I was racing the Russian tanks. They were rumbling towards Kiev, the Ukranian capitol. I started barreling down the Ventura Freeway towards North Hollywood. The Russian Army was set on entering the city and overthrowing the democratically elected government. I had a craving for Ukranian food and a front seat to history in the making. Not since Hitler’s move into Poland in 1939, had a foreign army invaded its neighbor on the European Continent.
In Russia and Poland, Babushka translates to Grandma. In North America the term describes a head- scarf worn by older women. Growing up in Cleveland, my Grandma’s housekeeper wore babushka’s to stay warm in the Russian like winters. “Babushka Grandma’s Deli” is wedged between a Subway sandwich shop and a Mexican party store. The Babushkas were toiling away back in the kitchen. The Russian kid at the counter, Ivan, sported a Maui and Sons vintage T and a Lakers cap worn at a 45 degree angle. The space is half deli counter, half market, with three tables and a few chairs thrown in for good measure.
Stuffed Cabbage is a quintessential Eastern European staple. My cabbage was torpedo shaped, bulging with diced chicken, and slathered in a bright red tomato sauce with shredded carrots. The bitter cabbage contrasted nicely with the soft, sweet carrots and mellowed tomatoes. Yellow cumin flavored rice, came studded with braised beef and slow cooked whole garlic cloves. The dish was as tasty as any Persian Zereshk Pollo I have savored.
For a second course, I stared deep beneath the translucent surface of a chicken aspic. I carefully dug through the gelatinous layer, and squeezed a shot of dark spicy mustard onto the bed of white, shredded chicken, carrots, and hard -boiled egg. The mustard’s kick was tamed by a bit of liver pate I scooped up from a side container. The pate was smooth, earthy, and luxurious.
To wash the feast down, I ordered a can of Kvass. A naturally-carbonated drink, made from fermented bread, Kvass is sold out of giant smoker looking kegs, on street corners throughout Russia. The best part of Russian cuisine, though, is certainly the deserts! I ploughed through:
A gigantic slice of chocolate cake with cream and raisins. A Napoleon with buttercream and phyllo flakes as light as air. The finale- a wafer cake drenched in dulce de leche.
The food was exceptional. I felt guilty however, stuffing my face with pastries, while Putin was forcing his Napoleonic, short dictator’s, violence onto the citizens of Ukraine. I overheard the stylish woman at the next table, trying to speak with her friends in Kiev. The Internet had just been taken down. I asked a few customers at the counter what they felt about the just launched war, and all seemed embarrassed and uncomfortable by what their homeland was now foisting on its neighbor.
After desert, I Googled “Babushka”, and several news stories appeared. Al Jazeera had just profiled the “Babushka Battalion”, a force of older Ukranian women training with their equally ancient AK -47’s. They promised to fight any Russian coming across the border “mano to mano.” The report stated that these women can not only cook, but they can fight. Perhaps Putin has bitten off more than he can chew…
Babushka Grandma’s Deli
4818 Laurel Canyon Blvd Valley Village, CA 91607
Dan Bercu travels to remote places in search of unusual food and adventure.