December 01, 2019

Milk Foam Pancakes is Only the Beginning


Milk Foam Pancakes is Only the Beginning

“Would 4pm be OK to speak?” I ask Tuyara, and only then Google the time difference, which is a shocking 6 hours. Over 8000 kilometers, or 5 days by train, it feels like Yakutsk is on a different planet compared to Moscow. That feeling is confirmed when I look at images of Yakutia, which show stunning, otherwordly landscapes.  Russia’s biggest republic has 3 time zones, and is bigger than the country of Argentina. It even has a second (or first, actually) name: Sakha.

Tuyara and Yakut Bread
Tuyara and lepyoshki, made of locally sourced wheat flour.

Yakutia is famous for its very cold winters, the coldest for inhabited areas anywhere (Moscow’s occasional -20˚C pales by comparison): -40˚ to -70˚ (-40˚ to -94˚) in the very north of the region. Yet summers are pretty hot, too, and can get to +30˚ (86˚ F), even if not for a long time. A place of stunning beauty and people who, as a Soviet anecdote goes, are happy with whatever nature seems to be doing, rain or snow, hail or shine. Yakuts also seem to be very proud of their land, and feel a special connection to it. Tuyara, who works at a Yakutsk historical park called “Rossiya - moya istoriya” (Russia - My History) shared her story:

"My grandmother was an amazing cook," Tuyara said, "She used to make all sorts of traditional Yakut dishes for my sister and me when we were little. I remember tasting salamat [a rich meal of sour cream, cream, and flour with some herbs, usually served on special occasions] for the very first time and being blown away. My mom never made it. As it turned out, she just didn’t know how."

Tuyara also remembered her grandmother making sour cream, cottage cheese, butter, and even blood sausages, and her grandfather lovingly making studen’ (meat aspic) - a process that would take the whole day. Tuyara also describes the taste of kumis (a fermented dairy product made of mare’s milk) as the joy of their summer days. She says that she inherited her grandparents’ love and appreciation for traditional meals: lepyoshki (flat breads), waffles, oladyi, and much more. 

While Tuyara’s grandparents spent much of their days cooking for their grandchildren, her mom, the head of the dom kultury (Soviet culture center), would organize a yearly dairy and meat fair. Women from villages around Yakutsk would bring their produce and the meals made from it. Tuyara remembers women who could make 20 different dishes from a horse’s tail!

These childhood memories are the reason Tuyara’s become a presenter at the Yakutsk museum, restoring old Yakut recipes, a lot of which were forgotten and lost during the Soviet period. It wasn’t just the recipes that were forgotten: Tuyara was sad to mention that even the main holiday Yhyakh (a summer holiday dedicated to a goddess Ayii, celebrated in June-July with feasts, kumis-drinking, dancing, games, and horse racing)  wasn’t celebrated for about a decade in the 80s. 

Tuyara cooking outdoors
Tuyara at an outdoor cooking demonstration.

Modern Yakuts, however, are eager to bring back old traditions. Weddings are celebrated with kumis, not alcohol, Yhyakh is widely celebrated, people wear traditional clothes and dance the traditional dance, and Tuyara’s museum plays no small part in bringing back forgotten flavors.

Generally, Yakut cuisine is based on local seasonal produce, with no added flavors. Summer is rich with berries (in the past, they would be stored in birch baskets with melted butter poured over the top to seal out the air). Fish and dairy are also popular, along with game, since Yakuts were traditionally hunters. 

The museum started its program of bringing back old recipes last year. Someone milled flour using old grindstones, and that inspired the whole project. They have since made pancakes from milk foam (picture those very thin fiddly layers and how much dedication they require), bear’s paws, seabass’ tongue, clay baked fish, and blood porridge. 

"It’s warmed up today," said Tuyara at the end of our conversation, "Negative 26. You must come visit. We live on a very special land that our ancestors knew how to love and appreciate. And we have a saying that, if you come for a week, you will get a month’s worth of hospitality."

I might wait for those hot July days to visit, but in the meantime, you can watch some Yakut meals being made here.

You're certain to also fall in love with the landscapes.

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