Exotic Baikal Fish, or How Bears Taught Buryats to Cook Omul
© Photo: Key To Baikal
November, 18

Exotic Baikal Fish, or How Bears Taught Buryats to Cook Omul

We tell you about the way the indigenous people of Baikal prefer to eat omul, and teach you to cook fish with a “high flavor”. Yes, you get it right, we mean it, and the ancient Buryats borrowed this recipe from...bears.

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A unique “trademark” of Baikal and Baikal cuisine is omul (Baikal cisco) - a small fish from the whitefish family. There is an inaccurate belief that this species can be found only in this great lake. No, omul is found in many Siberian rivers and in the coastal zone of northern seas. Another thing is that the fans of gastronomic specialties prefer the taste of Baikal omul, believing that the “flair” of the fish is explained by its habitat - extraordinarily pure Baikal water.

Moreover, there is a legend that omul flesh has unique properties that can cure any serious illness. For this, one should just touch the patient’s lips with the tail of a freshly caught fish.

Which Kind of Omul do Indigenous Residents of the Baikal Region Prefer?

The residents of the Baikal region who have a good knowledge of fish prefer salted omul best of all; it can be prepared in the two most common ways. The first one is the so-called “peasant” version and the second is fermentation. In the first case, the gutted fish is salted; in the second case the whole headed fish is used.

The most refined taste, according to gourmets, belongs precisely to the salted unpicked omul “with a high flavor”; its flesh has the most delicate consistency and an extremely unusual smell, which many people simply call “rotten”.

But this uniqueness of fragrance is the very sign of a delicious dish. The main thing here is to know when to stop to get omul with namely “high flavor”.

It is believed that in ancient times this kind of salted fish was a kind of cure for scurvy for the indigenous population of the coast.

The properties of fermentation are used not only for cooking fish dishes. We should remind you that fermentation is the process of changing food by microorganisms when their enzymes destroy the constituent elements of a food product. When people ferment cabbage for the winter or cook any sour-milk product, this is also fermentation, but, of course, without an obvious rotten smell.

All residents of the Baikal region know about “omul with a high flavour”, but this dish is not very common, because many perceive it as a spoiled product, with a horrible smell and flesh falling from the bones.

“Fragrant” Dishes Around the World

Exotic Baikal Fish, or How Bears Taught Buryats to Cook Omul

Fish dishes with a specific smell are not only a Baikal invention. They are valued and considered a decent delicacy in many countries.

One of the common delicacies in Sweden is the famous “surströmming” – fermented herring. The recipe of its preparation that is connected with saving salt is pretty similar to cooking Baikal omul “with a high flavour”. There is also a Vietnamese version of “nuok mam” sauce made from the anchovies fermented in a barrel.

On top of all other things, this kind of food is considered useful from a medical point of view, because it protects blood vessels from atherosclerosis and reduces blood pressure.

Bear’s Recipe

The bear has always been considered a spirit animal of the indigenous peoples of the Baikal region - the Buryats and Evenks (Tunguses). Therefore, it is often claimed that there is a direct relationship between the eating habits of bears and the Buryat recipes of cooking fish.

When a bear has a successful fishing, it never eats the catch right away. The animal puts its catch into a pit, covers it with branches and waits for the rotten small to appear. And the Buryats of Lake Baikal who have been eating fish according to the “bear’s recipe” generation after generation, could not even imagine that this kind of fish would once be considered a masterpiece of gastronomy!

There is a traditional Buryat technology for making “fragrant” omul that has not changed at all until present day. The “correct” omul “with a high fragrance” is prepared only in a barrel. Gutted washed fish is slightly salted, placed in prepared containers, and then the barrel is buried in the ground or left in a cold cellar. In spring this fish already has not only an extremely unpleasant smell, but also a unique taste, and is fully ready for use.

Of course, cooking on such an industrial scale is absolutely unnecessary for one family today. Moreover, today it is difficult to catch fresh omul in Baikal in a legal way, due to the ban on this kind of fishing. However, there is an alternative.

How to Cook Fish with a “High Fragrance”

You will need fresh fish - pike, dace, grayling, whitefish, and Siberian roach. You can use one fish or several species, depending on your wish.

Large fish should be gutted,  then remove the gills and cut the flesh into pieces (an optional requirement).

You should take coarse-ground salt, but in such amount to make slightly salted fish. The fish is placed in a container selected for salting and storage (a pan, a bucket, a flask...) and pressed by a weight.

The container with fish is put into a room (a porch, a storeroom, a shed) with air temperature ranging from 15 ° to 20 ° C and is kept there for 2-3 days. During this time, salt solution is released and the fish acquires a very unusual fragrance.

After that you can put the container in the cellar with air temperature ranging from 0 to + 1 ° C, thus the fish continues to accumulate its peculiar smell. But if there is no such possibility, you can put the fish in the freezer.

There is also a very simple recipe if you just want to try this exotic dish. Gut the omul trunk, gently pour some coarse salt on it, wrap it in parchment or simply oil-soaked paper and leave it in the refrigerator (but not in the freezer!). The fish is also fermented under such conditions!

Feel free to toy around with these recipes. Enjoy your meal!

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