Living in the Los Angeles area gives one ample opportunities to enjoy international food and drink of all types. When that comes to sodas, the scope of fizzy, sugary soft drinks available extends far beyond the joys of Mexican cane-sugar sodas found in supermercado aisles. National sodas from countries around the globe, from Peru’s Inca Kola to Taiwan’s Hey Song, can be found here provided one knows where to look. For some of the most distinctive and unique soda flavors on the planet, you’ll have to head to either West Hollywood or the Valley, to markets serving the Russian community. Here’s a primer on three favorite flavors in nations across the region, from the Baltic States to Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia).
Tarragon (Cyrillic: TAPXYH): Many sodas trace their origins to late 19th-century pharmacists, and tarragon soda is no different. In 1887, Mitrofan Lagidze mixed carbonated water with his own tarragon syrup at his Tbilisi, Georgia, pharmacy to create what has become an extremely popular flavor in Georgia, Armenia and Russia. The beverage has an otherworldly green hue and tastes like licorice or anise with a bit of mint, and perhaps sweet basil. The flavor also is reminiscent of absinthe, which is no surprise since some absinthes contain tarragon or green anise. With its distinctive bright green color, it’s impossible to miss, but labels also often have Tarhun or Tarkhun on them. It’s worth noting that each brand has its own formula, some with citrus notes, some with vanilla notes. The Chernogolovka brand is strong and more toniclike, while Rosinka (Cyrillic: POCUHKA) usually is described as the best for those new to the flavor.
Baikal: Named for Lake Baikal, a Siberian lake thought to be the deepest in the world, Baikal was originally created to be Soviet Russia’s version of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. The formula was changed after Pepsi entered the Russian market in 1973. A caramel-colored beverage, Baikal is far from being just another cola. The best description would be a soda version of an herbal tea. The main ingredients are eleutherococcus senticosus, known as Siberian ginseng (which isn’t ginseng at all), combined with black tea extract. Baikal also contains cardamom oil, eucalyptus oil and lemon oil. The flavor begins with a sweetness that fades into a strong yet not cloying menthol flavor, undoubtedly from the eucalyptus.
Buratino: A Russian version of Pinocchio, the character Buratino was created by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy when he couldn’t find Carlo Collodi's book to read to his children. Somewhere along the line, the character became a soda flavor. The amber-colored soda features labels with Buratino on them, along with various story elements, such as gold coins or the golden key he seeks. There are many jokes that can be made about a wooden puppet soda, but what does it taste like? Referred to variously as candy-, caramel-, hard candy– or bubble gum–flavored, it’s obviously a sweet flavor, but it might remind you of a sweet version of Peru’s lemon verbena–flavored Inca Kola.
While labels are sometimes only in the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s simple enough to figure out the flavor by what is pictured on the label. You’ll find a variety of brands, most notably those from Ukraine’s Rosinka (Cyrillic: POCUHKA) and Chernogolovka (look for a chirping bird on the label), a major bottler of both soft drinks and vodka in Russia. If you’re not sure you want a two-liter bottle, Chernogolovka brand has half-liter glass bottles. If you’re a bit less intrepid, there’s another regional favorite, pear – which is every bit as light and sweet as you’d expect. If you want something even more familiar, grape, lemonade and cream soda are also available.
Mechta Deli Market, 7712 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 654-2893.
Odessa Grocery, 12129 Magnolia Blvd., Valley Village; (818) 762-0331.
Odessa Grocery, 7781 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 848-9999.
Pacific Coast Food, 10703 Vanowen St., North Hollywood; (818) 985-6900, pacificfoodusa.com.
Sunland Produce, 8840 Glenoaks Blvd., Sun Valley; (818) 504-6629, sunlandproduce.com.
Tashkent Produce, 5340 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; (818) 752-7222.