by Kriston Capps
Read on in horror and delight as a recent traveler on an international route between India and Great Britain details the culinary confusion that still persists between former colony and former colonizer! Crime-scene cookie and mustard custard, indeed. Why, it’s no wonder things never worked out between the two — if this passenger’s food journal is any indication!
What comedy in cuisine the clash of civilizations creates! Surely the members of the Internet Food Association, that well-traveled lot!, and their jet-setting readers will care to share some of their very own tales of near-miss and misfortune, mis-placed meals and mal-appropriated traditions, while visiting distant lands?
Allow me to dare and permit to declare up front, lest some Roman in the audience correct me that pizza is not the food of the colonies but rather the food of the Gods. My story concerns Sbarro pizza, which has never been confused with Italian food, and is not a pie even a shade would take delight in were there delivery past that Stygian line. Sbarro is mall pizza, and that is something that Americans know a little about.
This story finds your correspondent in Russia, not stationed along the Golden Ring or in the farflung permawastes of Siberia, but in a mall, located near the Internet cafe underneath Red Square. When a foreigner tires of borscht and all the other flavors of overboiled cabbage that Russians try to disguise with dill, he will seek refuge: the nearest Georgian restaurant, where the food will be out of this world delicious, featuring steamed pork buns and grilled lamb and spicy chutneys, a truly Central Asian cuisine; or a local pectopan serving chicken shawarma, which is reliably better than you’ll find in other non–Middle Eastern countries; or even the corner kartoshka stand, because how do you screw up a baked potato?
The truly homesick traveler knows that the secret to freedom lay buried underneath Lenin’s pillow: A Sbarro pizza, right there in Red Square’s underground Food Court. (There is no greater testament to the triumph of Capitalism in the former Soviet Union, by the way, than the Red Square Food Court.) However, this being Russia, there is one thing that a Sbarro cannot serve you: a whole pizza pie. It cannot be done.
It is service that Russia cannot get right. While the nation operates on a more or less (okay, less) capitalist system, it has yet to adopt some critical aspects of the restaurant industry. Ask your waitress for anything? She will berate you for bothering her while she’s busy. That’s not just true of the kommandants who serve the kashi in the mornings: I found this to be true at the reasonably upscale TGIFridays in Moscow, the local Yolki Palki chain, and other restaurants. Beg for less dill (snyet dillom, snyet dillom!) at the corner blini stand? You will get more dill. You will get a heap of dill.
While not as gastronomically gross as the meal Virgin is serving between Mumbai and Manchester, a meal ruined by bad service is still a ruined meal. Prickly Sbarro staff refused an order for a whole pizza pie. There was not even a price for a whole pizza pie, so it could not be done. What about eight contiguous slices? Reader, I waited in anticipation as management made telephone calls to district supervisors. Staff went to committee over the question. To no avail: It could not be done. Much like an enjoyable experience at a Russian restaurant.