnaise, I always kind of describe mayonnaise as, it's iconic as Soviet Union gets—and because mayonnaise's nature is not that stable to begin, that's why the Soviet Union broke apart, because it was held together by mayonnaise."