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Canadian “Country Food:” Lessons from Traditional Inuit Foods

Arctic Cruise Ship

You could say, in their own way, early Inuit people followed a version of the Adkins low carb diet. It was (and in many places still is) heavy on protein, light on carbs and, of course, nonexistent on anything processed.

“So how did they not get sick?” one passenger aboard our cruise ship, Adventure Canada’s Clipper Adventurer, asked while we threaded our way around islands and the occasional iceberg in the very high arctic.

The passenger was remembering all those ill fated explorers of the 19th century who met disastrous ends, usually by starving to death or getting sick from lack of proper nutrition. It seemed nearly every island we visited had its own tragic story of stubbornness and outright stupidity. How it is nations could make heroes of these chaps totally escapes me.

But that’s 20/20 hindsight and today, explorers are far more willing to look at how the locals manage to survive.

The food, frankly, has everything they need.

It’s amazing how many traditional foods are super rich in vitamin A, (important for good eyesight, and healthy teeth, bones, and skin). For instance, a three ounce serving of caribou or seal liver can easily provide the entire day’s requirement. Then there’s C (which protects the body’s cells from anti-oxidant damage and helps make collagen, important in wound healing). And again, a small serving of seal blubber or crowberries (like blueberries) covers a day’s need. Calcium (for strong bones and teeth)? Fish heads, a popular food, covers nearly half of the day’s need. Protein (for building body tissues)? It’s everywhere in all the meats and fish that fill the traditional Inuit diet. Same for iron (carrying oxygen in the blood) and B (essential for metabolism and for healthy hair, skin, and eyes) vitamins.

Arctic landscape

In a place like Ilulissat , where it’s all rocks, ice, snow, and sea, it’s impossible for people to grow crops. Illulissat, with 4,000 people, is the third largest town in Greenland.

In these parts of the arctic, traditional food is referred to as “country food.” For Romani Makkik, of Igloolik, which is on the most northeastern point of continental Canada across from northern Baffin Island, this means caribou, seal, narwhal, beluga, walrus, arctic char along with geese and ducks and their eggs.

“Remember, we also had berries in the summer and we ate all parts of the animals, birds and fish, and that included what was in their stomachs, which often included plants,” Romani told us. “So it’s not like we never had vegetables,”

People joke that Inuit eat everything of a ptarmigan (a small bird), but its beak. “Even the neck bones, “Romani added. “They are nice and soft.”

The eggs? They are extremely rich. “Not fishy at all, even though the birds eat fish,” said another Inuit friend, Sarah Jancke.

“Rich like duck eggs?”  I asked.

“These are much richer than that,” Sarah said.

Where Romani lives, the local delicacy is fermented walrus.

“You cut holes along the edge of the skin and stuff blocks of meat into them, sew it up and bury it.”

This is done after the hunt in July, then it stays in the ground until February.

And the taste?

“Almost sweet in its own way,” Romani said, though Sarah was behind her, making a bit of a face. So maybe this is one of those locally acquired tastes.

Slicing whale blubber with knife

Eating ‘country food,’ as traditional Inuit raw meat and fish are called locally in the arctic. This is raw narwhal whale blubber and skin being sliced with a traditional food cutting knife called an ulu. The taste is subtle and a bit like mackerel sashimi.

 

Tasting Traditional Foods
We had a chance to taste some of these country foods, which is something I’ve done before. And while I’m not as eager as one Inuit friend, who licks her lips and declares “Baby seal is delicious,” the truth is the people here often have no choice but to hunt.
We’re talking a land where a hamburger in a cafe can run $30, coffee can be $7, milk can easily run $10 a gallon, and don’t even think about apples.
So there we were aboard the ship, sailing somewhere off Ellesmere Island which is actually farther north than Baffin, out on the back deck in our down jackets sampling the local fare.
Aaju Peter, an Inuit originally from Greenland, and Romani spread out narwhal muktuk (raw skin with a thin layer of fat), seal meat along with seal fat and, for the timid, arctic char.

Woman about to take a bite of raw seal liver

A visitor tries a piece of raw seal liver, which is faintly fishy and tastes a lot like raw oysters on the half shell.

Arctic char is a trout that looks and tastes like salmon. So raw char is, basically, almost identical to the sashimi we’ve seen for decades in Japanese restaurants. Narwhal is chewy … very, very chewy. It reminded me of mackerel sashimi … very delicate in flavor. The muktuk I had in Alaska felt like velvet and had a hint, oddly, of anise. But that was there. Narwhal is milder.
Seal? Well, that can also be an acquired taste. I remember seal oil from the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia tasting somewhat like very strong blue cheese with a fishy aftertaste. The seal meat here was more delicate.  It reminded me, amazingly, of raw oysters on the half shell. The fat was even milder, merely echoing this flavor.
And that fat and oil was critically important in the old days.
“Because the food was all uncooked, to survive here you had to heat yourself from the inside out,” explained Sarah. The high-calorie fat and oil did the trick.

 

Halibut hanging on rack outside

Turbot, also called Greenland halibut, dry on a rack outside one of Ilulissat’s colorfully painted houses.

I remembered an elder once telling me there’s nothing like a cup of seal oil to warm you up. And once, on a week long dogsled trip where temperatures hit 30 below and we were sleeping in canvas tents, we all started craving fat after a few days, leading to what became a serious discussion about whether we should bother with bread or just bite the butter straight from the stick. By the last day, we eating lots of fat and running the sleds (at 10 F) in just sweaters.
For a number of the early explorers, especially those of the doomed expedition of Englishman John Franklin who was looking for a way through the Northwest Passage, lead poisoning may have contributed to their deaths. Early canning technology used lead solder and later testing on some of those cans found levels 1,000 times higher than is allowed today.
But scurvy, a potentially-fatal illness caused from lack of vitamin C, was also an issue for many explorers, as were many other deficiencies that could have been solved by eating as the Inuit ate.
Back aboard the ship, we were talking about caribou (think venison) when Sarah said, “It tastes like the tundra … when you go out on the land, you can smell it, earthy and natural, meaty but not beefy.”

Plate of seal meet with crowberries in bag

Raw seal meat with crowberries, along with regular knife and ulu, an Inuit knife used to slice meat.

And that brought me, on one of our last days, to Ilulissat, Greenland.
My friend Tanya and I decided to forgo the boat’s picnic sandwich for a musk ox burger. First, though, we encountered serious sticker shock. Greenland is not a cheap place to visit.
The first cafe wanted $30 US for the burger alone. Instead, we continued on to Cafe Iluliaq, a cute place with a deck that was closer to shore, where the burger was $20 ($23 with fries) while a luscious mocha coffee sliced another $7 from our wallets.

Food in Greenland

A musk ox burger at a local cafe in Ilulissat, Greenland, will set you back $20-30. This lunch cost $23 US.

But honestly, the burger was worth it not only for its flavor but also, frankly, as an experience. The meat was tender, with a hint of game that gently hit the roof of your mouth and, like Sarah said, tasted of the tundra. Indeed, it did speak of the land. – Story and Photos by Yvette Cardozo, FT Ski & Dive Editor

 

GETTING THERE AND BEING THERE:

* Adventure Canada runs seven arctic itineraries from mid July to October that include the Northwest Passage, the very high arctic, and lower arctic areas such as Labrador and Newfoundland. Trips average nine days and are aboard the Clipper Adventurer, a refurbished Scandinavian ship that can carry 118 passengers and has an ice-hardened hull.
* Telephone and standard internet (when available) are breathtakingly expensive aboard ship. But the ship’s webmail is cheap and wonderful for short messages.
* It’s COLD here. Bring your down jackets, your Goretex jackets and, especially, rain pants along with totally waterproof boots (think yacht boots or Wellington boots), plus light hiking boots for the tundra. Also bring a wool hat and light gloves.
* Bring cash for Greenland. Even if your credit card works there (they use pin numbers we don’t have), there will be a 3.75 percent surcharge on that end along with whatever your bank charges. Bring LOTS of cash since a mere hamburger can run you $30.
* Trip fee does not include charter flights from gateway cities such as Toronto and Ottawa. Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) has daily flights between cities across Canada and the US.
For the cruise company: www.adventurecanada.com
For Ilulissat: www.northgreenland.com/english/ilulissat.html

 

Want to read more about Yvette Cardozo’s adventures? Check out these stories:

“Diving Riviera Maya Mexico’s Scuba Caverns”

“Xel Ha, Riviera Maya: Mexico’s “Natural” Theme Park”

“Vietnam in the Slow Lane”

“Castle Mountain, Alberta: Skier Heaven”

“Cruising with Hawaiian Mantas and More”

“Cruising Norway: Wonderfully Surprising”

“Swimming — and Making Friends — with  Belugas”

 

 



Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor

Yvette Cardozo from the Seattle, Washington area, likes to visit interesting places and learn about interesting cultures and, if a tasty local dish is involved, so much the better. She’s eaten everything from gourmet food at the world’s finest restaurants to native food in Asia, the arctic, and all kinds of places in between.Yvette recalls being in Antarctica and going out on the land with Inuit elders in arctic Canada , then bagging a caribou. They dragged it back to camp and ate it on the spot raw. She quips, “Hey, if you like steak tartare….”Yvette, who is a veteran skier and diver, is RFT’s Ski & Dive Editor.


4 thoughts on “Canadian “Country Food:” Lessons from Traditional Inuit Foods

  1. Linda Eckhardt

    wow. what a great story and insight into the ancient wisdom of traditional diets. It makes sense doesn’t it. the Inuit wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t found a way to meet their nutritional needs. I loved reading this. bring more…

  2. faretti led da incasso cartongesso

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  3. Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT EditorBobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

    Hi Louie,
    Sorry we don’t have any Inuit recipes. Try Country Food Recipes/Inuit Online Cultural Resource icor.ottawainuitchildrens.com/node/32. Alaska Web also has a pretty extensive listing of Inuit country recipes. alaskaweb.org/food/menuaknat.htm

    Good luck and let us know how it goes. — Bobbie, RFT Editor.

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