World Cup fans love Russian, Georgian, Uzbek and Azerbaijani food, from luxurious caviar to common veal tongue. Indians and Mexicans not so impressed
Russian food may have a reputation for being bland and heavy, but as World Cup fans are finding out, that is unfair. With dishes from near neighbours such as Uzbekistan and Georgia also on the menus, diners are spoiled for choice
Many soccer fans knew little or nothing about Russian cuisine before the World Cup, but have tucked into local gastronomy with relish, trying everything from luxurious caviar to staples like veal tongue.
Russian food is often thought of as bland and heavy, and indeed many dishes seem geared towards getting people through the gruelling winter rather than amusing their palates.
But 28 year-old Egyptian Ahmed Morsy has made it a point of trying a new Russian dish every day. Meat-filled pelmeni dumplings and beef stroganoff rank among his favourites.
“I love it, honestly. It’s better than I expected. I don’t like spicy food myself so for me it was perfect,” says Morsy as he peruses a restaurant menu in the sweltering southern city of Volgograd.
“The whole country has exceeded my expectations. I had never been to Russia before, I thought the people would be grumpy and the country not that organised,” he says.
Indeed, most fans have been impressed by Russians – some in remote or industrial towns where tourists rarely tread – bending over backwards to help, dispelling preconceptions and spreading an upbeat atmosphere.
“I thought Russian food might be weird. I haven’t found it weird. But I do prefer the Uzbek and Azerbaijani barbecue,” says Morsy’s university pal Mamdooh El Eleila, 29, who ordered Kiev chicken, a fillet that is either fried or baked.
Indeed, food from nearby countries – particularly spicier Georgian cuisine – has been particularly popular with fans looking for a little more piquancy in their plates. Caviar bars and vodka cocktails have also been prized.
Still, some fans from countries like India and Mexico, renowned for their succulent spicy fare, have not been impressed.
“The flavours here are quite salty. And of course we miss chilli,” says Ricardo Garcia, a 32 year-old programmer decked out in the green Mexican football top.
“We brought hot sauce with us from Mexico but we forgot it in our last hostel and now were suffering a little. We found some ketchup with chilli in a supermarket and that helps a little, but it’s not the same.”
His pal Heriberto Gonzalez, however, is far more upbeat.
“There are some soups that any Mexican mothers could prepare! Borscht, for example, because they use the potato in a very similar way. Of course, there’s a little bitter Russian flavour to it,” says Gonzalez, a 37 year-old who works in marketing. “But if I wanted Mexican food, I would have stayed in Mexico!”
Some fans, however, have found temporary refuge in their own cuisine – including Egyptian physics student Ahmed Nasr, who is queuing for a shawarma.
But he says local waiters and chefs have also prodded him – via Google Translate – to try local fare including Russian lamb and buckwheat.
“I was at a buffet and the staff encouraged me to try Russian food. I liked it. I did not even know what they ate in Russia,” says Nasr, 31, who lives in Canada.
“In Canada we have Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern food, but I’ve never seen Russian. Maybe I will look for a Russian restaurant – hopefully I can find one!” he says adding that he plans to return to Russia as a tourist.