Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series exploring grocery stores in the Baltimore area, finding the best shops that cater to specific cuisines.
On a map, the distance between the western edge of Germany and central Russia looks enormous. But in the kitchen, the countries that make up that broad expanse have a lot in common.
Historically, the borders of the region — which includes Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus and more than a dozen smaller countries — are fluid, so it's no surprise that on the culinary front, the countries share many similarities in flavor and preparation.
The melting pot of American cuisine has absorbed many of the region's culinary characteristics, starting with our love affair with sausages. As a result, regular grocery stores carry most of the products necessary to make the region's traditional dishes.
Even so, it's worth the time to track down authentic products — from sausage and mustard to pickled goods, pastries and dumplings — at one of the area's smaller grocers dedicated to German, Polish, Russian and other Eastern European cuisines.
Shahboz Eshpulatov is a native of the former Soviet republic Uzbekistan, which is located south of Russia and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Growing up, Eshpulatov, who now manages Silk Road Bistro, an Uzbek restaurant in Pikesville, experienced the crossover of cuisines firsthand.
"Everything was so mixed in the Soviet Union," he said, offering an example. "We cook borscht, even though it was originally Ukranian soup. We've grown up consuming those foods, and now we try to pass them over to our kids."
Shoppers at local markets specializing in Russian, Polish, German and other Eastern European foods can expect to find quite a few pickled salads — freshly made and in jars — and many cheeses and meats.
"Pickled salads are something we share with the Polish and Russians," said Volker Stewart, co-owner of The Brewer's Art in Mid-Town-Belvedere and a native of Germany. "Poles and Germans are neighbors, and there's a lot of culinary traveling across the border."
Sauerkraut might be the dish most Americans associate with the pickled salad genre, but Stewart is especially partial to pickled celery root salad.
"There is a wide variety of cured and forcemeats," he said. "Everyone knows about bratwurst, but the world of German charcuterie is diverse."
When he's craving authentically German meats, Stewart calls on Binkert's German Meat Products, a Rosedale producer of sausages and other meats. Founded by Egon Binkert more than 50 years ago, the company is now run by his son-in-law, Lothar Weber.
Weber and his team make more than 30 products, including dense German breads and spicy mustards (another hallmark of German cuisine), which they sell in the shop attached to their production facility, and directly to embassies and restaurants, including The Brewer's Art.
"They do a great job on all their sausages," said Stewart. "It's a treat to go there."
Stewart points out that there are some differences among cuisines in parts of the region. "I grew up in southern Germany, so everything was more porky-oriented," he said. "The closest they get to seafood is trout. But in the northern parts, they do a lot of quirky things, with things like pickled herring. Variations like mustard sauce and spicier sauces."
Herring and other canned, fresh and dried fish are available at some local markets, and at International Food Market, a Russian grocer in Falstaff, shoppers will find several types of caviar.
Stuffed dumplings are also common to the region's cuisines, though different countries call them by different names. Polish pierogies are called vareniki in Russian cuisine, said Art Lisowsky, chairman of Baltimore's Russian Festival, which takes place each autumn. Some Russian markets also carry pelmeni, which are similar to pierogies but smaller.
Russian and Polish markets typically carry fresh pastries; at local Russian stores, many shelves are devoted to candies, jams and other sweets.
In most cases, the products themselves will be familiar to American eyes, though the particular flavors might differ subtly from what's available in regular grocery stores. Brand names such as Lowenbrau beer might ring a bell.
But other brand names written in German, Polish or the Russian alphabet will be unfamiliar to American shoppers — and that's part of the draw for lovers of the native cuisines.
"We find the products from our childhood, like condensed milk. Even though you can get it in regular stores, we like those brands," said Silk Road's Eshpulatov.
For Eshpulatov, Stewart and Lisowsky, the brands and flavors found at these markets offer a portal back to their childhoods and heritage. For everyone else, they provide a glimpse of faraway cultures through the lens of food.
To find the most authentic ingredients from Russia and Eastern Europe, check out these markets in and around Baltimore:
Binkert's German Meat Products
8805 Philadelphia Road, Rosedale; 410-687-5959; binkerts.com
In the front room of Binkert's, a refrigerated case holds dense German breads, spicy German mustards sit on shelves and a long case is filled with fresh and smoked sausages. Those sausages are produced in the back room of the shop using antibiotic-free meats sourced from Pennsylvania farms. Owner Lothar Weber is a font of knowledge about German cuisine as a whole and sausage-making in particular.
10520 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills; 410-654-8660
At this small store, the pastry case is filled with sweet treats, and the shelves offer a variety of juices, jams and pickled items. The selection includes many Russian products but also goods from other Eastern European countries.
International Food Market
7004 Reisterstown Road, Fallstaff; 410-358-4757
This well-stocked shop sells products from Russia and the former Soviet republics. The selection is wide, with many types of meat, including lunch meats, rabbit, quail, cow feet and sausages. Cheeses, blintzes, dumplings and an impressive selection of candy are also available, as is the most extravagant Russian offering, caviar.
1737 Fleet St., Baltimore; 410-732-7533
Toward the end of each week, this Fells Point shop gets deliveries of Polish pastries and other goodies; visit on the weekends for the best selection. But even during the week, the shop smells wonderfully smoky, thanks to the Polish sausage smoked onsite and hung for sale along the wall behind the counter.
7207 Harford Road, Parkville; 410-444-4860; muellersdeli.com
The exterior of this Parkville deli evokes traditional German architecture; inside, the shelves include American food and beer alongside spicy mustards, meats and beer from the old country. Mueller's is also a busy deli with an outgoing and friendly staff selling sandwiches to go.
Old World Deli
9828 Liberty Road, Randallstown; 410-655-5157; oldworlddb.com
With meat, breads, beer and sweets from across Europe, including Poland, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and France, Old World has one of the most pan-European selections in the area. Don't miss the cold salads and the rack of international magazines.
Ostrowski's of Bank Street
1801 Bank St, Baltimore; 410-732-1118; ostrowskiofbankstreetsausage.com
Ostrowski's Famous Polish Sausage
524 S. Washington St., Baltimore; 410-327-8935; facebook.com/superstuffer
The two Fells Point Ostrowski sausage shops are no longer owned by the same family — in 2013, the Washington Street shop was sold to John Reusing, owner of the bar Bad Decisions. But both still sell sausages out of their simple storefronts.
1641 Aliceanna St., Baltimore; 410-342-6105; sophiaspolishdeli.com
Located in Broadway Market in Fells Point, Sophia's is a go-to spot for all things Polish, from frozen pierogies and beef tripe soup to baked goods, lunch meat and pickled salads. Friendly employees do a brisk lunchtime carryout business.
6862 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville; 410-358-1981