This article invites the reader to join a culinary journey through Siberia in the 18th century in a company of ethnographers from Europe and the Russian Empire. For the Russian Empire, the 18th century was a time of great expeditions to explore the vast imperial territory that extended all the way to the Pacific. Explorers investigated flora and fauna, natural resources, and land and sea routes, but also the inhabitants of Siberia and their way of life. Relying on the documents from the Second Kamchatka Expedition, we will learn how the Europeans reacted to Siberian cuisine and what could be hidden behind their “disgust” at it.
Introduction: the ethnographic expedition as a culinary tour
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Metaphorically speaking, food is a language, or a cultural language. When someone travels to a foreign country or a new city for the first time, they are inevitably confronted with the language and dialects of the local cuisine. There is even a separate branch of tourism for gourmets – culinary tourism – which concentrates not on sightseeing, but on tasting local dishes and delicacies.
In a sense, the ethnographers who travelled through
Siberia
rus. Sibir, rus. Сиби́рь, deu. Sibirien

Siberia covers an area of 12.8 million square kilometers between the Urals, the Pacific Ocean, the North Polar Sea, China and Mongolia.The Russian conquest of Siberia began in 1581/82. At the time of the Enlightenment mainly a source of raw materials and space for trade with Asia, Siberia gained importance from the 19th century as a place for penal colonies and exiles. With the development of the Trans-Siberian Railway and steam navigation at the end of the 19th century, industrialization and thus new settlers came to Siberia. Further industrialization under Stalin was implemented primarily with the labor of Gulag prisoners and prisoners of war.

The map shows North Asia, centrally located Siberia. CIA World Factbook, edited by Veliath (2006) and Ulamm (2008). CC0 1.0.

in the 18th century were also culinary tourists. Although food practices and traditions were not the only objective of their exploration of Siberia, observing and documenting how and what the numerous ethnic groups consumed made up a significant proportion of their scientific work. Moreover, local culinary traditions played an important part in constructing a portrait of the indigenous population of Siberia: both of individual ethnic groups and of Siberia as a whole.
However, ethnographic fieldwork was not always purely intellectual: the researchers themselves ate the local food and did it not only out of their scientific interest but also for practical reasons. How was Siberian food perceived, and how was it consumed? What role(s) did food practices and descriptions in the expedition reports play for the production of a particular image of Siberia and its placement on the European and Russian mental maps? Moreover, what can these descriptios tell us about the authors and their everyday lives?
The Second Kamchatka Expedition and its Participants
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The Second Kamchatka Expedition, also known as the Great Northern Expedition, was one of the largest and earliest scientific expeditions through Siberia. Organized by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in
Sankt-Peterburg
rus. Leningrad, deu. Sankt Petersburg, eng. Saint Petersburg, rus. Ленингра́д, rus. Петрогра́д, rus. Petrograd

Saint Petersburg is a metropolis in the northeast of Russia. The city is home to 5.3 million people, which makes it the second largest in the country after Moscow. It is located at the mouth of the Neva River into the Baltic Sea in the Northwest Federal District of Russia. Saint Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and was the capital of Russia from 1712 to 1918. From 1914-1924 the city bore the name Petrograd, from 1924-1991 the name Leningrad.

, it lasted ten years, from 1733 to 1743.
An important feature of the expedition was its multicultural character. Not only did the large-scale expedition cover socially and ethnically diverse regions of the growing Russian Empire, but many expeditors themselves came from different European countries and spoke different languages – also when it came to food.
One of the most important expedition members was Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705–1783). The son of a Prussian pastor, at the age of 20 Müller moved to Saint Petersburg to take up a position at the Academy of Sciences that had recently been founded by Peter the Great. Two years later he was appointed leader of the academic group of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, which was to carry out a scientific and ethnographic investigation of Siberia.
European disgust around Siberian food
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The chapter on Siberian food and dietary habits In Müller’s Description of the Siberian Peoples opens with some unambiguous language. Müller writes that, in addition to the food that they share with Europeans, all the peoples of Siberia eat and even consider a delicacy something “which for us is an abomination”.1  This sentence contains three elements that are worth highlighting, since they also occur repeatedly in other documents from the expedition. The first is generalization: all the Siberian ethnic groups are thrown together, although many of them belonged to quite different religious, linguistic, and cultural communities. The second is the concept of disgust, which not only describes the physical and emotional reaction of the observer but also contains a warning to steer clear of something potentially dangerous. The final element is the comparison of “them” and “us.” Müller’s collective “we” forms the background against which the contours of the “other,” i.e. Siberia, are delineated. This collective “we” automatically includes the Russian political elite – to which Müller’s report is addressed – as well as the community of enlightened Europeans with which the author identifies. His description of Siberian food thus erases the symbolic border between Russia and Europe and creates a new one – between Europe and Siberia.
The motif of the natural European aversion from disgusting Siberian food can also be found in A Description of the Land Kamchatka by Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709–1746). Like Müller, Steller was a German employed by the Saint Petersburg Academy. Although he was a biologist, his book is rich in ethnographic descriptions of the groups that inhabited the peninsula. When he describes the preparation of selaga – a dish that the Itelmen, one of the indigenous groups on the 
Kamchatka
pol. Kamczatka, fra. Kamtchatka, rus. Камчатка, deu. Kamtschatka

Kamchatka Peninsula is located between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1996, is the largest peninsula in East Asia, and has regular volcanic activity. The indigenous peoples (for example, the Itelmen or the Koryaks) of the peninsula were almost completely wiped out by the Russian conquest.

, make from chopped berries and plants – Steller points out that they do not wash their hands before food preparation. From this he concludes that “merely watching this procedure is enough to make one want to vomit”.2  Here Müller and Steller are speaking as representatives of Europeans in general, and their negative reaction refers not only to this dish of Itelmen cuisine, but also to the manner in which it is prepared and to the Itelmen lifestyle in general. The implied assumption thereby is that European taste is more refined and cultivated than that of the Siberian indigenous inhabitants. In making this assessment, both authors elevate European civilization as a whole above the inferior, uncultivated Siberian culture and its “impure” food.
Other than dirt, what was it about Siberian food that disgusted the European researchers? Often it was an unpleasant smell, particularly of foods that went through fermentation.
Stepan Krascheninnikow (1711–1755), a Russian student and member of the expedition, described the preparation of sour fish in Kamchatka as follows: “The most prized dish on Kamchatka is sour fish, known as huigul, which they prepare in pits in the same way as sour caviar. One may justifiably claim that there is no smell more foul, but the people of Kamchatka find the odour fragrant”.3  Observations that a particular dish that is not very tasty from the travellers’ point of view is considered a delicacy by the natives are quite common in the scholars’ reports. At least this indicates an awareness that cultural differences were a matter of taste.
Some of the travellers were slightly less open to different perceptions of taste and smell. In his ethnographic work, A Description of the Siberian Peoples, another member of the expedition, Jakob Lindenau (1700–1795), went as far as to compare the houses of the Koryaks – another group of indigenous people in Kamchatka – with the flames of hell, since “the stink of bacon, fat, grease, and urine [was] indescribable”.4  The reference to hell is no coincidence. It shows how significant religious convictions were in the evaluation of foreign cultures.
Are you a believer? Religion and perceptions of food
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Siberian as well as European food traditions and their perceptions were closely bound up with religious beliefs and taboos. Precepts and prohibitions concerning food play a decisive role in almost all religions in deciding what is a good, godly lifestyle. This, in turn, helps to assess the reward or punishment someone might receive when they die. Lindenau, however, transposes the Koryaks to a (Christian) hell while they are still alive, and equates their home environment, lifestyle, and food with death and eternal suffering.
A significant part of the food descriptions is concerned with different food taboos and the religious rituals that are associated with the consumption of particular foods. The reports describe each indigenous ethnic group, which animals or plants are excluded from their diet, and for what reasons. For example, a particular animal may be seen as ritually impure or sacred. However, these food rules are usually dismissed as unexplained prejudices and superstition, and in many cases, the scientists take them as signs of the irrationality and cultural backwardness of the Siberian peoples.
In contrast to indigenous religious beliefs associated with food, indigenous medical knowledge was often considered by researchers as practical and beneficial and therefore held in significantly higher esteem. Particularly Steller, who was interested in botany and medicine, often describes the uses and beneficial effects of particular plants or animals. Thanks to the knowledge about the medical and pharmacological properties of plants that he acquired from the inhabitants of Siberia, Steller was able to save himself and a proportion of the ship’s crew from scurvy and starvation on the sea voyage to Alaska.
Descriptions of food – a whole cabinet of curiosities
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Since the researchers took European and Christian food standards as their benchmark, they sometimes overlooked common features, focusing instead on what was different and unfamiliar. It is no coincidence that the whole chapter on food in Müller’s A Description of the Siberian Peoples is almost entirely devoted to those dishes that “are an abomination to us.” In fact, the chapter resembles a cabinet of curiosities: a collection of oddities and peculiarities from the world of food. The list of “special Siberian delicacies” thus includes horse meat and milk, carrion, raw offal, placentas, blood and various wild animals – in other words, everything that emphasized the difference to and the cultural distance from Müller’s own eating habits.
This accentuation contributed significantly to the construction of an image of the Siberian native people that is clichéd, making them a canvas for everything that is other, exotic, and foreign. It went far beyond the drawing of a symbolic border or an implied cultural hierarchy between Europe and Siberia. Eating is not only a cultural but also a biological practice. Differences in food traditions and eating habits were cited repeatedly as factors that would explain the differences in the physical and spiritual development of those societies, as compared to researchers’ own.
“Civilization” and “Barbarization” through the stomach
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The differences in diet affected literally everyone who experienced intercultural contact on the expedition. Unlike many other traditions and customs, food could cross the physical boundaries of the body and change a person from the inside out. In 18th century Europe, this capacity of food to change not only a person’s body and health but also their character was known as the theory of the humours. Eating was not seen as merely a cultural or even purely biological practice, but as something that could influence the spiritual and intellectual life of a person and, by extension, the whole of society.
Eating and food also determined social status and could have a decisive influence on social advancement or relegation. In Siberia, social advancement was expected to result from the Russification or Christianization of everyday culture and eating habits. Conversely, social relegation was also possible, presumably, if representatives of a higher level of civilization suddenly began to consume the food of the indigenous peoples of Siberia.
In the expedition reports, for example, the abolition of gluttony – still one of the seven deadly sins – is cited as one of the positive influences of Christendom on Siberian eating habits. Steller describes the Itelmen customs prior to their contact with Christian-Russian culture: “In the past, these people never adhered to particular mealtimes, other than the occasional festive meal. Due to their voracity, they ate all day long, whenever they had the time or the inclination to do so”.5  Similarly, Müller relates how the Ostyaks (one of the native peoples of Kamchatka), at the River Keti, “ate everything except stoats, martens, polecats, rats, and mice […] before the baptism”.6 
Conversion to Christianity was not always successful. Sometimes elements of Christian life were adapted to local requirements in the most unexpected ways. Krascheninnikow reports how the Ostyaks “used Russian icons as cutting boards for fish and lids for milk”.7  This was naturally not a positive assessment of Ostyak inventiveness but a criticism of their ignorance and incompetence.
However, the adoption of eating habits could also have the opposite effect and become an inadvertent medium for barbarization and de-civilization. According to the expedition reports, this seems to have happened to a group of Europeans – the Cossacks – who settled in Siberia and were employed as colonial administrators by the Tsar. Krascheninnikow reports that Cossack lifestyle on Kamchatka was almost indistinguishable from that of the native population, since they both “ate roots and fish and did the same work”.8  The Cossacks were held up as a warning against the possible “barbarizing” and de-civilizing consequences of the local diet. In the reports, the descriptions of Cossacks and Siberian indigenous groups are strikingly similar: both contain expressions of disgust, both represent risks to the European body and soul. This way of addressing their readers was also used by the scientists to clearly distance themselves from the objects of their investigation and to keep their Europeanness and civility spotless and unquestioned.
Once bitten, forever smitten: the food of the expedition members
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In practice, however, it was not always possible to steer clear of food that appeared to be so alien and hazardous. Although there is little mention in the expedition’s ethnographic reports of what sustained the bodies and souls of the scientists, there are still a few indications that help to find it out. For example, Steller writes, tongue-in-cheek, about Kamchatka: “People here eat things that would not be considered food in other places.” At the same time, he admits that in an emergency this knowledge could save him from starvation: “Now I no longer fear starving after a bad harvest, since I have learnt what one can use to fill an empty stomach in times of need”.9 
Then again, in other places Steller readily admits that, far from being the last choice in an absolute emergency, Siberian dishes and their plant and animal ingredients can actually be very tasty. For example, he describes a dish from Kamchatka made from fish stomach that has been frozen and stored in the ground. Here he unexpectedly adds, “this dish is usually offered to guests, including me, and it does not taste bad at all”.10 
Even if one has to look for them, the expedition reports contain plenty of these passages about enjoyable dishes, vegetables, and meat, which taste pleasant even to travellers from the far west. In order to avoid any misunderstanding by the readers in the European homelands, and to preserve the beautiful impression of European superiority, they are confined to incidental remarks. The focus of the culinary expedition reports on Siberian cuisine was kept squarely on what, in their eyes, would be the more nauseating, peculiar examples.
Despite all the heavily emphasized differences and the feelings of disgust and rejection that run like a motif through the reports, and which only served to reinforce the writers’ own sense of cultural superiority, one thing is certain: regardless of all the apparent and attributed differences with their Siberian hosts, the researchers sat around a table with them, and thus began to learn, at least in a small way, to speak the culinary language of Siberia.
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English translation: Kate Sotejeff-Wilson

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