My guide to the local food around Baikal Lake
The history of Russia led to the amalgamation of different cuisines of local peoples of this vast country and the European one. The Soviet times brought new dishes or simplified the refined food of the Russian empire. For example, the famous olivier salad, which nowadays has simple ingredients, contained caviar, crayfish and hazel grouse meat. Quite a simplification, if you ask me 🙂
Siberia, due to its harsh winters, has its own set of food which is usually filling and meat here is one of the main ingredients.
So, in addition to already famous Russian soups like borscht, rassolnik, okroshka and schschi, salads like olivier, vinegret, herring in the coat and buckwheat with beef Stroganoff, here is a list of local food around Baikal that you have to try.
1. Siberian pelmeni
I bet you have heard about pelmeni: they must be as famous as borscht. Pelmeni are ground meat wrapped in thin dough and boiled in water or stock. Usually they are small, about 3-4 centimeters in diameter. The dish is very popular not in Russia only, but outside the country as well. In Moldova, my country, we love pelmeni dearly, and in the post-Soviet countries they are considered a bachelor’s food. Don’t get me wrong, the home made ones take hours to make, but frozen pelmeni are sold in almost every supermarket. The rest is easy: boil them in water and you have a filling dish.
So, if pelmeni can be eaten everywhere, what is so special about the Siberian ones? Traditionally, the Siberian pelmeni must be made with at least 3 types of meat. Many-many years ago, when hunting was popular, locals used to put bear or elk meat in pelmeni. Nowadays it is beef, pork, chicken or mutton. And the meat wasn’t minced, but chopped into small pieces. They didn’t add a lot of spices, and pelmeni should have been served without stock.
I am pretty sure that these traditions aren’t preserved. For example, the pelmeni I ordered came with stock 🙂 But in Siberia you just must eat Siberian pelmeni 🙂
Interesting fact: pelmeni were a popular food during long trips in cold Siberian weather. People would just grab a bag of them and go. This is one of the reasons that they added ice to meat.
Buuz is another type of dumplings. It comes from Buryat cuisine, and considering that almost half of Baikal Lake is territorially a part of Buryatia, buuz is very popular in the region.
Buuz or pozy are much bigger than pelmeni, about 6-8 centimeters in diameter. There is no unanimity when it comes to type of meat used, usually it is beef and pork but some might add horse meat as well. Again, the meat is chopped, not minced. Unlike pelmeni, where the filling is covered completely with dough, here the dough isn’t pinched till the end, so there is a small round opening on top. Apparently, pinching is quite challenging 🙂
Buuz is steamed then, not boiled. And before you sink your teeth into it, make a small bite, drink the meat juice and eat the dumpling after. It is yummy!
Useful info: buuz is extremely popular in the region, so there are small cafes specializing in it. If you see somewhere written Позная (Poznaya), it is one of these places.
Sagudai or sugudai is a local variety of raw salted fish dish. The most important thing is to use the right fish, which in this case are local whitefish or muksun. Fish is then cut into pieces, salted, peppered, layered with onion and drenched in a bit of oil. Some add vinegar, lemon or cranberry juice. But, as someone duly noted: ‘Lemons in Siberia?’ So, cranberry juice seems to be a better choice. Usually the fish is ready to be eaten in 20 minutes.
This concept isn’t entirely foreign for me, and for many people who have ever had salted herring, so I considered it safe. Frankly, it is delicious!
4. Smoked omul: the king of local food around Baikal
I guess omul is the most famous fish around Baikal 🙂 It is endemic to the region, and smoked omul is a true Baikal delicacy.
Before I went to Baikal, I had heard that one can find omul everywhere, and that there are babushkas selling it at train stations. Well, I didn’t see an abundance of omul. Frankly, at one point I even thought that I wouldn’t get to try it as I couldn’t find it in Irkutsk. It is possible that I just went to wrong places.
I bought smoked omul on the train during the Circum-Baikal railway tour. The train attendant sold them and beer, so I bought a smaller one. It cost me 150 RUB, or 2,1 EUR. But I have to say then when I went to Listvyanka, a village right at the shore of Baikal, I saw plenty of omul at the local fish market close to the nerpinarium.
At the same fish market in Listvyanka you can get another endemic fish, golomianka. My guide to Tazheran Steppe told me I should definitely try it. It is much smaller, and is almost transparent, so you will recognize it immediately 🙂 To my surprise, golomianka was quite expensive: one small fish cost 150 RUB, just like the omul I bought in the train. Frankly, I don’t think many locals go to this market, so the price is, naturally, high. I didn’t buy golomianka in the end, I thought that omul was enough 🙂
Omul is quite a fat fish, after all, it comes from the salmon family. It is either kept in salted water or just salted before smoking. The result is a fat salty smoked fish that goes really well with beer. As I don’t drink alcohol, I had it with bread 🙂
5. Hagberry cake
If you think that hagberry cake got its name because hagberry jam is added to the cream, prepare for a revelation 🙂 Nope, the cream is usually made of sour cream (sorry for the tautology) but the flour is the most interesting part of this cake. It is made from the berries themselves: they are dried first and then ground.
The cake is delicious, but, naturally, has a specific taste. I could feel the tiny bits of hagberry grinding when I chewed it 🙂
Still, it is an interesting experience, and, despite hagberry being widespread, you can find this cake in Siberia only.
6. Herbal tea
I love tea, and I had the best tea on the shore of Baikal in Listvyanka.
The region is famous for its rich vegetation which includes multiple herbs and berries. These herbs and berries have beneficial effects, so no wonder they are used in tea brewing. Fireweed is a kind of legendary herb here, alongside with thyme and St John’s wort. Then mint, camomille, lemon balm, cowberry, cranberry, blueberry, etc., grow freely here and make fantastic tea.
The tea I had was extremely good. I asked the waitress about the herbs used, but she said it was their chef’s secret 🙂 So, just trust the locals and drink it 🙂 And in many places it comes with honey, not sugar.
7. Buryat tea
Well, Buryat tea isn’t your ordinary tea. Unlike the foods I mentioned above I didn’t try this one: it sounded too peculiar.
The brewing starts as usual: one boils tea, whether black or green, in water. The interesting part comes after: then the locals melt butter in a frying pan, add flour and milk to it, and then pour the resulting liquid in the tea. Then the tea is salted and poured out into cups.
There might be differences in technology of brewing, but the ingredients are pretty much the same. The result is a filling drink that is quite logical to consume during cold and harsh Siberian winters.
If you have ever tried any of these foods, I would appreciate your impressions in comments.
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