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The Lily Porridge of the Stamp Makers

March 07, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scores of ethnic groups live in Siberia, but about the only one many Americans know of is the Tuvas. Stamp collectors know them because Tannu Tuva, which was an independent nation from the '20s until Stalin swallowed it up in 1943, issued handsome, oddly shaped postage stamps. People who haunt the international music sections of record stores know the Tuvas for their mastery of "throat singing," an eerie technique of producing two notes octaves apart at the same time.

But let's cut to the chase: What do they eat?

Traditionally the Tuvas herded sheep, horses and reindeer. (They actually saddled reindeer and rode them like horses; Santa Claus, take note.) So they ate a lot of yogurt and dried yogurt and the sort of "cheese" made in this part of Asia by curdling milk and boiling it. They also hunted and fished, using horsehair nets and birchbark hooks, and they planted millet, barley and enough wheat to know how to make noodles called tutpash.

And throughout their history, they have gathered wild plants. They are best known for eating the bulbs of various lilies and day-lilies; a Chinese chronicle of the 7th century said they "live in grass tents and do not breed cattle or plough the land. They have much lily-root; they gather it and make it into porridge."

They aren't the only lily-bulb eaters around-Native Americans ate a lily called camass, and various lilies are a mainstay throughout Siberia (a favorite variety on the Kamchatka Peninsula is known as "rice of the earth'), not to mention China, Korea and Japan-but the Tuvas have made the most of them, digging up great quantities in September and then boiling, drying and storing them in sacks for the winter.

Presumably the lily roots taste OK. And maybe they're even good for your voice.

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