Siberia may not be the first place you think of when looking for your next adventure in cuisine, but that is exactly what this vast Russian province dishes up. Recipes reflect centuries of humans adapting to a harsh climate with style and good taste.
— By John Jacobs
One of the most misunderstood places on earth is Siberia. Just say the province's name, and you are bound to shiver. Since Siberia usually does not usually top travel bucket lists, people are free to believe it is frigid year–round and almost inhabitable except for indigenous people who have had thousands of years to adapt. It is often assumed that any cuisine that exists is mostly raw foods that only the indigenous people enjoy.
Like most assumptions, they are not true. Siberia has a glorious food culture that embraces the bounty of the wilderness and reflects a cultural diversity that began centuries ago.
Telling the True Story
Yes, Siberia is sparsely populated with approximately 25 per cent of Russia's population living somewhere on the 2.5 million square miles considered the Russian Siberia. Most of the province's population understandably lives along the Trans-Siberian Railway in the south. The Siberian region, which includes territory not under Russian control, is more than 5.1 million square miles. Yes, Siberia does have a couple of seasons, but the frigid winters, during which the temperature can drop to -90 F, are almost snowless in many sections, and summers are mild to warm, especially in the South where temperatures can reach 80 F over a four-month period.
Yes, part of the year is very cold with lowest Siberian temperature recorded in the north being -90 F (brrr!). Permafrost dominates the northern area of the West Siberian Plateau, while grasslands define the Central Siberian Plateau. Many of the movie settings showing snowy forest areas are set in the taiga or swampy forested land in the far north, between the tundra and the Siberian steppes. Tundra areas are in the north and temperate forests are in the south. Siberia also has Baikal Lake, the most ancient freshwater lake by volume in the world. Eco-travellers and eco-foodies who eat fish from this lake are experiencing a one-of-a-kind adventure because the lake's age, isolation, and location have kept it as one of the purest water ecosystems in the world.
How Food Daring are You?
Restaurants in Siberia are increasingly returning to culinary roots by adding traditional recipes to the menu. The indigenous foods are linked directly to the land and water.
Siberia was first united by the Mongolians under the leadership of the ferocious Genghis Khan in the early 13th century. The Mongolian Empire included China, Persia, and a portion of Asia, while also reaching Europe. In the 16th-18th centuries, European settlers and political exiles came to Siberia, creating a rich diversity that was found in the people and their cookery. Each immigrant group has made a mark, and some marks became national dishes. For example, Korean spicy carrot salad is a national dish.
Traditional foods reflect the geography and a history of immigrants coming from Asia and Europe over hundreds of years. Many recipes include base ingredients like berries from the taiga; fish from Baikal Lake; and wild game that includes venison, bear, and moose. Wild cuisine offers opportunities to taste authentic Siberian cooking.
Are you daring enough to eat stroganina (frozen raw venison) or sugudai (wild raw fish and onions)? How about marinated fried and then stewed bear paws, or goroshnitsa, small rectangular dough pieces made with ground dries peas and flour and placed in a bowl with the fat from Angara River red fish poured over the top.
Rolling in Dough
If authentic Siberian delicacies like raw meat or fish or bear paws are not appealing, there are plenty of other options.
Gruzinchiki are fish rolls made with fish meat and onions, fried and placed on thin dough. The dough is wrapped around the filling and sliced, and the slices are fried and served with melted butter. Pelmeni is another classic dish but made with meat – two or three kinds of ground meat wrapped in a thin unleavened dough that are boiled. Meats include beef, lamb and pork.
Classic foods like pelmeni are indigenous foods. In such a harsh climate, where people had to live off what they could gather from the land, indigenous people mostly ate meat, fish, and berries. As people migrated to the region from other countries and regions, and settled into a wilderness life, they added a wider variety of ingredients, like fern and bird cherry, mushrooms, and vegetables. To this day, many Siberians (especially those living in remote areas) continue to follow recipes that use locally-sourced ingredients.
Some cultural foods also show a heavy influence of invaders over time. Buryat people on the east side of Baikal Lake have a Mongolian background so they serve green tea with milk and dumplings (pozy). Though no one knows for sure the origins of Siberian dumplings, it is believed the food came from China.
The authentic cuisine also reflects peasant life in other ways. Classic fare includes rich vegetable and meat stews, smoked or roasted fish (omul fish), grilled venison or other wild meat, and meat pies (pirozhki). Kasha is a porridge made from anything the cook wanted to boil. Siberians made tvorog (cottage cheese), and pickled mushrooms. Sauerkraut made from cabbage and carrots is a good snack that provides nutrients. Ukha fish soup is a clear soup made from fish and vegetables, with local herbs and plants used as seasoning. Hearty borscht soup is also found in many Siberian homes, and each home has its own unique recipe. Typical ingredients include cabbage, beet-root, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and perhaps pork and beef.
Put Siberia on the List
Of course, Siberians have a sweet tooth like everyone else, and berry pies are common. So are cookies (pechen'ya) and honey cake (prianik) and so much more. There are restaurants around the world serving Siberian recipes, but most likely you will have to visit Siberia to experience truly authentic food. It may not be on the top of a travel bucket list, but maybe it should be. Some places are just so different from the rest of the world, they are difficult to appreciate without personally experiencing it. Siberia is definitely on that list.