Traveling through Eastern Europe recently, what stood out to me the most (aside from ultra low prices and varying success with capitalism) is the extreme popularity of sushi. Particularly in Kiev and Warsaw, sushi restaurants are nearly as prolific as the national cuisine and if you find yourself in a fashionable restaurant, odds are raw fish will be on the menu.
My husband and I had differing theories as to the sushi invasion. I figured it was popular as it is the exact opposite of most Eastern European food. After many years of boiled meat, heavy sauces, and pickled vegetables, sushi must make a refreshing palate cleanser and a delicious novelty. My husband, who was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, had a more subjective theory. He maintains it has to do with a way of thinking that is particular to post-Soviet and developing countries: after the oppression of communism, wealth and status are held in high regard; imported goods once impossible to obtain exemplify status and wealth. In other words, nothing says how far you’ve come from bread lines more than eating fish flown in from another country while wearing Louis Vuitton and texting on your iPhone.
In order to delve deeper into the sushi explosion, I consulted a few expats familiar with the former Eastern bloc to get their insights and found both of our theories supported.Political consultant, fellow Istanbullu, and Carpetblogger Christy Quirk easily qualifies as an expert in my book on the peculiarities of the FSU (former Soviet Union), with posts like how to tell if you’re in Crapistan (perhaps “many sushi restaurants” should be added to the checklist?) and how to buy a suit in the FSU. She agrees with the post-Soviet (and new money) mindset theory, noting “nothing says ‘I have more money than sense’ more than eating overpriced frozen sushi from Dubai. EVERY self-respecting restaurant in the FSU — especially those that appeal to the Oligarch class or, more accurately, oligarch wannabes — must have a sushi menu.” She adds: “Our favorite ‘Mexican’ restaurant in Kiev had an extensive one (I hold that up as the paragon of ridiculous dining in the FSU but it did have good chips and decent margaritas, for which it deserves praise, not derision).” As a fellow expat, I understand the importance of a place with decent margaritas, even if the menu is a bit geographically confused.
Prague-based food and travel writer Evan Rail has fully experienced the, uh, Prague-ification of the Czech Republic after living in the capital for the past decade, concurs with the novelty theory and adds that food trends tend to take a bit longer to arrive in this part of the world. Sushi became big especially as “most of this region is landlocked, it’s quite noteworthy to encounter the salty, briny flavors of seafood, especially raw seafood. Fines de claire oysters went through a similar vogue in Prague a few years back.”
Evan further reports that in Prague, sushi is no longer the flavor of the month. “After [sushi], it seemed like every restaurant on every cobblestone lane in Old Town was serving Thai soup, but only a weak interpretation of tom kha gai — you couldn’t get tom yum for love or money. Now the vogue seems to be about Vietnamese noodles, which makes more sense given the Czech Republic’s long-term and quite sizable Vietnamese community. I’ve actually had some of the best bun bo hue I’ve ever tasted here, far better than anything I’ve found in Paris or Berlin.
But banh mi? Well, maybe in another five years…”
While all this may be further evidence of globalization, it’s become part of the food culture, for better of for worse. If you travel to Eastern Europe, be sure to try the local food and keep your mind open to what might be “local.”
Do you have another take on the sushification of Eastern Europe? Noticed another foreign food trend abroad? Leave us a comment below.
[Photo by Flickr user quinn anya]