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Russian Serenade

April 12, 1987|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

You'd never know, looking at the Gastronom European Food delicatessen in a shopping mall on Santa Monica Boulevard, that the "European Food" is almost exclusively Russian in origin--and sentiment.

The owner, Inna Katsnelson, is a recent emigre from the Soviet Union, and so are her employees. All women. All wearing red aprons.

Neither would anyone driving past Ron's Market on Sunset Boulevard know that Ron's is one of the city's major outlets for Russian foods that would cause even the most privileged party officials in the Soviet Union to defect: black and red caviar from the Caspian Sea, good Indian tea Russians adore, prized wines from Georgia, Cognac vodka, 28 kinds of smoked sturgeon, Carnelian cherry jam and even Borjomi, a Russian mineral water.

And that's only the tip of the iceberg.

In the increasing number of new Russian restaurants--Moscow Nights, Tea Room St. Petersburg, Ritza, Arbat and the Black Sea--and old, such as Mischa's, Soviet immigrants are dancing up a storm, downing vodka by the gallon, popping pelmeni , or dumplings, by the dozen into their mouths.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 23, 1987 Home Edition Food Part 8 Page 11 Column 1 Food Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
In a story that appeared April 12 in the Food Section on the Russian-American community in Los Angeles, Alexandra Merger of the St. John Kronstadt Memorial Fund was identified as a Soviet emigre. She is a White Russian who, with her parents, left Russia before the Soviet occupation in 1917.

Does this mean the Russians are coming? Actually, they are already here. And there are indications that more are expected, based on recent reports of Soviet leader's Mikhail S. Gorbachev's more open emigration policy, according to Rabbi Yossi Markel of Chabad Russian Synagogue in Los Angeles, which also serves as a social center for recent Soviet arrivals. "We don't know how many there will be or where they will go, but we know they will come," he said.

And the newcomers are making their mark as colorful contributors to Los Angeles' ever-expanding culinary melting pot.

Up to the early 1970s, Los Angeles boasted a Soviet immigrant population of about 30,000. There has been an influx of roughly 60,000 immigrants to the greater Los Angeles area since then, according to Alexander Polovets, editor and publisher of Almanac Panorama, which claims to be the largest Russian-language newspaper on the West Coast. Others, like Markel, put the figure at 30,000 tops. Still, of these, it is estimated that 80%, if not 90%, are Soviet Jews, the majority of whom arrived from 1969 to 1979.

None of the figures take into account the recent increase of Soviet-Armenian immigrants, estimated at 30,000 in California alone, according to Polovets. The first wave of Soviet immigrants came after World War I and was centered on the East Coast.

Soviet Jews, Christians and Armenian Orthodox alike gravitate toward foods common to all Soviets, according to Polovets. "They may not know much about Jewish culture, but they still identify as Russians," Polovets said.

Looking about the city, we discovered extraordinary food ideas that are bound to affect the overall look and taste of future California cuisine.

Ron's Market, one of the large suppliers of Soviet-made and Soviet-style products, boasts 46,000 items on its shelves, compared to 15,000 normally found in most supermarkets.

Other markets--many of them in Hollywood--boast many of the same items, and some, like Gastronom European Food, offer foods prepared on the premises--things like piroshki, vareniki, pelmeni, chicken Kiev, chicken shaki. "Very close to what we have in Russia," Katsnelson said.

According to Polovets, the new immigrants found that foods such as black Russian caviar, salmon and sturgeon, which had disappeared from the consumer shelves in the Soviet Union when he left in 1976, are plentiful here.

"The small fish, such as the sterlyadz from the Volga River, had been wiped out by industrial pollution, and even caviar and sturgeon were rarely available to the average Russian. Food in Russia disappeared after 1950, and most Russians had no idea what the traditional Russian kitchen really was. The modern Russian kitchen became far more simple as a result. Now the newcomers to America are rediscovering the traditional Russian kitchen," Polovets said.

William J. Eaton, Los Angeles Times Moscow bureau chief, reports that food scarcities are common. "Coffee is now very scarce, along with good tea from India. Fresh fruits, except for oranges and lemons, are always in short supply or very high priced at farmers' markets. In summer, tomatoes are prized but seldom available everywhere. Lettuce, peppers, radishes, mushrooms are very hard to find."

Eaton also reports that "some people such as party officials and war veterans get small jars of red caviar infrequently in holiday rations. Others also may buy red caviar in special-order shops that require the customer to take a lot of unwanted stuff in order to get a few scarce items."

Was Katsnelson surprised to find in Los Angeles the foods that possibly were in shortage in the Soviet Union?

"Russia has everything, but not everyone can get it. Anyway, food is not the most important thing in life," she said.

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