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Kielbasa, Kefir And Kvass 

Foods from Russia, with love

Ethnic deli/grocery stores offer incredible deals on native food items. Go to a non-ethnic upscale deli for a small loaf of Polish Easter Babka and spend $10. Go to an ethnic shop, you'll find it for $4.

Not into sweet breads? What about a hefty bag of poppy seeds for a couple of bucks, or freshly made kielbasa sausage? Worth the trip?

One of the fastest growing communities in Charlotte is the Russian/Slavic population. Whether that population is as high as 18,000 (as reported by one merchant serving that population) or as low as 10,000 (as another shopkeeper reported), the fact is the Russian/Slavic population of Charlotte has dramatically increased in the past five years. Charlotte's Christian Russian community has a Baptist church on W.T. Harris Boulevard, and an Armenian Church is under construction on Park Road. The first ethnic deli/grocery store to cater to this population opened nine years ago. Today, Charlotte has three stores.

The customers at these stores are primarily from Russia, Poland, Armenia, Ukraine and Romania. In general, the foods found in these shops are winter foods: pickled, smoked or dried. Popular items include grains such as buckwheat, potatoes, rye bread, beef, pork, butter, cabbage, kefir, sour cream, mushrooms, honey, garlic and onions. Polish cuisine is typical of a long winter cuisine. This cuisine is noted for the use of fresh game; flavorful hams; Baltic herring; mushrooms such as morels and chanterelles; borscht and a variety of thick soups; pastries with poppy seeds; noodles and cabbage; and sausage which is served cold with horseradish sauce or mustard, or boiled in beer and cooked in densely flavored stews.

The newest of the Russian/Slavic deli/grocers to open is Kalinka European Foods off Park Road near Highway 51. Owner Nina Soloshenko, a native of Kyiv (as in Chicken Kyiv), used to own a fish/poultry/green grocer store in the Ukraine. The front corner of her shop is filled with bright red tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplants, squash, apples and lemons. Near the back, on the top shelf of the refrigerated fish counter, are jars, tins and plastic containers of red and black caviar, a favorite among Ukrainians. Under the roe are a variety of smoked and cured fish. A smaller fish, vobla, is the Russian equivalent of Buffalo wings and is eaten while enjoying Slavic beers or icy vodka.

Kalinka is already known for the double yolk eggs ($2.50 for 15) Soloshenko sells. On Wednesday, the freshest produce is available, but Friday is the most popular day since this is the day the fresh, not frozen, kielbasa arrives. "We sell out fairly quickly," Solshenko notes.

The back freezer is stocked with blintzes and pierogies, similar to raviolis. Customers buy these half circles of dough filled with potatoes, mushrooms, cheese or cherries by the armful. A word of caution: Pierogies are fragile and should not boil furiously or the dough will release the contents.

Kalinka European Foods, 10403-B2 Park Road, 704-542-2623. Hours are Monday through Saturday 9am until 9pm, and Sunday 1pm until 8pm.

"I sell childhood memories," said Natalia Andronovich, one of the partners in Europe Store, Inc, the business entity behind Europe Store in East Charlotte. "People come in here and they want the fish and the buckwheat," she reports. "Last week, some girls came into the store from Columbia, South Carolina. They took pictures. They were so excited. They asked if I (would) bring some items to Columbia once a week."The meat counter here is packed with 60 varieties including Polish, Armenian, Moldavian, Russian and Ukrainian sausages. "But everyone likes kielbasa and we carry Mishlizska and Cabanocy." Much of her meats are shipped directly from the Polish community in Chicago to her store on Thursday.

Europe has a large selection of dairy products including a dozen Polish cheeses, Armenian string cheese, farmer's cheese, Slavic-styled cottage cheese, and kefir, a yogurt drink. Andronovich also sells dozens of tortes, cakes, pastries and sweet breads. Of special note is the poppy seed sweet bread that also comes stuffed with apricot. Nova's products are also sold here as well as five varieties of rye bread.

Many of the fruit jams are from Israel, and Andronovich has several shelves of marinated vegetables, mushrooms, sauces, candies and juices. Another row features over 70 varieties of teas and herbal teas.

In the refrigerated case are several brands of Kvass, a malted drink, and an assortment of horseradish, including one suggested to me by an Armenian customer, an exceptional beet horseradish sauce.

Europe Store, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish Food, 7022 Lawyers Road (near Albemarle Road), 704-536-3382. Hours Monday through Thursday 9am until 8pm, Friday and Saturday 9am until 10pm, closed on Sunday.

Ashot Shirazyan opened A & A International Food European Deli on Independence Boulevard in November 1995. Most of Shirazyan's customers speak Russian, the uniting language for people from the former Soviet Union, or English. Shirazyan, though ethnically Armenian, considers himself a Russian.Although Shirazyan sells much more than Armenian food, his basturma, a strongly flavored Armenian sausage I grew to love while living in Cairo, is the best around. In addition to many hard-to-find Russian, Polish and Eastern European foods, he also stocks wines from Georgia (the country), Moldavia and Romania. He reports that these wines are "very good wines: Some are semi-sweet, some very dry." A&A also sells a pomegranate Armenian wine that is both "good to drink and an antioxidant."

Among his meat selection are kielbasa; whole beef salami; Hungarian salami; French salami; kabanosy; the Romanian favorite, a jellied smoked tongue; Russian mortadella made with beef and beef heart; Canadian bacon; German ham; and Polish ham. Shirazyan imports most of his dry goods and grains from Russia and Poland. In addition to food, the store has hundreds of Russian movies to rent and Russian music and books to buy.

A&A International Food European Deli, 6721-C Independence Boulevard, 704-531-1151. Hours: 10am until 8pm Tuesday through Saturday, and Sunday 10am until 7pm.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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