Russians’ obsession with sushi is well-documented. What used to be an exotic novelty and rarity in the 1990’s is now what Starbucks is to Manhattan: found every few blocks in central Moscow and in the food courts of every suburban mall. In 2008, there were around 350 sushi spots. Now, just five years later, there are over 1,000.
But what IS a sushi restaurant in Moscow? Apparently, the concept is rather fluid.
This is Gnocchi, my [work] neighborhood joint. Don’t let the name, with its green, white and red color scheme deceive you – this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Italian place. The banner reads: “Sushi, Pizza, Pasta, Grill.” Yup, the seemingly-Italian restaurant leads with sushi. And the cross-cultural adventure doesn’t stop there – note the Nighttime Special sign by the door. Fridays and Saturdays, from midnight to 6am, your hookah is buy one, get one free. To sum it up: fresh-made spaghetti, raw fish and water pipe all under one roof.
If you think this is bizarre, actual Japanese restaurants will further surprise you .
Yaposha, which loosely translates into English as a ‘cute little Japanese man,’ is a very popular, seemingly-omnipresent sushi chain. Technically, its subheading says “Sushi Antisushi” – which for some reason makes me think about anti-matter, but that’s a whole different story… So, assuming “antisushi” doesn’t stand for some weird culinary invention made up of sushi anti-particles (or anti-sushi particles?), this section of the menu shouldn’t be a surprise, right? When I arrived in Moscow and saw this word for the first time, I assumed it meant the usual non-sushi fare you typically find in sushi restaurants in the US or in Europe – miso cod, teriyaki chicken and so forth.
I wasn’t totally wrong. These sushi-adjacent items are indeed present. But there is so, SO much more.
If you’re in the mood for antisushi, Yaposha boasts these alternatives: chicken quesadilla, pelmeni, Parmesan pork, sweet & sour shrimp and grilled pork kebab, to name just a few items.
Why this crazy hodge-podge of options? For all the popularity of sushi restaurants, Russians don’t seem to be that fond of actual raw fish. While sushi (nigiri) and sashimi are available in all sushi restaurants, it’s the novelty concept of a ‘roll’ that seems to be the main draw.
When it comes to sushi rolls, you can certainly order your classics – Spicy Tuna & Salmon, Dragon, California, Philly and so on.
And then you get that special Russian touch.
First of all, most rolls contain cream cheese. I am guessing it makes the raw-ness of fish go down easier – at least that’s my working theory. Before I tried sushi for the very first time I was pretty scared of it, and Philadelphia Roll was how I dipped my toes into this particular gastronomic ocean. I grew up on ‘red fish’ – as we dub all kinds of smoked fish in the salmon family – and if you add some non-scary rice and cucumbers, and what basically amounts to a substitute for sour cream (which, as all Russians know, makes everything better), you have a Philly Roll. It was as close to my definition of “normal food” as sushi could get.
Yes, cream cheese is everywhere in Russian sushi rolls (and I realize that this sounds so very wrong), but this is just the tip of the iceberg of, um, unexpected ingredients. Iceberg lettuce, sweet peppers, orange slices, rotisserie and grilled chicken, arugula, zucchini and strawberries are all common guests on sushi menus. The only thing a Chicken Caesar roll shares with typical sushi is rice. Dessert rolls – with fruit or chocolate – are practically de rigueur on any restaurant menu.
I am still deciding how I feel about this cuisine cacophony – the New York-spoiled foodie in me is somewhat turned off by this betrayal of ‘authenticity’, but the expat me is trying to keep an open mind. In the meantime, if my sister is craving Thai noodles and my friends want some pizza while I have a hankering for raw salmon, we never have to argue about where to go for dinner.