When you enter Babushka’s Deli and International Food Market, next door to Livingston Bagel on Northfield Avenue, the Russian club music is the first tip that you’ve landed not in suburban New Jersey but perhaps a world away.
Owner Olga Snyder might greet you with her bright smile and — in Russian or accented English — offer her favorite foods from a case that holds stuffed cabbage, Armenian salad, and beef stroganoff, all prepared in the back kitchen by Olga Perry, a chef she “stole” from the popular Tatiana Restaurant and Nightclub in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn’s center of the wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Although it serves nonkosher food, Babushka’s offers a taste of the Russian-Jewish culture that arrived with the mass exodus from the FSU in the 1980s and ’90s.
Russian and Eastern European favorites share shelf space: borscht and blinis, pickled tomatoes, cakes from the Kiev Bakery in Brooklyn, Polish chocolates, Turkish flatbread, and Russian jam, honey, and teas. You can find chili and seltzer from Georgia, and Russian root beer that bites back. A small dairy section holds all kinds of products, like Tvorog cheese from Riga, Ukrainian yogurt, even Vologotskoe, a sweet Russian butter.
Customers can choose from a large variety of smoked and dried fish, and there’s plenty of herring — but forget the cream sauce; we’re talking herring fillets in oil.
Among the clientele are members of the Russian-Jewish community in Livingston and surrounding towns. Many of the grocery items bear kosher certification, and a few come from Israeli companies, with labels in Russian and Hebrew (Olga will help you decipher the Russian).
Olga Snyder arrived in the United States in 1999. Originally from Russia, she and her family lived for a time in Riga, Latvia. She joined the Livingston Bagel family last year when she married David Snyder, son of Rita and Sol Snyder, who opened the shop in 1969.
Chatting in a back office at Babushka’s, David said he was ready to offer something new, and his wife’s taste buds provided the inspiration.
Babushka’s opened in November. Like Livingston Bagel, it offers catering, takeout, and favorite grocery items. But its fare is something distinctly new for many area consumers.
“Russian food is very tasty, but it’s totally different from American food,” Olga Snyder said.
David remembers the first time he tried spratz, a small fish related to sardines. “The first time I tried it, I closed my eyes. But it’s delicious,” he said. The store carries at least five different kinds of spratz — in oil, in tomato sauce, formed into pate — each from a different country. They are among at least 15 different kinds of tinned fish sold at Babushka’s.
The Snyders want people to feel at home in the new shop, to stay and chat.
“It’s about providing good food, fun, and enjoying life,” said David. “People come in and talk. This is a place to come and hang out.”
On a recent Friday morning, Ilona Shmaruk of East Hanover dropped in to pick up her favorite prepared foods, including olivie salad — a Russian concoction made from potato, eggs, peas, carrots, and pickles — small marinated tomatoes (her favorite), beef stew, and some Armenian cheese she described as similar to, but milder than, feta. Originally from Russia, she came to the United States at the age of four and grew up in Livingston. This visit marked her third to Babushka’s.
“I like the prepared foods if I don’t want to cook — the food here is very similar to how I make food at home,” she said, adding that she used to have to travel to Fair Lawn for Russian delicacies.
Another customer, Nora Saakian of Livingston, said with a heavy Russian accent that she had heard about the shop and came to look around “to compare with other Russian stores.” So far, she said, “I love it. They have everything!”