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Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly said that Lars Kullerud, president of the University of the Arctic, researches the diets of the region's indigenous people. Others at his institution, a network of more than 100 universities and colleges, conduct such research.
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Where Home Cooking Gets the Cold Shoulder

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"Every time you process or cook something -- anything -- you are likely to be losing nutrients at every step," says Harriet V. Kuhnlein, professor of human nutrition at the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at McGill University in Montreal. "As long as this meat is still microbiologically safe, it is at its best raw or frozen fresh."

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In Alaska and northern Canada, modernization has led to a change of diet. Pollutants have affected the staple foods such as seal, and traditional foods have been replaced by fast food and cheap carbohydrates, resulting in an increase in obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

"The problems occur when the traditional diet is lost or meets competition from Western food," Kullerud says. "Because the first thing to reach these areas is not salad and fruit; it is the junk food."

This part of Siberia is one of the centers of the new Russian oil adventure, and with prosperity and the influx of hordes of specialists from the south comes change. But, at least for now, change seems to be coming at a slower pace. For one, the traditional staple foods -- reindeer and fish -- are lower on the food chain and thus less affected by pollutants than the seal meat eaten by North American Inuits. Also, newcomers seem to be embracing some of the traditional foods.

In Salekhard, the capital of the Yamal-Nenets autonomous region, the town's most fashionable restaurant, Beer-Line, is serving $12 pints of imported beer to well-heeled administrators, businesspeople and oil executives. It is what you would expect in a trendy boomtown bar almost anywhere in the world. However, the food gives the place away. Peanuts and chips are not to be seen; instead, giggling girls and rough prospectors alike are eating stroganina, a kind of Siberian sashimi: long, crisp shavings of frozen fish.

And at the home of Sergey Kharutsji, one of the region's most prominent politicians, his wife, Galina, and daughter, Oxana, serve up a diet not very different from that served in the chum: frozen reindeer meat, stroganina, raw reindeer liver and various other named and unnamed cuts. Oxana says that is what the family eats every day for most meals.

At first I think it might be a political statement, an effort to convince me that they are not too cut off from their people even though they live in a mansion in the middle of town. But later, when I go to fetch some boiling water from the stove, I notice something that convinces me she is indeed telling the truth: One look at the kitchen fan makes it obvious that no one has ever fried food in this house.

Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born," which was named best foreign cookery book in the 2008 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, can be reached at andreas@andreasviestad.com. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.


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