With the Sochi Winter Olympic Games less than a week away, all eyes are on Russia.
Russophiles in New York can get a taste of the Motherland in Little Odessa, an insular neighbourhood just blocks from Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach boardwalk that’s a perfect microcosm of the former Soviet Union.
Once a summer getaway for wealthy New Yorkers, Brighton Beach saw an influx of Jewish immigrants escaping Facism and Nazism in Europe around the time of World War II. The 1970s brought a second wave of Ukrainian Jews from the time the Soviet Union relaxed its immigration policies, through its dissolution.
The neighbourhood was filled with young families once again, and it became known as “Little Odessa,” after the port city on the Red Sea.
Today, the culture thrives in its odd shops, food emporiums serving traditional delicacies, and colourful, Russian-speaking characters.
Brighton Beach is located in the southernmost part of Brooklyn. It's one of the last stops on the Q line headed to Coney Island.
The main strip, Brighton Beach Avenue, sits under a subway trestle. It's lined with boutiques, grocery stores, restaurants, and salons.
The newspapers and tabloids are in Cyrillic, an alphabetic writing system employed across Slavic languages.
On an icy winter day, most of the women we saw on the street wore hooded, floor-length fur coats. They looked ultra chic.
...and ultra warm. Women from Mother Russia know how to dress for snow. It was about 20 degrees when we went.
We stopped in Giorgio Rotti, a Turkish luxury apparel store, to admire the coats. Sale prices started at $US500. We accidentally knocked one off a hanger and hightailed it out.
We also noticed several stores carrying these amazing, fox-head boots, which one shop clerk told us reflected a regional taste in style. No, the fur isn't real.
Famished shoppers can purchase a pirozhok, a flaky, hand-held bun stuffed with a variety of fillings, such as beef, mashed potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, or fresh fruit. The most popular variety, cherry, sells for $US1.50.
Irina, who grew up in Brighton Beach, returned to the neighbourhood to show Jon around. They bought a poppy seed pirozhok.
A trip to Saint-Petersburg Global Trade House is a must. A staple of the neighbourhood for more than 15 years, the Russian goods store sells everything from Imperial Porcelain, music, magazines, and toys, to scarves made of Orenburg goats' hair -- the finest down in the world.
...And lots and lots of books. They ranged from traditional Russian works to translations of English novels. We even found the Harry Potter series!
We also spotted many matryoshka nesting dolls. This hand-painted set depicted famous Russian composers, the largest of whom is Mikhail Glinka, the father of Russian classical music.
A movie rental store down the street carried all the Russian-language classics, including 'Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,' a contemporary drama that won the 1981 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Past the table of dried fruit cake, apple danishes, and pirozhki, we found the very popular, packaged wafer cookies and hard candies.
From Brighton Beach Avenue, we walked just a few avenues to the boardwalk, where restaurants swarm with tourists in warmer weather.
Cafe Restaurant Volna has been feeding Russian emigrants tastes of home since 1980. The owner, Inna, has worked here since her parents moved the family from Ukraine and opened the restaurant.
We sat with four regulars who told us, in broken English and with mouths full of fish and bread, how their fathers and grandfathers fought in the Battle of Stalingrad. 'America didn't save the world, Russia saved the world,' one of them said repeatedly.
At Volna's, it's not uncommon to see patrons drinking vodka at noon. No exceptions here. Our friends toasted 'Na Zdorovie!' which is Russian for 'To good health!' before drinking.
After touring some of the grocery stores and restaurants, we were ready to dig in. We picked Cafe 'At Your Mother-in-Law,' a Korean-Uzbek fusion restaurant that seemed to embody the multiculturalism of the neighbourhood.
In the 1930s, Stalin forcibly relocated the Koreo Saram population from the Soviet Far East to what is now Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan. This exotic eatery is run by an ethnically Korean woman who only speaks Russian.
The Korean dish Kuksu ($5.50) is a beef noodle soup topped with sesame seeds, pickled cucumber, dill, and cabbage. We wanted a straw to finish off that savory broth.
The braised cabbage stuffed with rice and meat ($4.29) tasted like grape-leaf dolmas dressed in tomato-sauced onion.
Bellies full, we stopped by a liquor store to peruse the Russian imported alcohols. Vodka was in full stock.
The Jewish Standard Vodka by Mark Kaufman is the most popular item, according to one employee. Nips are taped to the top of the bottles because in the U.S., alcohol must be packaged in certain quantities. The Russian imported bottles don't meet the 750ml standard.
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