Storrs, Connecticut is a long way from Russia, around 4,500 miles from the capital of Moscow. Around UConn’s campus, there are plenty of international food options— like the handful of Asian spots, a pair of Mexican joints, and an Italian restaurant, to name a few.
While there are a few Eastern European grocers around Hartford and New Haven, the closest Russian eateries are in Boston or New York City. For UConn men’s hockey’s Vladislav Firstov, Ruslan Iskhakov and Yan Kuznetsov, it means going a long time without their favorite foods.
“We’re here almost for the whole year,” Kuznetsov, a freshman, said. “There’s no Russian restaurants in Storrs. We can’t get it anywhere else.”
For at least one day, that changed. With the help of UConn Dining Services, the team organized a Russian meal for lunch at Buckley Dining Hall to not only give the three Russians a taste of home but to introduce a little bit of Russian cuisine and culture to the rest of the team as well.
“David Benedict had a speaker come speak to us last year about diversity,” Cavanaugh explained. “They were saying ‘If you have kids from different nationalities on your team, have you ever thought about trying to invest and learn their culture and what it’s like?’”
Cavanaugh said that gave him the idea to put on this meal.
The menu included beet salad with vinaigrette, borscht — a soup with beets and beef — chicken Kiev — breaded chicken breast with butter and herbs — buckwheat with peas and mushrooms — kasha in Russian — and cottage cheese pancakes with sour cream for dessert.
The chicken Kiev was the biggest hit, with Firstov, Kuznetsov and the coaching staff all agreeing it was the best part of the meal (Iskhakov was still recovering from a sinus infection and didn’t stick around long).
“I really like the chicken cutlets,” Kuznetsov said. “It was really similar to Russia’s.”
He did notice that some of his teammates were not big fans of the beet salad.
“I don’t think the boys really liked it, it probably was the worst part for them,” he said with a smile.
Borscht is a favorite in Russia, where soup is a staple of the diet, much more so than in the US.
“You fly home and you eat soup everyday because you miss soup,” Firstov said. “Because America doesn’t have (Russian) soup. You can’t get it here.”
While Firstov and Kuznetsov are near-fluent in English and contributing to the team, adjusting to the change in culture remains a challenge. Getting the chance to have a taste of home, and share their culture with teammates, was a fulfilling experience.
“I think it’s really nice to have something Russian to eat here,” Kutznetsov said.
“Me, Yan and Ruslan, being from Russia we miss the food a lot,” Firstov added. “It’s so good if you eat Russian food here. You miss home, you miss family because your family cooks Russian food every day.”