Everything’s Bigger in Moscow: Vegan in Russia

Going to Russia was pretty scary. Not only do I not speak the language, but I also couldn’t even read the language (until I started doing major night before flight research).  Now why would anyone go to Russia you ask? Because the Russian airline Transaero had the cheapest flight to Israel by over $100 less, so I went to Russia.  The options were a three hour layover and a thirteen hour layover, and I figured when else would I go to Moscow practically for free, so I got a visa and gave it a go.

The first mistake I made was not calling my airline to double check that they had my dietary needs noted.  To be fair, I was moving 9000 miles and there are a lot of things I forgot to do. (My second mistake was not insisting that my carry on was too heavy because it contained electronics, which I found out were exempt only after I was transferring stuff to another suitcase in the middle of check in).  I only assume a vegan diet can be accommodated because on the way over they did have a vegan meal for me (after I asked, and clumsily explained I couldn’t have dairy).  Definitely make sure you know how to say “milk” and “eggs” in Russian, though “vegetarian” seemed to be easily understood.  My meal was rice with veggies in tomato sauce, plus some fruit, a slice of bread and smart balance.  In the morning however, the breakfast options were pancakes or omelets, though I can’t be sure what the kosher breakfast was.

Aeroexpress train at Kievskaya Station

Aeroexpress train at Kievskaya Station

My seat mate on the way over was a Marine Corps veteran from West Virginia, who chewed tobacco the majority of the flight, asked very loud questions concerning the habits of the Hasidic Jews (inspired by the preponderance of black hats on the flight),  and had a Russian wife, who was still in Russia.  In the nine hours we were next to each other, he told me about training in Israel, Britain, Morocco, and the Philippines, plus how badass he thought Israeli women were after army training, and a few of the stupid things he did that got him docked a pay level (they included swimming in the English channel and getting tattoos).  He also told me he hates flying now since he doesn’t have a parachute strapped to his back anymore, so he always gets drunk before getting on the plane.  He detailed why his grandmother’s biscuits were so good, and how he learned to make Italian food from a friend’s mother in Brooklyn, and told me stories about being a truck driver.  Honestly, this guy had to be at least as entertaining as an in-flight movie would have been, but of course, there was none on the nine hour flight over, just one on the three and a half hour flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv.  I’ve determined this is because Transaero expects all of their customers to be so ecstatic about going back to the Mother Land, that they don’t need any other form of entertainment.

"Metro Kievskaya"

“Metro Kievskaya”

The weather in Moscow was cold and grey, which I found to be instantly depressing.  As I made my way from the airport on the express train, Aeroexpress, to the city center, I formed a plan of action which revolved around getting to the Le Pain Quotidien in the Red Squarea as soon as possible because I needed breakfast.  As I quickly discovered upon disembarking from the train, metro rides can only be purchased with cash, and as I had planned on using my card for everything, had none.  A nice Russian guy took pity on me wandering aimlessly around the metro station and swiped me into the most architecturally grandiose metro station I had ever seen.  I luckily found my train, thanks to my newfound ability to read Cyrillic, and took it to “Plotshadt Revolustuii” or Revolutionary Square, one of the three metro stations to serve the Red Sqaurea.

The tunnels of Kievskaya metro station

The tunnels of Kievskaya metro station

While my immediate concern was to find something for breakfast as soon as possible, I exited the station onto an enormous, but largely empty plaza, with no way to possibly find my bearings.  While I knew the address of the restaurant was only a few blocks north of the square, I had no map street map to guide me. Based purely on hope (and maybe a little bit of instinct), I just began to walk towards the big buildings looming in front of me.  After about 5 minutes of walking through the square, seemingly getting no where, I saw a big sign for Starbucks!   Everyone from New York knows that Starbucks is the international sign for free bathrooms and free wifi.  So, I went to Starbucks inside an exceedingly fancy mall and got a soy chai tea to drink while I charged my phone, contacted my parents to let them know I hadn’t been thrown into a Soviet prison, and screen capped maps on my phone in order to get to my ultimate destination, Le Pain Quotidien (or Хлеб Насущный “Khlebb Nasushchnyy” in Russian).  While I found it quite ironic that I’d flown halfway across the world to end up in Starbucks, it was also a great place to stumble upon since the girls who worked there spoke more English, and I knew they would (almost) definitely have soy milk,  a great snack in a pinch.

Where I found myself upon exiting the metro station

Where I found myself upon exiting the metro station. Disheartening, I know.

While Le Pain was in fact only a few blocks away, I found while dragging my suitcase over the cobblestones that blocks in Moscow were rather large.  In fact the buildings on them also seemed to be larger than those in NY.  I guess maybe they thought buildings and streets should be proportional to the size of the country.  It was a relief to enter into the warm restaurant, where I sat in the cozy non-smokers section.  Like the Le Pain Quotidiens in New York, everything that was vegan was very clearly labelled on the menu by an orange carrot, so unless you had any additional dietary restriction, it was unnecessary to ask any questions.  I got the “Mediterranean platter” which came with a delicious eggplant spread, plain hummus, and the seasonal pumpkin hummus.  Now I love hummus, but the pumpkin definitely didn’t work.  It was served with three different kinds of bread.  Nice and simple, though maybe not entirely culturally appropriate.  I mean who goes to Moscow to eat hummus on their way to Israel?  I do.  After my meal, I figured it was high time to do a little sight seeing, and convinced myself to exit out into the cold.  Had I done a little more planning, I could have gone to a vegetarian restaurant called Avocado near the city center that I saw recommended on several websites.  Of course I would have worried a little about the language barrier, they supposedly did have some good vegan options.

The Kremlin is in the background.  Also, it's closed on Thursdays

The Kremlin is in the background. Also, it’s closed on Thursdays

Around the corner from Le Pain.  Notice the building to person ratio (and the comically large windows)

Around the corner from Le Pain. Notice the building to person ratio (and the comically large windows)

This is not the one I went to, but the other one didn't have a Cyrillic sign

This is not the one I went to, but the other one didn’t have a Cyrillic sign

And yes, I made sure to snap some pictures of St. Basil's Cathedral

And yes, I made sure to snap some pictures of St. Basil’s Cathedral

G.U.M. the former Soviet mall, now populated exclusively by high-end designers

G.U.M. the former Soviet mall, now populated exclusively by high-end designers

I made my way back to Vnukovo airport several hours early, with enough time to grab a snack before my flight, before remembering that that would be nearly impossible.  I also had some rubles left that I had wanted to use up, so after wandering the international departures terminal for far too long, I settled on going to a dessert place whose only vegan options seemed to be a few drinks and some vegan snack bars made of fruit and nuts.  I drank a rather delicious Raspberry Basil frozen concoction, which had a rather smooth texture, rather like it was made with sorbet, rather than fruit and ice.  I was glad because there was no accidental vegan meal on the next flight, and I was so hungry by the time they were serving food I almost cried (again, totally my fault for not calling ahead or packing adequate snacks).  The male flight attendant once again rescued my and gave me surprise! more hummus, as well as 4 fruit cups.  The female flight attendant had basically told me too bad they didn’t have anything, so I was especially grateful for bread, hummus, and fruit. I then happily settled in for a nap for the remainder of the flight to Tel Aviv, tired but brimming with excitement for what was to come.

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  • bleeker185
    November 3, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Sounds like you sat next to Lee Oswald Jr which is ironic considering its the 50th anniversary of his untimely demise.