By Andreas Viestad
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
SCHUCH'YE, Western Siberia -- Of all the cowboy towns in this part of Siberia, this must be one of the roughest. When we ride our tractor into town, the first thing I see is a man with a gun next to a dead wolf. On a nearby field a group of men are showing off their lasso-throwing skills.
But of course it isn't a cowboy town. It is a reindeer town. Outside the one-story administration building, the parking lot is nearly filled with parked reindeer waiting restlessly for a racing competition to begin. Inside the building, the women of the village are having a fashion show; almost all the clothes are made from reindeer skins. In a large tent, generous portions of reindeer stew are being ladled out. Even the wolf is connected to the reindeer: It was killed only after having preyed on a flock of them.
Not many visitors come to this remote village on the Yamal Peninsula, north of the Polar Circle, several hours by tractor or snowmobile from the nearest road. And of those who do, few come for the cuisine, which has a reputation for being monotonous to the extreme. But I am attracted by the food and by a nutritional question: How come the people here, who for long periods eat nothing but the meat from one type of animal, are healthier than we are? It is what Patricia Gadsby, writing for Discover magazine about the somewhat similar diet of the indigenous people in Northern Canada and Greenland, called "the Inuit paradox."
In this case it would be the Nenet paradox. The Nenets, the indigenous reindeer-herding people of this part of Siberia, have a menu that sounds like just the opposite of what the doctor ordered: They eat reindeer meat, most of it raw and frozen. From September to May they eat very little else, apart from the odd piece of raw, preferably frozen, fish. One would think that this extreme protein- and fat-driven diet would lead to a lot of health problems -- obesity, cardiovascular diseases -- but the opposite is true.
"It is my experience that the further away you come from the city centers of the Arctic, the healthier people look," says Lars Kullerud, president of the University of the Arctic, a network of more than 100 universities and colleges. He researches the diets of the region's indigenous people.
Another hour or so away by reindeer sled, the connection between the land, the people and the diet is even more evident than in Schuch'ye. As the guest of Nicolai Laptander and his wife, Ustinia, I spend the night in a chum, a traditional tent made from reindeer skins not unlike a Native American tepee, where they live with their seven children. The children look extraordinarily healthy. And although the diet is a challenge, even for this omnivore, it is exceedingly clear that the Laptanders don't eat only the reindeer's meat; they eatjust about every part of the animal. To see an 8-year-old child reach for another piece of raw liver, then a helping of raw, frozen meat, then the marrow of a cooked bone, brings warmth and envy to any parent with a picky offspring. But it also tells a lot about the secret of the Nenet diet.
When we in the industrialized world discuss nutrition and health, the focus is often on balancing broad categories of food. A healthful diet, we are told, should consist of a good mix of grains, vegetables, fruits and fish and a moderate amount of red meat. But although that probably is the best rule where food of all types is plentiful, it is not really an option in the Arctic, especially not on the Siberian tundra.
Most of the meat we eat in the United States, as in most of the industrialized world, is farm-raised, often from animals that were bred especially for their ability to gain weight and that were raised, more often than not, in confinement. Game meat, such as reindeer or even the venison you can buy in the store, is quite different. It is not just more flavorful than beef and pork. It also is leaner and has a different fat structure.
For the most part, game meat has less fat than farm-raised meat, says Louw Hoffman, professor of meat sciences at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. And its fat contains a high proportion of unsaturated fatty acids, such as omega-6 and omega-3, which among other things help our immune system, he says.
Hoffman, a world-renowned specialist in game meat and an avid carnivore, is critical of the anti-meat sentiments that have become more prominent in recent years.
"Meat, both red and fish, contains all the required amino acids in the correct ratios," he says. "After all, we eat muscle to build muscle. In addition, it contains all the minerals; it is particularly a good source of highly bioavailable iron. We now know that in Europe, a large number of teenage girls that are vegetarian become anemic when they reach puberty."
Except for liver, most meat does not contain much Vitamin C. Still, scurvy is almost nonexistent in traditional Arctic cultures. That is because reindeer and other game meats contain higher levels of Vitamin C than do other meats, because the natives eat the liver, and because the natives' diet is supplemented with cloudberries and cranberries. The fact that much of the meat and the fish are eaten raw is also important.
"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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.