Eating to live in Siberia

I recently returned from four months living and studying in Irkutsk, a large, beautiful city in Eastern Siberia. Since I usually live and study in Ohio, it was quite a change. The most striking thing about travel is how you end up learning more about the place you left than the place you’re in. There were lots of cultural quirks that I didn’t even realize were uniquely American until they were suddenly gone. This was the case with the Siberian attitude toward food.

American food guilt is so pervasive, it almost never occurred to me that there could be a world without it. Just a glance at About-Face’s “food and eating” category reveals a complex relationship full of moral judgments. Magazine tips and advertisements advise us on how to eat more healthily, often for the purpose of losing weight. If we “eat well” (and look thin to prove it), we get to be superheroes. On the other hand, we need a weight-loss robot or a gaggle of teenagers to shame us when we don’t toe the line.

In Siberia, that entire culture of guilt and fear surrounding food simply does not exist. I am not a cultural anthropologist, but I believe the main reason is simply that the Siberian winter is too cold to diet through. In Irkutsk in January, it’s typical for the weather to reach -40ºF, and Irkutsk is considered one of the milder and more livable cities in the region. On one of my first days there, my host grandmother told me, “Eat up—the calories disappear in the cold.” I laughed, thinking it was a joke, the way an American friend might say “The calories don’t count if you eat it off someone else’s plate,” or “A cookie doesn’t count if you eat a piece of celery afterwards.” As it turned out, she was serious—and correct.

Throughout the winter, I ate less “healthily” than I had in years. I slathered butter on thick slices of black bread and melted cheese over pasta. I scooped sour cream onto cooked cabbage and ate mountains of potatoes fried in oil. Russian food is heavy, fatty, and greasy, and yet I lost weight because it was just so cold. I was constantly hungry, and that heavy food was the only way to get enough sustenance.

And not a single person ever made me feel bad about it. My host parents would tell me, “This tastes better with more sour cream.” They gave me big portions and encouraged me to eat more. I’m not thin, so I usually live in dread of the judgmental “Should you really be eating so much?” In Siberia, people were more likely to express concern that I wasn’t eating enough. In fact, my distaste for sugar and sweet things inspired nothing but confusion in my friends and family. (“You need to eat at least three spoonfuls of sugar a day,” a teacher told me gravely.)

Now that I’m back in the States, I’m still much more comfortable with food than when I left, but I can’t help but notice the food shame culture even more. In America, we often feel we have to justify unhealthy choices, saying, “Oh, I’ll have a cookie, but I worked out earlier so I deserve it.” In Siberia, if you like food, then you eat it, no questions asked. Not only was this a huge relief, but I can’t help but think that it’s easier to make healthy choices when no one is scrutinizing you. Imagine if the only reason you might choose an apple instead of potato chips isn’t that you’d feel guilty and ashamed for eating “wrong,” but because you’re making a personal choice for your own health. And that if you choose the potato chips anyway, no one would think anything of it. Isn’t that an idea worth exploring?


6 thoughts on “Eating to live in Siberia

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  1. In America, we see bad attiudes towards food because people feel they are entitled to pass judgement on others. Passing judgement is so unevolved and uncivilized. To pass judgement on others, especially on trivial things such as the foods they eat, shows a poverty of mind and spirit, a corruption of self, and reveals a human being stuck, someone who hasn’t transcended ego and reached the higher levels of consciousness. The Russians got it right. Life is a daily struggle, and survival takes precedence over other things. Other people’s nutrition should be the least of our concerns.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your story. Here in Houston we had a Russian restaurant called “Russian Bear” , but it closed down and I never got to experience Russian food. They say you can learn a lot about a culture and a people by their relationship with food. Personally, I love Italian food 😀

  2. Nah, go to Siberia for the stunning natural beauty, the mountains and lakes, the rich history, the freshwater seals, some of the world’s cleanest water, the sacred places revered by followers of old shamanic religions, the small ethnic groups and isolated languages and obscure cultures, the folk legends, the beautiful carved wooden houses, the 27-foot statue of Lenin’s head, and the friendly, hospitable people. But while you’re there, eat plenty of dumplings with sour cream!

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful response, Roberto. I wholeheartedly agree that our culture is far too quick to judge. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. I’m well-versed on the concept of Intuitive Eating – the healthy, normalized way to eat that sadly, most Americans are disconnected from. Sounds like that’s exactly what Siberians practice. I’m so envious … most Americans have to teach themselves to eat this way. If only we could all eat in this guilt-free style and follow our body’s cues, we’d likely have far fewer eating disorder issues and other “dieting” problems in this country. Thanks for sharing this valuable insight.

  5. Gosh, how do I get a ticket there? So SICK of everybody here jumping up on the self-righteous bandwagon about other peoples behaviour,,,,it really gets old! But a very good post,,,,no wonder all the Russian girls are so skinny!

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