By Anna Mindess | Photos by Rachel Stanich
Ellen Doren remembers long summer weekends in Russia, when people would get out of the city and go to their dachas, which are small country homes.
“They’re like farms where we grow everything you can imagine,” she says. “Kale, leeks, horseradish, red currants, black currants, strawberries … and we only have three months to do it, so we are working all the time.”
Since coming to the United States, both Doren and her Muscovite husband, Bulat Nasybulin, had noted that many Americans have a misconception of Russian food.
“They think it’s just meat and potatoes,” says Doren. “Actually, 150 nationalities live in Russia, and the variety of food is tremendous.”
When the couple started their Kolobok Food Truck business in 2018, their goal was to educate San Francisco Bay Area customers about the wide array of dishes from the different regions of Russia, as well as ways that Russian cooking adapts to the seasons. Doren describes several common Russian summertime dishes:
Schavel, a popular cold vegetable soup, is made with sorrel.
“Here, they sell sorrel like an herb, but in Russia, it is sold in large quantities and treated more like spinach,” says Doren.
Another refreshing summer soup, okroshka, is traditionally made with kvass, a fermented drink made from rye bread. Doren now fashions a variation with buttermilk and sparkling water, to which she adds chopped fresh cucumbers, radishes, potatoes, hard boiled eggs, and lots of herbs on top.
Vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, and peppers are often stuffed with rice, diced vegetables, onion, and garlic, and then baked.
Another dish that takes full advantage of the abundance of garden-fresh vegetables is ovoshnoi rulet, a chilled soufflé-like cake made from grated zucchini mixed with egg yolks and whipped egg whites that’s baked and rolled up with a filling of sautéed onions, carrots, red peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini.
A refreshing summer drink called mors features summer berries simmered in water. After 20 minutes, it’s strained, and the flavors are balanced with lemon juice or honey before the chilled drink is served.
Like people all over the globe, Russians have a summer barbecue tradition. “In the wintertime, the cuisines in various regions might differ,” says Doren, “but in the summer, it’s all about shashlik, or kebabs of meat and vegetables prepared on skewers.” Marinades vary by region.
“By the end of August, we spend three weeks on the dachas pickling all the vegetables we couldn’t eat—like cucumbers, tomatoes, baby squashes, cauliflower—to take them home for the winter,” she says.
While she was growing up, Doren learned to cook with her grandmother, who was living with the family in Moscow. Babushka was originally from Odessa, a Ukrainian city on the shore of the Black Sea, where the food is completely different. “It’s warmer there, like summertime 12 months a year. That’s how they eat, too. More Mediterranean style, with vegetables growing all year round. They eat more meals of meat and vegetables, and not so much starch,” says Doren, who would visit Odessa with her grandmother each summer.
Doren also lived for several years on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far eastern part of Russia, north of Japan and closer to Alaska than to Moscow. “That’s where our fish come from,” she says. “During the spawning season, people go into the river and catch salmon and trout with their hands. There are shallow parts of the river where they are able to just walk in and grab the fish. The salmon we bought in Moscow came from Kamchatka.”
Doren’s partner and husband, Bulat Nasybulin, also grew up in Moscow with a grandmother who cooked his family’s meals. He remembers how she made soups every day and how she hand cut the egg noodles that went in her burchak lamb soup, for example. Because the family is Tatar (Russia’s second largest ethnic group), she would prepare Tatar specialties such as echpochmak, which are triangular pastries filled with chopped lamb, potatoes, and onions. Although it was unusual for boys to cook, Nasybulin started working in the kitchen with his mother when he was around 12. She taught him to make pelmeni meat dumplings, and in the summer, he was always the one in charge of the barbecue.
The Cheery Red-and-Gold Truck
Doren’s path included formal training as a chef with several years in fine dining in New York City. She came to California to make a change and first met her husband in Oakland five years ago. The couple found they shared a passion for cooking, and after some research, they realized that while the Bay Area’s host of food trucks represent many world cuisines, none offered Russian food. So they decided to connect with their roots and introduce the Bay Area to their culture.
They started their food truck business with a variety of stuffed blini. Made with buttermilk, blini are similar to crêpes, but a little bit thicker and chewier. The couple gradually added piroshki (fried stuffed buns), pelmeni (stuffed meat dumplings from Siberia), and borscht.
By 2019, their food truck business was enjoying great success. They sold lunch to workers in San Francisco’s Financial District and partnered with local breweries at night, feeding the crowds at music festivals and at Off the Grid’s venues. The San Francisco Chronicle named them one of the best food trucks in the city, but then came the 2020 shelter-in-place order, and all of that disappeared.
Kolobok, the smiling namesake featured on their cheery red-and-gold truck, is a character from Russian folklore. Just a spunky ball of dough, Kolobok escapes the oven of an elderly couple, much like in the story of the legendary Gingerbread Boy, and has adventures in the forest, cleverly eluding a host of animals who want to eat him.
Emulating Kolobok, Doren and Nasybulin creatively found another path, and now their food truck pops up at different East Bay locations every day. Their Russian specialties still delight their loyal followers, many of whom first discovered them with a San Francisco lunch.
“Only about 10–20% of our customers are Russian themselves or have Russian parents, who perhaps live on the East Coast,” says Doren. “These customers don’t get to eat Russian food very often, so they are very happy to have [home-style] meals that remind them of their mother’s cooking.”
The best way to follow Kolobok Food Truck’s weekly schedule is to watch their Instagram account @kolobokfood or Kolobok Russian Soul Food Truck on Facebook. Their regular menu includes blini, plov (spiced chicken and rice), and golubtsi (cabbage rolls stuffed with turkey), plus changing weekly specials. This summer*, they plan to offer the above-mentioned okroshka, a cold borscht called svekolnik, and some type of shashlik with grilled meats.
“Cooking is our passion now,” says Doren, “and to do it well, you have to be passionate, because it’s hard physical work.” The couple does a lot of their prep in a commercial kitchen in Alameda, but a surprising amount of the cooking happens inside their truck. “We would like to offer many more dishes from different regions of Russia,” says Doren, “but unfortunately it is not so easy to present it all from the food truck, because there is very limited space; it’s like cooking in a submarine.”
Perhaps one day, if the couple opens their dreamed-about restaurant, they will have more room to share the full gamut of Russian cuisines.
*IMPORTANT NOTICE: Moments before this issue went to press, the Edible East Bay editorial staff learned that Ellen Doren and Bulat Nasybulin had made a sudden decision to move away from the Bay Area. We wish them the best of luck with establishing their home and business in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Anna Mindess writes about food, culture, and travel for AFAR, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, KQED, Berkeleyside, and Oaklandside. Her recent focus has been on immigrant-run food businesses like Kolobok. She received the 2018 Association of Food Journalists award for Best Food Essay for her story about Berkeley’s refugee-run 1951 Coffee Company. She also works as an American Sign Language interpreter. Follow her visual take on the world on Instagram @annamindess. You can find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.
This popular Russian buttermilk soup should be served cold. If you boil the eggs and potatoes and prep all the vegetables in advance, everything can be well chilled and ready for quick assembly.
- 3 hard boiled eggs, sliced
- 1 large boiled potato, peeled and diced
- 6 radishes, thinly sliced
- 3 Persian cucumbers, cut into cubes
- 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 cups buttermilk or plain kefir
- Sparkling or plain water to taste
- Juice of 1 lemon
- ¼ cup fresh herbs, such as dill and parsley
Place the cooked eggs and vegetables in a bowl and cover with cold buttermilk or kefir. Add water to thin out the soup to the desired consistency. Flavor with lemon juice as desired. Ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle the chopped herbs over the top.
Grated zucchini mixed with egg yolks and whipped egg whites forms the soufflé-like base for this Russian vegetable roll that’s filled with sautéed onions, carrots, red peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini.
- 3 medium-large zucchini
- 2 carrots, grated and divided
- 2 onions, finely chopped and divided
- 3 eggs, yolks and whites separated
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- A large handful of mixed herbs like cilantro, parsley, and dill
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 1 bell pepper, finely chopped
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Grate 2 of the zucchinis onto a cheesecloth or cotton towel. Gather the towel up around the zucchini and squeeze out the liquid. Place grated zucchini in a mixing bowl with half each of the grated carrot and chopped onion. Add the 3 egg yolks, flour, and baking powder. Mix.
In a separate bowl, whip the 3 egg whites with 1 teaspoon salt until stiff. Fold into the zucchini mixture.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with oiled parchment paper. Pour the zucchini mixture over the paper and spread it out evenly with a spatula. Bake for 30 minutes in the preheated oven. Remove from oven and let cool.
Chop some of the fresh herbs, leaving a few sprigs aside for garnish. Also chop the remaining zucchini.
Heat 1 tablespoon cooking oil in a skillet and add the remaining chopped onion along with the chopped bell pepper, chopped tomato, remaining grated carrot, and the chopped zucchini. Sauté until soft. Add the minced garlic and chopped herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let the mixture cool and then stir in the grated Parmesan.
Remove the baked zucchini dough from the pan and turn paper-side up. Peel away the paper. Spread the sautéed vegetables over top. Roll up the dough with the sautéed vegetables inside. Chill the roll for 30 minutes or up to one day. Slice into rounds and enjoy sprinkled with additional fresh herbs.