Siberian Potatoes

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Siberian wrestlers, 1901

A problem with reconstructing diets from the past is that people often forget to fathom the amount of information and cultural diversity that has been lost. Lost to cultural change, to habitat change, or simply to nature's rising oceans or lava flows. 

Often you only have pale glimpses of what was lost in the form of archeological remains or the writings of passing travelers who probably did not realize that they were witnessing things that few can even imagine today. 

When most people today think of the arctic or an ice age, they think of people clad in skins subsisting on wooly mammoth. But the truth is that arctic peoples of the past and of today rely on a huge variety of plants as well. I have written about the excellent book called Plants That We Eat, which describes the amazing and diverse plant foods of the Inuit. Most of their plant foods were leaves and berries, but they also collect tiny roots from the stores of mice, which provide a small amount of starch.

Turns out that further-south Arctic cultures in the past probably exploited starches more extensively. In Siberia they called the starchy bulbs of flower "sarana", but as this interesting paper shows, the word probably applies to several types of flower bulbs, mainly in the Lilly (Liliaceae) family. 

Like John D. Speth's excellent book, the paper relies extensively on sources written in German, many of which have not yet been translated to English. I was already aware of the use of lily bulbs among the Native Americans of North America, but was not aware that Siberians ate them as well. 

Apparently, sarana was eaten by many Siberian tribes:  Shor, Tofalar, Tuva, Altai, Buryat, Selkup, Itelmen, Aleut, Evenki, Ket, and Khanti are mentioned in the paper. Of course, all these different peoples had very different lifestyles. Some like the Buryat and Evenki are nomadic pastoralists and others like the Itelmen and Aleut are closer to hunter-gatherers. Use of sarana varied in different regions. It was a staple in some and more of a treat in others. 

The accounts of travelers in the area mention that sarana was:

  • used to make spiced milk puddings
  • dried and used to make flour for "bread"
  • mixed with animal fat and stuffed into intestines to make a type of sausage for journeys
  • dried and stored for the winter
  • made into a thick porridge
  • boiled and "eaten like rice"
  • dried and put into fish and meat stews
  • packed into fish flour dough and fried or made into pancakes
  • steamed and served with berries
  • cooked and served whole with fish or birds
  • used as offerings to spirits alongside spruce and labrador tea

It was mainly gathered by women, who made special tools to dig it out. When it was too cold to dig it out, they could also find large high-quality stores in vole (or other rodent) nests, making sure to leave something in return so that the voles would survive the winter and be able to harvest again next year. Georg Wilhelm Steller, who witnessed this in the 1700s, noted that it resembled a form of trade.

Sarana bulbs could also be steamed and served with berries. According to Krasheninnikov this was the best and foremost dish in Kamchatka. In his view, it was “both sweet and sour at the same time” and it filled the stomach well. “It can be consumed every day, which makes one almost forget the lack of bread”,
says Krasheninnikov (1819: II: 314)... The taste of cooked sarana has been compared to sweet or baked chestnut. Adolph Erman found the taste of sarana delicious. He describes sarana bulbs as excellent food (Erman 1848: III: 161). According to Karl von Ditmar, who calls it “pagan food”, the taste is similar to potato… Bread did not belong to the traditional diet of northern Eurasia. Ditmar correctly observed that the local people did not even miss bread. Bread was (and still is) in comparison extremely important in the European diets and was only partly replaced by potatoes in the 19th century. The lack of bread, potatoes and other familiar food seems to have bothered many of the travellers in Siberia. They were not capable of enjoying the local diet except for some dishes. The boiled bulbs of sarana and other plants were seen as more or less exotic, “pagan”, disgusting, strange or, in rare cases, surprisingly tasty. In general the travellers held a distanced attitude towards local food, which made them unable to correctly estimate the significance of sarana for the Kamchatkan diet.

In many areas of Siberia, game is pretty low in fat. If you've ever tried to eat mainly fish and lean game, it's very much understandable why sarana was so worth the trouble. 

It's also understandable why such traditions have died out, as there are many flower bulbs that are quite poisonous and gathering them was probably a skill passed down through the generations.  

Unfortunately, many traditions like these died out before people could really study them, which is a real shame. I've met arctic people who believe that wheat bread is a "traditional" food. But the remnants cast skepticism on the idea that arctic or ice age diets were just a bunch of big game.