Siberia, a land of rain, snow and ice where the annual average temperature is a glorious −5C. Even at this time of year the Siberian mercury rarely climbs above 20, thanks to the mainly continental subarctic climate of this vast, barren region of Russia.
Extending eastward from the Ural Mountains to the watershed between the Pacific and Arctic drainage basins, and southwards from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan and the national borders of Mongolia and China, Siberia is roughly 13 million square kilometres. Just 33 million people inhabit the region, making it one of the least populated places on the planet.
Cold and still, even the name is said to originate from the Siberian Tatar word for ‘sleeping land’. For millennia, it was home only to nomadic groups but by the 1930s, Siberia was full on labour camp territory: over half a million prisoners in Gulag camps died from food shortages caused by World War II.
Today, that’s less of an issue although, outside the main cities (Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Vladivostok, Omsk and Tomsk), residents still tend to rely on hunting, shooting, and fishing for much of their fare. Venison is pretty popular, and enjoyed boiled, fried, stewed or dried, often served up as strips fried in cowberry sauce and sprinkled with ground black pepper and juniper berries.
Fish dishes are a favourite almost everywhere, thanks to the region’s surfeit of lakes and rivers. Stroganina consists of slices of finely chopped frozen fish seasoned with salt, spices, onion and vinegar and enjoyed raw; zagutai is made of finely cut fish fillet layered with onion and pepper, brined, canned, and covered in vegetable oil; and raskolotka usually consists of whitefish which has been frozen and beaten with a hammer, before it’s skinned an eaten.
But perhaps the most exotic Siberian dish of all is bear paw stew. Real bear paws! Cut into chunks, and then marinated, fried, stewed and served piping hot – usually with any veggies or berries to hand, and excess amounts of vodka to make the whole thing more palatable.