It’s June in the town of Dudinka in northern Siberia, 90 kilometres from Norilsk. A stormy wind is blowing from the Yenisei, worming its way under our jackets and trying to extinguish our fire on the riverbank. A small boat rocks on the slate grey waves. Alyu Chunanchar, a member of the Nganasan tribe, lays out several large whitefish before us, produces a homemade knife with a deer antler handle and with deft movements begins to cut up the catch. The whitefish is gutted in under a minute and the slippery, silvery scales are borne away by the river. It is chopped into pieces and the soft, delicate pink flesh sprinkled with salt crystals. Spring onion is heaped generously onto a plate.
This is how the small indigenous tribes of the Taimyr Peninsula – the Nganasans, Dolgans, Nenets, Evenks and Enets – prepare sugudai, one of the most famous fish dishes of Siberia.
There is a widespread assumption that Siberian cuisine is nothing more than blini, pelmeni, vodka and tea from the samovar. But this doesn’t scratch the surface of the truth: Siberian cuisine is a gastronomic puzzle with a complex history. On the one hand, it’s the cuisine of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, whose diet was always based on meat, and occasionally fish. On the other hand, it’s a peasant cuisine, rich in vegetables, mushrooms, berries and plants like bird cherry and fern.
During the 17th century, Russian aristocratic cuisine, with its hazel grouse and partridge dishes, complex fish stews and elegant desserts began to make its way over the Urals — adorning the tables of the wealthy, from merchants to gold miners. In 20th-century Siberia, like the rest of the Soviet Union, you could expect to be served Communist classics like oliviye or herring in a fur coat salads.
People in cities have almost no contact with the the taiga and its rivers
Today, it feels as if authentic Siberian cuisine has never been more remote. In local restaurants you are more likely to get spaghetti carbonara or a burger than Yenisei fish pie or wild garlic salad. Even in big cities like Novosibirsk or Krasnoyarsk, it’s difficult to find Siberian specialities: northern fish like muksun, nelma and broad whitefish, fresh venison and partridge, mushrooms and berries. This isn’t really a surprise.
But some young Siberians are trying to connect with their culinary traditions. There are small enterprises making honeysuckle, bilberry and pinecone jams. Others sell ground bird cherry, which is used in pies. The restaurant business is losing no time either: chefs, looking at Siberia’s culinary past and taking into account the palettes of foreign travellers, are inventing new dishes made with local products, or adding classics like porcini mushroom soup or sugudai to their menus.
In my family we love fish, so I try to adapt Siberian fish dishes in my kitchen
Strangely, Siberian sugudai didn’t begin life as a dish in the traditional sense. Before the 20th century, the Taimyr indigenous peoples would catch fish, gut it, chop it up and eat it raw as a snack before dinner, which would usually be boiled venison. They didn’t even salt the fish as Alyu and his family do today — back then salt was brought to the Far North by merchants and was very expensive.
The sugudai you find in cities these days is made by indigenous people or lovers of local products like me. It still consists of the same raw fish — but is seasoned with salt and pepper and garnished with spring onion. Restaurants can also add basil, dill, vinegar and other sauces.
I can’t always get good quality, fresh northern fish to make sugudai — it has to be in season, and is much more expensive than salmon or trout. But I do make sugudai whenever I can so that I can feel Siberia on the tip of my tongue and be transported back to the banks of the Yenisei with my friend Alyu. There are more and more of us local cuisine lovers today, and this gives me hope that Siberian food will soon cease to be an exotic luxury for the people who live here.