Walk out of a metro station in any Russian city and you’ll find yourself within 100 metres of a sushi restaurant. Its neon sign, decorated with an obligatory pair of blinking chopsticks, will catch your eye and guide you towards a 24-hour kingdom of raw and smoked fish. In Russia, when you’re talking about a roll, your listener will instantly know you’re referring to a sushi roll rather than, say, a bread roll or a sausage roll. Thin strips of salmon, tightly wrapped around a lump of sticky rice, filled with cream cheese, not dissimilar to the leather jackets hugging the broad shoulders of its middle-class clientele.
Japanese cuisine, mainly sushi, has long been a staple of Russian restaurants in large cities. Sushi restaurants in Moscow are as ubiquitous as fried chicken shops in London or hole-in-the-wall pizzerias in New York. But now, thanks to the food sanctions slapped on products from the US, EU, Canada and Australia as well as a weak rouble, the sushi industry — and with it the eating habits of middle-class Russians — are under threat of extinction.
The Russian love for sushi began in the early 2000s when President Vladimir Putin came to power. So popular was the Japanese delicacy that Putin’s first decade in power has since been dubbed “the sushi years”. It was a time of sky-high oil prices, a time when Russians were enjoying the good life for the first moment in its history as an independent nation. For many Russians, this meant having enough money to eat out for the first time — and they definitely didn’t want boring old borscht and pelmeni. Western fast food chains, while novel, didn’t satisfy Russian appetites and fancy restaurants were too expensive for the middle class. There was a gap in the market, which was gradually filled by sushi joints; slowly and surely they established a foothold in the culinary market as a place at once exotic and relatively affordable.
Sushi began popping up on the menus of restaurants all over Russia, whether Japanese or otherwise. Sushi was everywhere. It was exotic, easy and fun to eat, once we’d mastered the art of using chopsticks. It was entertainment and food in one, the food entrepreneur’s holy grail. Getting sushi for lunch meant removing yourself as far as possible from the usual lunch at a stolovayas, utilitarian Soviet canteens. Supermarkets started selling cheap pre-packaged sushi boxes and sushi-rolling kits. Homemade sushi replaced traditional party foods like Salad Olivier, becoming a must at hen parties and girls’ nights out. With few Japanese people living in Russia, restaurant owners hired other Russian Asians, Buryats and Kalmiks as well as those with Mongolian heritage, as waiting staff for their bamboo-covered cafes. For hungry partygoers waiting for the morning metro to start, sushi restaurants offered 24-hour shelter.
Then an interesting thing happened: sushi began to venture onto the menus of even cheaper restaurants, spelling the democratisation of the Japanese delicacy. According to Bloomberg, Moscow, a city of 12 million, has 949 restaurants serving Japanese cuisine, while New York, with its 8.4 million inhabitants, has 462.
In the same way that many of the Indian curries enjoyed in the UK have been adapted to suit western tastes, so sushi evolved to satisfy the Russian palate. Restaurants have learned to be generous with cream cheese, to use chicken and mayonnaise, and to top sushi with melted mozzarella cheese. The creative possibilities seemed endless. Warm sushi? Sure, why not. Sushi rolled in blini, thin Russian pancakes, instead of seaweed? Even better. Look online today and you’ll find recipes for rolls made with traditional Russian ingredients such as grechka (buckwheat) instead of rice, smetana (sour cream) instead of cream cheese and kolbasa (sausage) instead of fish.
Over time, several of the bigger sushi chains, seeking out even greater numbers of diners, introduced a second menu, known as “anti-sushi”. These menus, consisting of traditional Russian and Caucasian fare, featured on their cover the image of a husband and wife, she nagging him for sushi, him wanting heartier “man food”. It was a winning combination: women could eat tiny slabs of raw fish while their partners feasted on platefuls of solyanka (meat soup) and manti (large meat-filled dumplings).
With all these changes and compromises, the exotic aura of sushi rapidly disappeared. Add to this the sanctions on fish and rapidly rising inflation and the result is a disaster for numerous restaurateurs. Sushi restaurants are desperately trying to rebrand their businesses to survive. Some are jumping on the Americana-BBQ pulled pork wagon, while others are turning to traditional Russian food. Several restaurants have introduced international menus, where the food is split into national cuisines — Italian, American, Indian, Japanese — to keep everyone happy. Their menus illustrate perfectly the confusion and panic of the chefs and restaurant owners in these times of scarcity. You can start a meal with naan bread, then have ramen with sushi, share a pizza with your date, and finish off with brownies or a pecan pie. The drinks menu is similarly varied, offering Pimms, Pina Colada and Milk Oolong tea. A former sushi chain called Dve Palochki (Chopsticks) delves even deeper into the realm of culinary fusion with dishes such as Burger Benedict, a bun, burger patty, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce.
No one knows for sure if the food sanctions will be the final nail in the coffin for sushi. Perhaps the result will simply be a winnowing out of the numerous mediocre Japanese restaurants and their Russified sushi that so many foodies mock. On the other hand, sushi survived the 2008 global financial crisis and while a snarky comment from a Moscow foodie might be sufficient to spoil the appetite of one or two individuals, it won’t deter the majority of people from tucking in. “We had this concern that sushi would go out of fashion a decade ago, but it didn’t,” says restaurant consultant Sergey Mironov in an interview with Bloomberg. “This product is very resilient to economic turmoil.”