I am a condiment guy. I am a connoisseur of condiments. Whether ketchup, mustard, hot sauces, or salad dressings; there are certain things with which I like to season my food. When travelling abroad, it’s always a pleasure to see what other cultures and peoples identify as condiments. What do they reach for when they sit down at a table by a street vendor in Bishkek or Kiev? These are some of the questions that went through my mind as I wandered the back streets of the cities and towns of the former Soviet Union. Some Soviet food is reprehensibly bland. That’s an undeniable fact of life. To someone raised on hot sauce and peppers, the need to find spicier ethnic food (usually from the Caucasus or Central Asian Republics) or effective condiments is absolutely crucial to eating well.
In the “магазин” (small shops-pronounced “magazines”) that line the roads, train stations, and small towns between Moscow and Saint Petersburg one can find all the essentials of life. Toilet paper and vodka come readily to mind. Meat and cheese are also available along with a supply of local vegetables. These shops are not unlike, in some respects, American convenience stores. It was to one of these shops I went in search of the most basic condiment of all, ketchup.
What ketchup does one buy when one is thousands of miles from home and knows none of the brands on offer? Have you ever asked help or a recommendation from an angry Russian to aid your purchase of ketchup? You might have asked a waiter or waitress for a wine recommendation or some beer aficionado about the latest advances in craft beers or pale ales; all in the comfort of a fine restaurant or a whole food type market. But asking a Russian, about ketchup, when there’s more than a foot of snow on the ground, and he’s unhappy about a) working and b) talking to an American with an atrocious accent? I admit it; I never saw this scenario unfolding when I began conjugating Russian verbs in a classroom on the other side of the world. And yet, my love of ketchup and my love of Russia were about to be combined. I asked and I received. I am a better man for it today.
Russian ketchup bottles are works of art. They remind me of handheld lighthouses one might see along the Neva River, guiding mariners toward the Gulf of Finland. Once you realize what you’re seeing, the massed array of red, glass, and turquoise labels create an impressive sight on the most dilapidated shelf. The most prominent and well-displayed ketchup on offer was St. Petersburg’s own “Admiral”. If you have the extra rubles, go for the “Admiral”. You won’t regret it. Is it ketchup, is it tomato puree, is it tomato sauce, or is there a hint of curry, who knows? Each of those questions will go through your mind. Admiral Ketchup expands the possibilities of the tomato to create taste epiphanies once thought unimaginable.