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The cuisines of Siberia

Submitted by on April 2, 2012 – 4:31 pm 10 Comments |  
Since Siberia is distinguished by harsh climates, its inhabitants – both the indigenous peoples and the Russian settlers – had to develop unique culinary approaches in order to utilize the region’s scanty foods, adapt to the cold temperatures and avoid vitamin deficiencies. Characteristically, linguistic and ethnic affinities do not determine gastronomic destiny, as natural and historical conditions play a more significant role. For example, the Yakut (Sakha) are a Turkic-speaking group, yet their cuisine exhibits few similarities to those of other Turkic groups, such as Tatars or Azeris. In terms of ingredients, Yakut food is closest to those of other peoples of the Far North, including the Siberian Russians, and its cooking method have been heavily influenced by Mongolian traditions. This unique combination of gastronomic influences set Yakut cuisine apart, making it one of the three major cooking traditions of Siberia. The region’s two other major cuisines are that of the Arctic peoples in northern Siberia and that of the Mongolian groups of southern Siberia.

Siberian Arctic cuisine

Even though the indigenous groups of the Far North – Nenets, Dolgan, Evenk, Chukchi, Nganasan, Eskimos, Koryaks, and others – inhabit a vast expanse of territory and speak very different languages, the natural environments that they occupy are similar. Moreover, over centuries these groups developed similar economies based mostly on reindeer herding, sea-mammal hunting, and fishing. Such influences led them to also develop similar culinary sensibilities and techniques. Many, if not most, books on the ethnic cuisines of Russia either do not mention the Arctic foodways at all or judge them to be primitive at best. This assessment is based on the paucity of ingredients available to northern indigenes, on a limited use of cooking, and on the lack of kitchen implements. The few authors who discuss the nutrition of the peoples of the Far North typically restrict themselves to mere mentions of the types of foods that are consumed: meat, fish, and so on. But despite living in harsh conditions above the Arctic Circle and consuming a diet supposedly based almost entirely on meat and fish, northern indigenes have almost never suffered from scurvy and other types of vitamin deficiency that were historically common to European visitors of the region. So how have they managed that?

One excellent source of information about the Siberian foods is William Vasilyevich Pokhlyobkin’s 1978 National cuisines of our peoples (in Russian). According to Pokhlyobkin, the most important element of the northern indigenes’ nutritional program is raw meat and fish. While many non-Siberians tend to view such practices as culturally backward, in reality they are not as primitive as it may seem. Arctic peoples use three types of meat preparation that do not involve cooking, and all three have interesting scientific underpinnings. The first type actually requires little preparation at all: deer, walrus, or seal meat, fat, and blood can be eaten raw. However, this is done only with animals that have just been killed, or even merely wounded. Crucially, the meat is consumed before the animal’s body enters rigor mortis, at which point the proteins start denaturalizing and the flesh loses its flexibility. According to both indigenes and European travelers, such meat remains tender and flavorful. Similarly, blood – typically that of reindeer and occasionally of horses – can be let from a small arterial wound and drunk immediately without harming the animals. Some Arctic peoples mix such fresh blood with still-warm milk and consider it a delicacy.* Although consuming raw blood and meat may seem primitive, a number of the techniques associated with the practice and developed by Siberian indigenes to improve the quality of meat are actually quite sophisticated. Some of these techniques are now being recognized by Western science and the food industry alike: for example, prior to killing, the animal is kept warm, fed in very specific ways, and kept very calm. The world famous Kobe beef (and the American-produced Wagyu beef) is produced by similar techniques. Equally important is the speed at which the meat is consumed after the animal is butchered. European travelers often described the “table manners” (there are no tables of course!) of the northern indigenes as greedy and uncivilized, but rapid consumption is appropriate for the meat thus prepared.

In northern Siberia, uncooked meat or fish is often eaten in a lightly frozen state. Typically such flesh is sliced into long, thin flakes, called stroganina (from the Russian word strogat’, meaning ‘whittle’). While raw meat is eaten with no salt or spices of any kind, stroganina is lightly salted and flavored with savory herbs: cochlearia (similar to horseradish), watercress, wild garlic, and the like. Meat stroganina is typically served with fermented berries: cloudberry, bramble berry, and mooseberry. Air-dried meat is also consumed. But northern Siberian indigenes do not salt or smoke meat. Fish, on the other hand, is prepared in a variety of ways. It can be can be served raw, salted, fermented, dried, lightly frozen (stroganina), or baked in ashes, but it is never boiled or fried.

Cooking among the native peoples of northern Siberia has been historically limited by the lack metal implements and pots. Untile relatively recently, the only way to heat food is by using stone pots or flat pan-like stones, or by cooking over an open fire, in ashes or in hot sand. Because of this shortage of metal implements, foods are rarely boiled even today and whatever soups are made have been borrowed from the Russian settlers. Frying in fat is still almost never practiced.

The lack of cooking implements has led to some ingenious food-preparation methods. One local delicacy, not unlike the Scottish haggis, is the Chukchi dish called vilmulimul. It is made by pouring reindeer blood into a cleaned stomach. Boiled kidneys, liver, ears, hoofs, and lips are added, as are berries and herbs. The stomach is sown closed and kept in a cold part of the yaranga (the traditional home) and allowed to ferment all winter. By spring, this dish, rich in calories and vitamins, is ready to eat.

While meat and fish, especially fatty fish like salmon and Arctic cisco, are the main sources of calories in the northern Siberian indigenes’ diets, they are supplemented by plant-derived foods, whenever possible, including herbs, berries, edible roots, tree sap, and even some varieties of moss. The Yukaghir are said to eat mushrooms, but most other groups avoid them as food – although most use the psychedelic fungus fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) for ritual purposes. Ptarmigan and their eggs complete the ingredient list of the traditional Arctiс cuisine. Herbal tea, fresh and fermented milk, and – as mentioned above – fresh reindeer blood, constitute the main drinks. The Yukaghir also crush fish eggs, turning them into liquid consumed as a cooling drink.

Mongolian cuisine

Mongolian cooking constitutes a family of cuisines that ties together several indigenous Mongolian- and Turkic-speaking peoples of southern Siberia – Buriats, Shors, Altais, Tuvinians, and Khakassians – with the ethnic groups of Mongolia and northern China. The foods of these peoples are based on meat, milk, and flour, but the cooking techniques differ from those of other Central Asian groups, such as Kazakh and Kyrgyz. Mongolian peoples rely heavily on milk, which is often fermented with yeast creating low levels of alcohol, whereas Central Asian Turkic groups typically use bacterial fermentation to produce yoghurt-like products. Mongolian cuisine uses milk from horses, sheep, goats, cows, camels, and yaks. Different types of milk can be mixed in various proportions to create a gamut of varied milk products: butter, creams, white cheeses, and several forms of sour milk. Southern Siberian peoples generally consider products made from milk combinations as particularly tasty, but historically such mixtures were often made necessary by the fact that extensive animal husbandry in rigorous environments rarely produced high yields of milk. To start the fermentation process, various starters are used: already fermented milk products, wheat grains, rye bread crust, silver objects, or even blocks of dry tea.

Meat is likewise an important component of the Mongolian diet, and many different types of meat are consumed: beef, lamb, goat, as well as the flesh of horses, camels, yaks, and saiga antelopes. As is typical for many indigenous peoples around the world, no part of the animal goes to waste: liver, lungs, heart, intestines, and organ fat are all consumed. Different techniques, with and without cooking, are employed in meat preparation. Unlike Turkic-speaking groups of Central Asia, Mongolian peoples do not fry or grill meat; unlike the Russians, they do not salt it; and unlike the Arctic groups, they do not eat it raw. But like the Arctic peoples, Mongolian groups air-dry meat in the cold and windy environment. Another technique involves lactic acid fermentation. Meat prepared in this manner is typically placed in large covered pots and allowed to ferment for about 8-10 hours.. In addition, meat can be baked in ashes, between two pans, or “en croute” (wrapped in pastry and baked). In Tuva meat is sometimes “cooked in the skin”; the skin is left on the gutted animal, and the abdominal cavity is filled with water or ice, stuffed with hot stones, and placed under coals. As a result, the meat is steamed on the inside and roasted on the outside.

Baked goods constitute an important part of Mongolian cuisine. Most are based on unleavened dough made with a lot of fat and little water, and are baked on pans or in ashes. Besides flour, little plant-derived food is used in traditional Mongolian cuisine, though savory herbs, ashberries, green tea, and imported spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, and bay leaf are quite popular. Historically, the Mongolians were a tightly tied into extensive trade networks and hence were able to consume a variety of exotic goods.

Yakut cuisine

Historically, the Yakut (or Sakha) were a Turkic-speaking nomadic group. Though they still speak their Turkic language, they are no longer nomadic. Still, they maintain the same culinary sensibilities, relying heavily on meat dishes, which they share with Mongolian and Kazakh groups. Unlike other peoples of the North, most of whom focus on reindeer herding, Yakut, especially those of central and southwestern Yakutia, raised horses and even cattle. In fact, the horse-breeding, based on year-round pasturing, has become a foundation of the life style and economy of the region’s rural inhabitants. The Yakut horse is the most northern breed of the species, noted for its adaptations to the cold climate (short, round body, long hair, etc.). Its range extends far beyond the Arctic circle to forest-tundra zone, where the annual temperature fluctuations ranges from +38 degrees Celsius (100 F) to -70 degrees Celsius (-94 F), and winter pasturing period lasts for 8 months a year. Genetically, Yakut horses are close to horses of Central Asian origin (Akhal-Teke, Arabian, Kazakh, Kirghiz horses) and the Polish aboriginal horse. The Sakha people are very proud of their horses. Unsurprisingly, horsemeat occupies 22-25% of their gross meat production, and up to 40% at some farms. Local horsemeat is very popular among the Sakha and has a global reputation for high quality. Kymys, a fermented dairy product traditionally made from mare’s milk (often known in English as kumis) is the national drink of the Yakut. Another traditional fermented milk product is tar, made from fermented milk and frozen in wooden casks or birch-bark buckets; in the dead of winter, bits of tar are defrosted and used to drink plain or to make porridge.

As already mentioned above, the Yakut cuisine combines influences of the Arctic and Mongolian peoples. Like the other ethnic groups of the Far North, the Yakut eat stroganina, thinly sliced pieces of raw meat (often horsemeat) or fish, spiced with bitter herbs. They also drink fresh blood and use cow or horse blood to make blood sausage, known as khaan. But unlike Arctic groups, the Yakut make a number of cooked meat and fish dishes. There are also certain similarities between Yakut foods, especially milk dishes, and those of the Buriats. Moreover, the Yakut have been heavily influenced by the Russians since at least since the 18th century, As a result, they have borrowed many dishes, especially soups, from the Russians; prior to interactions with the Russians, the Yakut did not make soups at all. The Yakut also acquired the practice of mushroom eating from the Russians, a people noted for their mycophilia.

Because Yakutia is so rich in rivers and lakes, the Sakha eat a lot of fish, especially Siberian sturgeon, broad and northern whitefish, Arctic cisco, muksun, and grayling. Foul and reindeer are also consumed extensively.



*Russians have an idiom krov’ s molokom, literally ‘blood with milk’ referring to a healthy facial color. According to William Pokhlyobkin, this expression originally referred to healthy food (and eventually shifted to mean ‘a healthy person’ and then acquired its modern meaning) and was based on the Turkic-speaking neighbors’ practice of drinking fresh blood mixed with still-warm milk, similar to that of Siberian Arctic indigenous groups. Another Russian expression that reveals certain culinary and cultural diffusion from Siberian peoples is parnoe mjaso, literally ‘steaming meat’ but referring to meat that is very fresh. Originally, it must have meant meat of a freshly killed animal, which is still warm. But note that it could literally exude steam only in very low temperatures.

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  • James T. Wilson

    When I think of Siberian food, I always think of pelmeni and sibirskaya vodka.  I do, however, remember the sibirskaya in the Soviet period being a much higher proof than what is sold by that name now.  I was told in Irkustk in 1987 that it had to be a higher proof, because standard, 80 proof vodka would freeze in the Siberian winters.  I imagine it might have been merely a colorful story, but it seemed to be a part of their sense of Siberianness at the time.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for the colorful story, James! Not sure if vodka really does freeze in Siberia, but many people there would drink straight alcohol. And they certainly know how to handle their drink!

      As for pelmeni, they are not native with indigenous peoples of Siberia or even with Russian settlers there. The word itself derives from the Komi language, where it means ‘bread ear’. Since many peoples around the world have a similar dish, from Chinese to Italians, it’s hard to tell where exactly the Russian pelmeni started. One popular theory is that they were brought from China by the Mongols. This theory supposedly explains the use of black pepper with pelmeni. Black pepper is not common to Russian cuisine (some day I should write a post on traditional Russian cuisine!), and in fact Russian Orthodox Church considers it sinful/evil. As for pelmeni, another possibility is that they were borrowed together with the name from Finnic- (or Ugric-) speaking groups in Northern European Russia. Either way, they are not really *from* Siberia, although they are quite popular there since they are easy to keep in freezing temperatures and can be cooked quickly and easily.

      • James T. Wilson

        They are, of course, pretty universal out in that part of the world.  I remember eating a great many of them in Kazakhstan, where they were called manty, and I had a Chinese-American girlfriend who insisted that they were simply Russian pot stickers (not nearly as good as Chinese ones, of course).

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Indeed. It appears that the idea of meat-inside-dough (whether boiled, baked, or fried) is nearly universal. I, for example, just had a “pirozhok” (fried Russian item with beef and mushrooms filling) for a midday snack. But the label said “pirogies” (in the plural, though it was just one!), which are typically Polish and boiled, not Russian and fried. North Caucasus has khinkali, Ukraine has vareniki. The one thing that distinguishes pelmeni, though, is that they are necessarily frozen and cooked from the frozen state. They are never boiled fresh.

          • James T. Wilson

            Well, thank you very much.  I have never been able to distinguish between pierogi and pelmeni, except for the fact that I always associated pelmeni with Siberia and pierogi with Western Russia.  I love the entire family of meaty things wrapped in doughy things, from hotpockets to hortobagyi palacsinta.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Oh there is practically nothing in common between pierogi and pelmeni. The former are Polish; can be filled with potato, cheese, mushroom or anything else (rarely with meat though); and can be boiled fresh or frozen. Their Ukrainian analog is known as vareniki. In contrast, pelmeni are Russian; typicaly filled with meat of some description (rarely with mushrooms, but definitely not potato or cheese); and boiled from frozen. Russians also have pirog, which is a big sweet or savory pie, often made from yeast dough. It’s baked. And then there’s Russian pirozhki, small, hand-held pasties, which can be filled with meat, potato, mushroom, sour cabbage, egg and onion, fish — anything. And they can be baked or fried. And that’s just a start. I am definitely contemplating a post of traditional Russian cuisine, so stay tuned!

      • James T. Wilson

        I wonder if the prohibition on pepper has to do with the notion, related to Galenic medicine, that “hot” foods lead to concupiscence.  That is the reason spices were not approved of in monastic diets both in Europe and Asia.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          That’s the general idea, yes. However, other spices, such as cinnamon, clove, ginger, star anise, cardamom, saffron, and coriander, were common in Russian cooking. One of the traditional Russian pastries is known as prianik (spice-cookie).

  • Peter Rosa

    Contemporary native peoples in Alaska and Canada, having scaled back on their traditional lifestyles and cuisine, supposedly have among the worst diets anywhere, full of junk food of every description.  It sounds as if the Siberian natives have fared better.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is an excellent point, Peter! One thing to remember though is that what we would call “junk food” is not widely available outside of big cities in Russia (in Siberia or European Russia alike). So indigenous groups who remain in rural areas simply have little, if any, access to such foods. Those who live in cities, that is a different matter altogether. Many of these groups are more heavily assimilated, as I discussed in an earlier post:

      It must be noted, however, that alcohol — the real “junk food” of Siberia — is extremely popular among the indigenous people who suffer from alcohol-related problems extensively. So it is not that Siberian indigenes are somehow less likely to get addicted to stuff that’s not good for them…