Siberian Sampler: Background information when reading Travels in Siberia

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Travels in Siberia

by Ian Frazier

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier X
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2010, 544 pages
    Sep 2011, 560 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Siberian Sampler

Print Review

Ian Frazier encounters a diverse range of Siberian foodstuffs on his journey, from the salmon he helps to catch in the Bering Sea off Chukotka, to the linty sausage he pulls out of his luggage time after time on a long train trip.  Here is a sampling of morsels from the culinary landscapes Frazier explores.

Ukha – A brief hop from Alaska, Frazier enjoys his first taste of wild-caught salmon on the other side of the Bering Strait.  When the fish start running, there are salmon steaks and a basic fish and potato soup called ukhaUkha is made all over Siberia with whatever local fish is at hand.  Russian soups are legendary; borshch is the more familiar combination of beets and cabbage (often flavored with dill) and should not be confused with shchi, which omits the beets and lays on the cabbage (or even sauerkraut).  Both borshch and shchi often contain meat, and seem incomplete without a generous dollop of sour cream on top.

Seal – A spotted seal becomes a special-occasion meal when boiled up with some pasta.  Frazier pronounces that "seal meat tastes like the beef of a cow fed on salmon."  The Yupiks of Chukotka, with whom Frazier is staying, are traditional seal hunters and salmon fishers.

Omul – On Lake Baikal, far to the south of Siberia, omul, a salmon relative, is the fish to try.  Frazier has it for the first time in Ulan-Ude, served with "a traditional Buryat dish called pozhe, which are dumplings stuffed with ground lamb and chopped wild onions."  Unfortunately, the omul of Lake Baikal have been seriously overfished.  The famous sturgeon that produce ossetra caviar are not doing so well either.  Lake Baikal is thought to be more than 25 million years old, making it the oldest lake on earth. It holds about 20% of the world's fresh water and is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, two-thirds of which are unique to the area - and it needs help.  According to the New York Times, when an Irkutsk environmental group began to criticize the government's decision to re-open a pollution-spewing paper plant on the shores of Baikal this year, the government suddenly decided to seize all the organization's computers for allegedly violating Microsoft's copyright. 

Butter – Who knew that the dairy cows of Siberia used to supply top-notch butter to Western Europe? Frazier tells us that, "The butter and ice cream of Siberia are the best I've tasted anywhere."  When Lenin lived in England in the early twentieth century, he found that the English were well acquainted with Siberian butter and cheese.

Tvorog so smetanoi – cottage cheese with sour cream.  This creamy combination is Frazier's fast-food of choice on the road in Siberia. It's easy to get, filling, and full of protein.  Frazier reports that he and his traveling companions begin to smell like sweaty, grown-up babies from all the dairy. He speculates that they probably smell a lot like Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde, who also subsisted on milk in all its forms.

Koumiss – fermented mare's milk, "the Mongol's favorite alcoholic beverage and a part of their court ceremonies." Frazier doesn't come across any koumiss, but he can imagine it.  He does discover that the descendents of the Mongols, the Buryats he meets in Ulan-Ude still eat horse meat as a regular part of their diet and use canned pony meat in a pinch. 

Salo – slabs of salted pork fat (or fatback), often eaten on bread. Frazier's guide Sergei thinks that if he chases the pork fat with hot tea, the fat will pass right through him.

Chai – black tea.  Russian tea is hot and strong, and sweet if possible.  The old-fashioned way to sweeten tea is with homemade jam.  At one particularly protracted tea-drinking session, Frazier gets to thinking about the role of tea in Russian life:  "I am thinking that Russians can sit at a supper table drinking tea and saying brilliant or ridiculous things longer than seems physically possible; further, this trait may explain Russia's famous susceptibility to unhealthy foreign ideas, with the postmealtime tea drinking providing the opportunity for contagion; and further yet, I am wondering whether tea perhaps has been a more dangerous beverage to the Russian mind, overall, than vodka."  In a civilized home, tea comes with zakuski, or snacks – dishes like pickled garlic, caviar on toast, or salted mushrooms.  Vodka and zakuski also go hand in hand.  In Frazier's telling, it's hard to tell what social nuance distinguishes vodka hospitality from tea hospitality.  Certainly it isn't time of day – one travel mate happily offers him a vodka pick-me-up first thing in the morning.

This article was originally published in November 2010, and has been updated for the September 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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