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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Exotic Herbal Elixirs Artistic and Delicious

The man at the computer rubbed his hands from time to time, took long, nervous drags on a cigarette and downed big gulps of a yellow liquid straight from the bottle.

His drink of choice was Mescal, and the white larva -- it looked like a Kunstkamera exhibit, in a jar of formaldehyde -- at the bottom of the bottle didn't bother him a bit.

The dead worm was an aesthetic touch, but I couldn't help wondering what nutritive elements the creators of this concoction wanted to extract from it. Whatever it was, the man's good mood indicated it was a success.

Just as the Mexicans created a great visual effect with tequila, a Russian drink based on vodka called nastoika also contains something to look at, usually herbs. Homemade nastoiki are similar to elixirs, except they have artistically arranged bouquets of herbs, berries or flowers, similar to ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging.

Most often nastoiki are made from herbs, like melissa, a type of mint. Along with a little sugar, the mint floats in vodka, turning it green. There also are bitter nastoiki, which contain no sugar. One of the bitterest is made with polynnaya, or wormwood.

You may also hear Russians refer to a nastoika by its traditional name, Yerofeyich. The name comes from an enterprising barber whose patronymic was Yerofeyich. In 1767, Yerofeyich, who had studied Tibetan medicine in Beijing, treated Count Alexei Orlov's stomach disorder with concoctions made from herbal extracts and vodka. For the good deed, he was granted the right to produce and sell them.

A sweet variety of nastoika, balzam, has a more complex composition. Homemade balzamy typically contain dozens of ingredients, including a variety of herbs and other aromatic ingredients like roots, berries, seeds and leaves. The ingredients used to spice up this gourmet drink should never be loosely dumped in, but should be nicely arranged.

Latvians have their own Black Riga Balzam, which is made from several dozen herbs and comes in ceramic bottles. People usually drink it with tea or coffee, either adding a couple of teaspoonfuls of balzam for a nice, rich aroma and a slight alcoholic note or drinking the balzam from a shot glass before a cup of coffee. Latvians drink it sparingly, so it doesn't go to their heads.

In Russia, a few years ago, people expected a bottle of balzam from friends or relatives returning from vacation in Latvia. Returning vacationers often drank several bottles of their gift on the overnight train, however, and got sick from balzam's medicinal herbs.

Popular brands of balzamy, such as Sibirsky, Altaisky and Kazakhsky, are made with ginseng, zolotoi koren and limonnik, three roots that are known for reinvigorating tired students and stimulating sex drive. Other balzamy contain extracts of panty, or antlers, another strong tonic, especially recommended for men.

The sweetest of traditional Russian alcoholic drinks are nalivki, sugary fruit liqueurs preferred by women. Nalivki contain a lot of sugar, up to 40 grams for each 100 milliliters. They are prepared with fresh fruit juice mixed with sugar and vodka and, like balzamy, consumed with coffee or tea.

If you are puzzled over certain food items found in Russia, please e-mail Julia Solovyova at