Monday, December 20, 2010

oooh baby

There comes a time in your life when you go from wondering what fermented camel's milk tastes like, to remembering what fermented camel's milk tastes like.

For me that time came this weekend.


Where do I begin talking about Bazaar. Well, I think I have to approach it the same way as the Little Cambodia posts: I'll tell you about the place and what we got, and then as I use things I'll tell you about the results in subsequent posts.

Bazaar is a Russian and Eastern European grocery store with two locations in Boston, at least one of which (Bazaar on Cambridge) has a liquor license. Because of the funky way liquor laws work in Massachusetts, I can't say for certain that the other one does.

There are two, three, or four kinds of ethnic food stores, in my experience - if you break it down to four it's like this:

1: The store for tourists/Americans looking for something interesting.

2: The store for immigrants, expatriates, and exchange students.

3: The convenience store that's 90% standard inventory, 10% Irish bangers and Tayto chips (or other ethnic fare).

4: The supermarket that's 95% standard inventory, with an unusually extensive section for a particular ethnicity.

Obviously there's customer base overlap among these, but an Asian market of type #1, for instance, will have a lot of gummi candies, Pocky, and Poccari Sweat, and - particularly if it carries a significant amount of Japanese stuff - maybe some anime DVDs, Totoro lunchboxes, etc. An Asian market of type #2 will have a lot of non-English signage by the produce and fish - even carrying some of the same things as a normal supermarket, but with non-English labels, can be helpful to the customers - along with dried cuttlefish, fertilized eggs, maybe even a butcher who breaks primals down into the cuts used in various Asian countries instead of European style.

Battambang in Little Cambodia, the place I've posted about several times, is type #2. So is Bazaar. Aside from a couple of Asian girls, we were the only ones there not speaking with Russian or Eastern European accents. The woman at the fish counter greeted Caitlin in Russian, in fact.

We didn't get many photos inside, because I didn't want to look like dorky tourists. The idea was, we'll pick up whatever sounds good, and cook whatever sounds good with it, without worrying about whether we were recreating a specific authentic dish. Buy ingredients that taste good together, and taste them together - that simple. I don't know much about Russian cuisine, after all - I've had caviar and borscht. I did read the Wikipedia entry on it a couple days before shopping, so I'd be more likely to recognize names of things, especially if (as often happened) there were no English labels on something.

The liquor section was about the same size you'd see in a convenience store, but more focused: a number of vodkas, and the flavored vodkas were things like horseradish and honey rye, not bumbleberry bubble gum zip-zip surprise like at your local frat brat liquoreria. There were a few liqueurs from Mathilde, a number of Eastern European and kosher wines, a number of Russian and Czech beers, a lot of brandy. Brandy, vodka, and wine had the most shelf space.

We got birch-flavored vodka and Becherovka, which I've shorthanded in my head for years as "Eastern European Campari," so I'd remember to buy it if I saw it:

Becherovka, birch vodka

I have no idea if that's a good brand of vodka or not, but it made a good cocktail with the Becherovka and satsuma juice, and it's not bad on its own. The Becherovka is terrific. More bitter than Campari, or less sweet, I'm not positive which, but the flavor is very spicy - lots of clove, some cinnamon, anise or licorice, I don't know what else. A lot like the flavor of something like Underberg or Angostura, but in potable bitters form. Loved it.

Small meat section, mostly familiar cuts (we were there after dinner - maybe the selection is greater during the day), except for veal tongue and very cheap lamb ribs:

Cheap lamb ribs

The produce section had a lot of the same things you see at the supermarket, just cheaper in many cases (raspberries, blackberries, satsumas). And in addition to the regular stuff you'd see in a small grocery store (this is a small grocery store - four or five aisles), there were black radishes (the radish of Eastern Europe), sunchokes, persimmons, quince, and huuuge oddly smooth celery roots.

The cashier who checked us out assured us that Russian food is easy to handle - not too weird, not a lot of strong unfamiliar flavors like in Asian food. You hear this a lot, and the produce selection highlighted it - unlike Battambang, there isn't a wall of herbs you don't find in the supermarket. On the other hand, at the back of the produce section, on the way to the fish counter, is a refrigerated case full of pickles made in-house. Not just regular and half-sour pickles, but pickled tomatoes, pickled apples, even pickled watermelon:

Pickled watermelon

That's right - not pickled watermelon rind, but a big wedge of watermelon pickled as-is. (The brine is flavored with cilantro, dill, and celery.) Haven't tried it yet.

Also in the pickle section, dried fruit of various kinds, including kiwi (which must have been dyed):

Dried sweetened kiwi

But wait, let me back up - I forgot, on the way from the meat to the produce, is the deli section - cured meats ranging from the familiar (Italian and Spanish salami, havarti, feta, mousse with foie gras) to the unfamiliar. Here, we had no idea what anything was. There was a cheese with a texture like havarti that was just labeled "Russian cheese." There were endless sausages with little to tell us how they differed. I got one of the cheaper sausages, which turned out to be pleasant but bland, a lot like a kielbasa:


Also Ukrainian farmer cheese:

Ukrainian farmer cheese

This was bland and crumbly, and we weren't crazy about it when we tried it, but then found out it's usually used as an ingredient in things like blintzes and pastries.

Hunter cheese - heavily smoked, tasting a little like a smoky, bland Munster:

Smoked cheese / hunter's cheese

Smoked pork belly:

Pressed smoked pork

Kishka blood sausage, far more interesting than the kielbasa-like sausage:

Kishka blood sausage

I love the way blood sausage varies so much from country to country. This stuff is so good and homey and well-seasoned. I may have some with fried eggs for dinner. Here it is sliced:

Sliced blood sausage

Where was I. The fish counter! Sweet holy Moses, the fish counter. They also sell a bunch of cold cuts there, which I couldn't identify, and several kinds of skewered meat covered in heaps of sliced onion and dill (we got the lamb, it was delicious). But look at the fish counter, keeping in mind that these are all different kinds of smoked fish (along with caviar):

Fish counter at Bazaar

If you don't want to click through to see it up close, here's some of what's on offer:

Both cold- and hot-smoked trout.

A variety of salmon, including salmon bellies. I had heard they had belly lox, at a little more than half the price I've paid in the past, and forgot to ask about it - and didn't stop to think that with salmon bellies I could cure my own at a fraction of the cost.

Herring fillets.

A variety of caviar. I didn't see whitefish caviar, so we went with a Russian brand of salmon roe. I think I've turned Caitlin into a fan.

Smoked sevruga.

Smoked sea bass.

A variety of whole smoked fish: eel, catfish, turbot, whitefish, mackerel (hot or cold smoked).

We got cold-smoked trout which I haven't tried yet, and smoked butterfish bellies, which was some of the best fish I've ever had. Cheap as hell - $3.19 a pound for the bellies, which are tender and boneless. I've never had butterfish before - and because there are a few different fish sometimes called butterfish (that's the nature of fishmongering - in this case candidates include skipjack/sheepshead and pomfret), I'm not even a hundred percent sure what it is we had. But I love it.

Fish counter at Bazaar

Another shot of the fish counter.

You're still wondering about the camel milk, right?

Fermented camel milk, fermented mare milk

Camel milk and mare's milk are both fermented and turned into beverages throughout Central Asia. I don't know about camel's milk, but mare's milk is higher in lactose - milk sugar - than cow's milk is, which makes it well-suited to fermentation. Presumably this stuff originated for the same reason yogurt and cheese did - fermentation is a type of preservation, reducing food waste. There may be nutritive reasons too - maybe the process frees up some nutrients for digestion, or makes a product that is more digestible by the lactose-intolerant, I don't know.

I do know that fermented camel's milk tastes like thin, fizzy, unsweetened yogurt, and smells like milk in an advanced stage of soured spoilage.

The mare's milk I haven't tried yet.

Other dairy stuff. Smetana!

Smetana (Russian sour cream)

Smetana is Russian sour cream, but while the sour cream we're used to in the US is made from cream of between 12-18% butterfat or so, and might be thickened with additives like gelatin or seaweed-derived thickeners, Smetana is - as the label says - 25% fat. The difference is like the difference between ordinary yogurt and thick, rich Greek yogurt.

We actually used the smetana instead of cream cheese, with the smoked fish and caviar.

It's used extensively in cooking because it won't curdle when heated.

Peach yogurt

Peach yogurt, haven't tried it.

Chocolate-covered cheesecake bar

Chocolate-covered cheesecake bar, haven't tried it. Although they sold a LOT of candy, we didn't buy any, except for this. We did buy the Napoleon cake. What I've heard is that most of the cakes are made elsewhere, shipped frozen, and thawed in the store, while the Napoleon cake - stored in the fridge at the bakery section - is made fresh. It was layers and layer of thin crispy cake (cookie? wafer?) with pastry cream. Very good, very rich.


Pelmeni - Russian dumplings. The frozen section also had whole rabbits ($7-8 instead of the $25 I paid the last time I bought them in NH), cow foot, ducks, geese, tongue, and many many fish.

The cashier was very enthusiastic that we bought this jarred "honey nut":

Honey with many nuts

Just what it says - honey with many many kinds of nuts. Really tasty stuff. Oddly, the store also had the most complete assortment of honeys from Airborne that I've seen - "oddly," because Airborne is a New Zealand brand.

Jarred sorrel

Jarred sorrel. This is used in soups.


Tkemali. While Russian cuisine is often good, hearty food without a lot of strong seasonings, Georgian cuisine is strongly influenced by the Middle East, and features a lot of garlic and cilantro. Tkemali is a Georgian condiment used much like ketchup, from what I understand. It's made from sour plums, and has -- at least in this case -- pretty much the same balance of sweet-to-sour that Heinz ketchup has ... which is where the similarity ends. The flavorings used are garlic, cilantro (coriander seed, I think), and dill. Now, I've had dill pickles of course, but I've never had dill in a vinegar-driven condiment before - I don't know how to explain why the difference is so profound, but it is. This is a very good and very startling condiment.

Very good tea

There is no English on this, so I don't know what to say about it except that it's tea, it's very strong, it's very good, and despite being tea bags, it's better than a lot of the considerably more expensive loose tea I've bought.


Lecho, a Hungarian stew base.

Kvass, Pineapple aloe drink

Two beverages: Kvass and pineapple-flavored aloe drink. The Kvass was all right - malty and sweet - but neither of us was thrilled by it. I was happier with the soda I forgot to take a photo of - an orange soda in a glass 2-liter bottle which tasted neither like American orange soda nor Western European orange soda, but instead, exactly like carbonated Hi-C.

Sometimes the only way available to you to try a new fruit is in preserve form:

Sea buckthorn preserve

Such is the case for me with sea buckthorn.

We had two meals made with stuff from Bazaar. One I didn't get a photo of: dark malt coriander rye bread (that's what it says on the label), toasted and cut into squares, smeared with smetana or farmer cheese, with honey nut or smoked butterfish or salmon roe; along with pieces of sausage, cheese, and the skewered lamb. Basically a sampler plate.

The other actually involved cooking:

Buttered coriander dark malt rye bread; lamb, cabbage, onion; blood sausage

I braised the lamb ribs with cabbage and onion for about two hours and then cooked it uncovered for a bit to let the liquid cook off and brown the lamb. Served with sliced cooked blood sausage, buttered bread, and tkemali sauce.

Another shot of same.

And a shot of the lamb ribs after braising, while the liquid was cooking off:

Lamb ribs braised with cabbage and onion

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