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Meet the Man Bringing Russian Cuisine to Mexico

ByFernanda Ballesterostranslated byJulie Schwietert Collazophotos byAnne Beentjes

Pollo a la Kiev and Oaxaca cheese pirozhki are just the start.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Mexico.

It's 9 AM and the Kolobok kitchen is silent. All you can hear is the cleaning lady and, outside, the daily traffic zipping around the famous Moorish kiosk in Mexico City's Santa María la Ribera neighborhood. Tea seems like what's going to break the ice during my first conversation with Vasily Leonov.

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Vasily Leonov.

Leonov arrived in Mexico 17 years ago and figured out over time how to bring Russia, as well as his memories of it, with him. Those memories materialized in the form of empanadas, which he began selling at the National Autonomous University of Mexico thanks to a fellow Russian wandering around the university's halls. It was so successful that they set up a street stall in Santa María la Ribera. And the success kept coming: Today, they own two Kolobok restaurants that blend the traditions of both countries, with menus that sell pollo a la kiev, and, of course, those empanadas.

What makes their empanadas so special? The dough is soft and fermented in the style of Neapolitan pizza. The process isn't easy: Leonov says it takes about 3,000 practice empanadas before someone gets the hang of it. There are many kinds, names, sizes, and styles. For example, the kulebiaka, an extra-large one, or the vatrushka, open-faced, with potato and cheese. They also make piroshky, little pies, adding Mexican touches like Oaxacan cheese.

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Russian empanadas in process.

The Leonovs are from a town in the republic of Tatarstan, part of the Russian Federation, called Náberezhnye Chelny. According to Leonov, in his hometown, "there was a lot of violence toward children from a young age—6 or 7. A lot of gangs, due to poverty. I've seen fights, blood, knives, from the age of 12, 15 years. Drug addicts. Beside that, we were obligated to join the Army if we stayed there, to fight in the Chechen War."

They came to Mexico thanks to a woman who sold them the idea of moving to Canada in search of a better life. She was a kind of international trafficker who convinced the Leonovs that their future lay in the offices of Herbalife, in Quebec. But before their final destination, they'd pass through Mexico. There, the two brothers and their parents began to study French. Thirty other families were in the same process, and many of them, most without much money, lived together in two buildings in Santa María la Ribera. Leonov was 17 years old when he arrived and he didn't know a word of Spanish. The days passed, and then weeks, and months, and they continued preparing themselves for their Québécois adventure by studying at the French Institute. More time passed and their savings ran out. No Spanish, no English, no studies, no house.

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Kolobok.

The father got a job at a foundry, and the sons worked at nighttime cleaning jobs or as dishwashers, earning minimum wage. "We got work wherever we could. They kicked my father out a couple times because he didn't speak Spanish," Leonov tells me. "After working as a cleaning manager, I got a job washing cars. One time we were on TV. They were filming foreigners who worked in the underground economy. There were other Russians there, too, working on the cars."

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Décor at Kolobok.

When he finally learned Spanish, he realized that he hadn't understood the culture because there was something that eluded him—something beyond language. He admits that he still felt like a foreigner even after 10 years of living in this country. "In Russia, you'd be surprised by the warmth of people when they're sitting at the family table, but in the street, they wear these impenetrable masks," he tells me. "Here, it's the reverse, they seem friendly and you get confused: You think it's friendship and it's not. It's not anything bad; it's cultural. Once I accepted this, all the problems in my head disappeared."

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The bread is homemade, from a Russian recipe.

One cultural holdover he's kept with him is his love of home cooking: "The food is inspired by what I've eaten in my home my whole life," Leonov says about the restaurants. While they started out with empanadas, they've grown to serve a much broader menu: the Russian soups borscht and solyanka, that pollo a la kiev, a classic stroganoff. Plus, of course, the empanadas. "Anything with dough is is very typical among the Russian community in our hometown." So in addition to the empanadas, there are vareniki, small ravioli-like dumplings filled with ricotta cheese or mushrooms. There are kompot—fruit punch—and kvass to drink, and when you take a seat at the table, they bring you homemade bread.

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The empanadas, made with a fermented dough similar to that of pizza, are the most requested items at Kolobok.

After 17 years of living in Mexico, Leonov hasn't only been successful in bringing the taste of home-style Russian cooking to Mexican palates; the country has also influenced his tastes. He enjoys tacos, Mexico's approach to seafood, and even the smiles of others in the streets.

Now, Leonov is taking Mexican culture to the other side of the world. In the Moscow airport, taxi drivers pester the recent arrivals, trying to sell their services, shouting and following travelers. As a Mexican at heart, Leonov replies, "Not right now," with an understanding of the word ahorita, a Mexican expression that can mean anything from five minutes to eternity. The taxi drivers, Russian from head to toe, think that "not right now" means "in a little while," and keep following him, trying to pick up a fare.

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This article was originally published in May 2016.