How to Relax in Russia: Some Tasty Suggestions

Mmm.  Russia isn’t anyone’s idea of a great place to de-stress these days, is it?  War… invasions… questionable allies… political incorrectness up the yin-yang…nasty stewardesses on Aeroflot… I mean, how do you spell anxiety in Cyrillic?

Perhaps the path to inner peace in Russia is not through its heart, but its stomach.  Look around on your next real or virtual visit to the Matryoshka Motherland, and feast your eyes — and your soul.  Much of its two urban gems, Moscow and St. Peterburg, are pretty enough to eat.  And when I say “pretty,” I mean that the czars of times past didn’t exactly hold back on the sumptuous domes, cake-grade colors, and sugary paint.  So the next time Putin’s ugly mug gives you indigestion, try biting off a piece of Russia’s calorie-laden beauty… your blood pressure (if not your glucose levels) will plummet.

Raspberry swirl meets dark chocolate and caramel. (St. Petersburg)

Raspberry swirl meets dark chocolate and caramel. (St. Petersburg)

Bolshoi

The Bolshoi ballerinas don’t eat much, but you can gorge on their pastel palace (The Bolshoi Theater, Moscow)

Russian take on the Gingerbread House? (Red Square, Moscow)

Russian take on the Gingerbread House? (Red Square, Moscow)

Somewhere, a wedding is missing the top of its cake (Smolniy Convent, St. Petersburg)

Somewhere, a wedding is missing the top of its cake (Smolniy Convent, St. Petersburg)

Pour me a river of chocolate syrup to enjoy this one (Neva River, Moscow)

Pour me a river of chocolate syrup to enjoy this one (Neva River, Moscow)

I would like my three scoops of scenery with extra sprinkles, please. (Novodevichiy Convent, Moscow)

I would like my three scoops of scenery with extra sprinkles, please. (Novodevichiy Convent, Moscow)

Another cupcake, please -- just go easy on the frosting. (St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow)

Another cupcake, please — just go easy on the frosting. (St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow)

This peach pastry just needs some vanilla wafers (Kazan Cathedral, Moscow)

This peach pastry just needs some vanilla wafers (Kazan Cathedral, Moscow)

Jell-O has never tasted this good (outside Red Square, Moscow)

Jell-O has never tasted this good (outside Red Square, Moscow)

Forget the mint icing; I'll take this one with brown sugar (Red Square, Moscow)

Forget the mint icing; I’ll take this one with brown sugar (Red Square, Moscow)

A spy's fantasy of the perfect lemon tart? (Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg)

A spy’s fantasy of the perfect lemon tart? (Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg)

How to Travel on a Special Diet

Lactose intolerance.  Gluten-free diets.  Low-sodium diets. Any one of dozens of food allergies… and more.   Plenty of us are on a special diet or have restrictions on what we can eat, often for medical reasons.   Some people won’t even go on long trips abroad because they’re justifiably worried that a meal could send them to the hospital — or leave them stranded in the bathroom of the Holiday Inn.  One thing is for sure: anxiety over what we eat far from home isn’t limited to concerns about food poisoning or an upset stomach.  If you find that eating abroad causes you a lot of stress, you might find the following tips helpful.

Research local dishes before you go.  Part of the highlight of going to places like South Africa, Peru, or Mongolia is to try different food — and your food allergy or diet restriction threaten to hamper your culinary exploration.  Learn more about what people eat where you’re going, before you go, to find a popular dish that will fit your diet.  Try going to http://www.eatyourworld.com for more information by country and region.  At the very least, you can find out the ingredients in several dishes, the various types of preparations, and what to definitely avoid.

Book a hotel room or suite with a kitchenette. These don’t have to be expensive, and are more prevalent overseas than you may think.   Many such hotels are found where the tourist areas meet residential districts, which means that a supermarket is usually just down the street.  I’ve noted that such hotels, though, can be very fussy about requesting that you clean up the kitchen, completely, before you go out for the day (presumably to avoid possible pest nuisances), so be prepared to do “kitchen duty” before you go out sightseeing.

When eating out, stick with basic foods.  The less sauce, fixings, and “concoction recipes” you indulge in, the safer you’ll be — even if it takes some of the fun out of it.  The best choices include plain vegetables, grilled chicken or fish, and plain rice or pasta.  The waitress will give you a bored look, but at least you’ll be able to see her again the next evening for dinner.

Don’t make assumptions at globalized restaurants.  Is it true that a burger you order at McDonald’s or TGI Friday’s abroad is 99% similar to what you get at your favorite chain at home?  Absolutely — and it’s that 1% difference that could wreak havoc on your system.  One minor additive from a local source can make you ill, so start out with small portions at that Burger King in Siberia or Hong Kong to see if you have a reaction.

Remind the airline before you board that you ordered a special meal.  How many passengers have been vexed by flight attendants who come down the narrow aisle with chicken-or-beef in one hand and no inkling of your requested special entree?  By the time you (and everyone else on board) is ready to eat, it might be too late for the crew to locate and bring you what you reserved.  Verify upon check-in or baggage drop that you will be served the special meal(s) you requested.

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The airline’s cold breakfast — possibly the most straightforward meal you’ll eat on your entire trip.