My New York Obsession

Discovering Russian Comfort Food at the End of the World (OK, Brooklyn)

You can find almost anything at Brooklyn’s Brighton Bazaar, including your roots.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

I can’t quite remember the first time I visited Brighton Bazaar, a sprawling Russian grocery store set at the ends of the earth—or rather, the southernmost edge of Brooklyn. I was likely in my mid-20s and probably arrived by bicycle, bumping down Ocean Parkway’s long bike lane until it smacked up against the Atlantic Ocean, and then turning left. And I was almost certainly headed to Brighton Beach, that little slice of the Black Sea in Brooklyn, with friends who knew where to score superior beach snacks.

Brighton Bazaar
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

What I remember for sure is how I felt walking inside: overwhelmed, elated, and at once a little mystified yet entirely at home. A good grocery store can do that to you. The place was filled with babushkas packing their folding shopping carts with bunches of grapes and plums and elbowing past one another at the meat counter. A Russian-speaking shop clerk wrapped up a loaf of warm, coriander-flecked rye bread for me and, since we did not share a common language, gestured to an automated slicer to inquire if I wanted it sliced. A wall of imported honeys—buckwheat and acacia and orange blossom—gleamed like bars of gold. The pickle assortment bordered on the absurd, a briny kaleidoscope of cukes and tomatoes (green and cherry), watermelon wedges, pattypan squash, mushroom caps, and whole bulbs of garlic.

I gawk at the leathery-skinned octogenarians who come out to sunbathe and strut on the beach, wearing little more than ill-fitting Speedos and wide-brim hats.

In the center of the store, a double-wide row of steam tables boasted ground chicken cutlets and smoked whitefish, squat blintzes rolled with farmer’s cheese, chicken pierogi, stuffed cabbage swimming in tomato sauce, and a colorful mound of salad Olivier. I loaded a heaping spoonful of eggplant caviar into one plastic container and layered potato pancakes in another, feeling like a czar.

Brighton Bazaar
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

I am Russian in a very American sense of the word. My mother’s side of the family has Slavic-Jewish roots that stretch back enough generations that I have no real ties to the country or region. Walking amid the grit and bustle of Brighton Beach Avenue, where signs are as likely to be written in Cyrillic as English, I feel like a visitor in a different land. I gawk at the leathery-skinned octogenarians who come out to sunbathe and strut on the beach, wearing little more than ill-fitting Speedos and wide-brim hats. And if I were ever to dine at one of the glitzy, beat-thumping Russian restaurants-slash-nightclubs that dot the Brighton Beach boardwalk, I would do so wrapped in protective irony.

And yet, when it comes to the food—toasted kasha, sour cream–topped borscht, and vinegary beet and potato salads—I know that these are undoubtedly my people. And these are my comfort foods and the flavors I crave most intensely. They are the same foods my ancestors brought with them when they set out to make a new home in America umpteen generations ago. Living in Brooklyn means that I can (and often do) indulge in other cuisines, be it dim sum at a Cantonese restaurant, Mexican tacos filled with grilled cactus and Cotija cheese, or a Sicilian-style pizza at an Italian red-sauce joint. But these ancestral foods are the dishes my family continues to serve on Jewish holidays, when connections to the past feel deepest.

Brighton Bazaar
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

As a food writer who regularly looks to Jewish cuisine for stories and inspiration, I have learned to make many of the dishes sold at Brighton Bazaar. Through my cookbooks, I even teach other people how to make them. But my familiarity with the recipes does nothing to detract from the allure of a hot bar stocked with expertly made favorites. I’ll take these foods any way I can get them.

It feels important to me to pass this heritage on to my kids, the understanding that this city is big, diverse, and wildly delicious.

I still typically get to Brighton Bazaar by bicycle, though these days my husband and I ride with our son buckled into a bike trailer. (Our infant daughter will get her turn soon enough.) We fill up containers of boiled potatoes flecked with dill and noodles with caramelized onions. We buy hunks of custardy kugel and salty olives. And we head to the beach where everything gets flecked with sand but somehow still tastes good.

Brighton Bazaar
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

It feels important to me to pass this heritage on to my kids. Not the Russian part per se, though they too share that lineage, but the understanding that this city is big, diverse, and wildly delicious. And if that sounds a bit precious, forgive me. That’s just the kind of thing a good grocery store can do.

Leah Koenig is a food writer and the author of several cookbooks, including Modern Jewish Cooking and Little Book of Jewish Feasts. Find her on Instagram @leah.koenig.