When the ground is frozen, there can be no fresh produce. A lot of Russian food is born of this frequent deprivation, as they are forced to abuse what ingredients they do have—pickled cabbage, hog fat, mayonnaise, dill. Small wonder that vodka is a constant companion to food. There is, however, at least one beautiful offspring of all this wintry want: Stroganina, frozen ribbons of fresh-water whitefish, a staple of the Russian arctic.
I ate this recently in Salekhard, the only city in the world that lies directly on the Arctic circle, at a restaurant called Fakel. The name means torch, but around here it refers to the pillars of fire released by flaring methane at the nearby oil fields. It was the fanciest restaurant in town, perched on top of a suspension bridge that, I was told, made it into the Guinness Book of Records for some reason.
One hint at the restaurant’s refinement was the sign on the door: “Entering the premises in a track suit or a state of intoxication is forbidden.” The coat check floor was lined with women’s snow boots, which the ladies shed at the door while changing into carry-around stilettos.
The stroganina was served up first, as a starter, in big icy bowls. Fakel’s stroganina is made from a fish called muksun, a native of the river Ob that is caught for nine months of the year—the winter months—through small holes bored through the ice layer. The fish freezes once out of the water (the air temperature was -25C when I was there in mid-March), then it is skinned and sliced into strips with a sharp blade, never getting a chance to melt until it is inside your mouth. That is the entire dish.
But the real magic comes from the fact that muksun is a fatty fish, releasing a kind of freshness which I can only describe as Arctic. The frozen flesh has a raspy texture on first bite, but that gives way to a fattier feel once it starts to melt, turning into something like good toro or salmon sashimi.
Stroganina, like caviar, is meant to be consumed with good vodka, as its equal. But unlike the salty pop of the fish eggs, the taste of stroganina isn’t sharp enough to interfere with the earthy flavor of a fine vodka. It may just be the best vodka chaser in the world. Period.
I had tried stroganina once before in Moscow, when I worked at the Reuters bureau. A news photographer had returned from Yakutiya, way up north, with a sackful of frozen fish that he proceeded to slice up in the lunch room. With good intentions, he followed the traditions of the deer herders of the Russian Arctic and mixed up a plate of salt and pepper—a kind of prehistoric soy sauce and wasabi. (The one at Fakel came with a pretty good garlic sauce to justify the price). But his fish had melted before it got into the lunch room’s freezer, and it had lost a lot of its life.
So if you want the real thing, go north yourself, drill a hole in the ice, catch a muksun and slice it up in the middle of the tundra. But do not forget to pack the accoutrements: salt, pepper, and above all, vodka.