A group of revolutionary chefs in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic have joined forces to celebrate indigenous culture by creating a new kind of cuisine using traditional ingredients.
It’s only fitting that I’m on a boat in South Greenland when I try my first mouthful of fermented seal blubber, a buttery morsel that doesn’t have the unpleasant taste of the sea with a lingering aftertaste of fish oil, followed by a long chew on the country’s famous delicacy mattak – a square with sliced whale skin, cartilage and fat.
This is because here, in the Arctic, there is only a short distance between the tundra and the table, or, as today, the sea, and the plate: only a window separates me from the clear water, dotted with icebergs, where food was caught. Inunnguaq Hegelund, the award-winning indigenous Greenlandic chef who introduced me to these dishes, is known in Greenland for his outstanding work with traditional meats, particularly the polar bear that roams the rocky coast a few hundred meters away.
Hegelund is part of a wider revolution taking place in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region, where he, together with a group of leading chefs and food entrepreneurs, is reviving the indigenous food culture of the past and developing it to create sustainable local food traditions for the future.
“I’m a firm believer that you should know how to handle food in your own backyard,” Hegelund said. — When I studied at culinary school, we took our Bible from French cuisine. We used traditional French methods with traditional French meats. When I started as an intern, we never served local Greenlandic food – we even served fish from Spain! Everything is different now.”
Movement “New Arctic cuisine » brings together communities at the top of the world, including Arctic Canada, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Åland Islands in Finland, to share and develop their food culture together. They have much in common: a sense of isolation, populations scattered in small coastal settlements, and strong hunting traditions that set them apart from the food cultures of the West.
Inunnguak Hegelund — a native Greenlandic chef known for his traditional meat cooking (Image credit: Rasmus Holm)
“We’re all ocean people,” said Sheila Flaherty, a chef based in Nunavut, Arctic Canada. “We hunt and harvest in the same spirit, we butcher in an intimate manner and we eat in an intimate manner. We live as people of the Arctic, and our Inuit homeland spans the entire region.”
Eating seals, whales, bighorn sheep, and fish makes sense in places where you’re more likely to see a narwhal than a pig, cow, or chicken. Eating local and sustainable food means eating that meat from nose to tail, just like their ancestors did. Polar bear, seal and whale hunting is generally strictly controlled by quota systems. In the Åland Islands, the increase in the seal population is well above the quotas given to hunters, who have historically never hunted the 450 seals they are allowed a year; there are no sealer quotas in arctic canada because there are so many of them.
The movement aims to change the narrative around these traditional local food sources, talk about them and inspire further development.
“The key idea is to share ideas, learn best practices from each other and apply them in each community,” explained Viktor Eriksson, former chef Silverskär restaurant in the Åland Islands, Finland. “There is a lot of state funding for rural areas, but it is ineffective to do it separately. The best way to use it is to build on each other’s ideas.”
In the Åland Islands, the increase in the seal population far exceeds the quotas given to hunters (Image credit: Rasmus Holm)
Flaherty shares his ethos, citing a desire to work together as critical to developing food cultures, as well as a way to improve health in local communities, create local jobs and better understand our culture. She has dedicated her working life to making it possible to eat indigenous Inuit foods where she lives, including thinly sliced caribou liver, fermented seal blubber and skin, as well as whale, and now runs a guest house and restaurant Sijjakkut in Iqaluit. , Canada.
I like to bring this up, not to cause controversy, but because the more we highlight and promote the seal, the less stigma there will be around it. It supports our Inuit way of life.
“I want to share Inuit culture with the world,” she said. “Ringed seal is my number one favorite dish. I like to present it not to cause controversy, but because the more we highlight and promote the seal, the less stigma there will be around it. It supports our Inuit way of life.”
Other local delicacies from the subarctic and arctic regions include skerpikjøt a Faroese cured lamb dish that takes on a wonderful, fermented blue cheese-like flavor as it dries, and Greenland lamb that is grazed on thyme-scented bush meadows.
Mattak at Kalaaliariq Restaurant (Image credit: Aningaaq R. Carlsen/Visit Greenland)
One reason for the loss of the traditional diet is political: Danish colonists brought their food tastes to the Faroe Islands and Greenland; Nunavut was claimed by the British and later by Canada before gaining its own government. More recently, the desire to eat something different every night of the week has made “international” food more appealing.
“Local people want variety in their diet,” Hegelund said, “and they don’t want to eat the same thing every day. So it’s about creating something different with the same meat.”
The group approaches this challenge by looking at the carnage and cuts of meat, particularly starting with the seal. This means that instead of treating all seal meat the same, diced and sold by weight, they determined that the loin and leg tasted better as a steak, while the other cuts worked well as a terrine, a sausage. or jerks.
Diversity also comes from an unexpected source: greenhouses. The traditional cuisine of the far north is rich in fish and meat: this is a fact of life in a part of the world where vegetables and fruits are not easy to grow, they are flown in and sold at incredible prices. But experimental greenhouses in southern Greenland and Iqaluit are showing results in growing vegetables, giving hope for a reduction in imports.
Sealing stems (Image credit: Rasmus Holm)
A warming climate also helps make this possible, and climate change is very much on the radar of this movement. As part of a hunting culture, these communities are on the front lines, observing environmental changes as they occur, discovering new species and noticing changes in migration patterns. Eriksson sees the sustainable food movement as a form of environmental stewardship: it depends on local land being cared for.
“If there are caring people around, they will help take care of the recovery,” he said. “If they are not allowed to hunt, fish and eat nature, they will lose interest. This is the most dangerous thing that can happen.
“Now we know what we didn’t know 100 years ago. In the past, seals and whales were used in the Arctic and harvested to support the rest of the world. But if the Arctic takes a steady proportion to feed itself, it will not be exhausted. Sending it to the rest of the world would be a problem. We can’t do that anymore.”
There is a sense of urgency in working with this food before it is too late.
Sheila Flaherty — a chef based in Nunavut, Arctic Canada (Image credit: Rasmus Holm)
“We need to record our traditional foods and the traditions behind them,” Hegelund said. “It’s not well documented, and it needs to be done now, before the generations behind it die.”
For the future, goals include both increasing gastronomic tourism in the region and introducing new Arctic foods into institutional settings such as aged care centers, hospitals, kindergartens and schools.
In Greenland in particular, talk of independence from Denmark is never far away. Expanding trade routes and the money that could flow from the region’s international mining interests potentially herald an era in which it can gain more power and restore its indigenous culture. Hegelund sees this as a sign of his country’s independence as it emerges from its colonial past.
“The most important thing to me is that we can be self-sustaining with our own food,” he said. “This is so important: if you want to be an independent country, you need your own food.”