There are some cuisines for which the description “authentic” is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Russian cafeteria food is one of them. Traditionally served by women with lined, unsmiling faces to cash-strapped students and blue-collar workers, it is bland, either too dry or too greasy, and exists only to fill bellies, not please palates. Hungry yet? For god knows what reason, the cafeteria chain Pishka, based in the southern republic of Bashkortostan, has chosen to open its very first non-Russian branch in Berlin – Bergmannkiez, to be exact.
And bless ‘em, they’re trying. In contrast with the drab canteens you see across the motherland, Pishka has a trendy, colourful (mostly red) interior to match its yuppified surroundings. Its apron-clad serving ladies actually crack a smile every now and then and the Tolstoy-length menu, which reads less like a food list and more like a travel brochure for Bashkortostan, makes a wishful stab at comparing the multicultural region to Kreuzberg. You take a plastic tray and approach a long vitrine containing a dizzying array of foodstuffs, each individually priced between €1-3. By pointing at what you want, you’ll eventually cobble together a meal. Here’s your chance to try “Utschpotschmak”, Bashkiri pastries with sweet or savoury fillings (ours contained a puzzling combination of dried fruit, farmer’s cheese and rice); grease-slicked chicken and mushroom blinis; bell peppers stuffed with rice and vegetables and baked with cheese; and the infamous layered salad “Herring under a fur coat”; plus many, many other permutations of meat, potatoes, cabbage, beetroot, mayonnaise and dough. Anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time in Russia will get vivid flashbacks eating this stuff, for better or for worse. Everyone else might enjoy the dirt-cheap prices and ethnographic excursion, complete with home fermented kvas.