64: Food in the Arctic

As we approach the winter season, many of our thoughts with be on food. Festive food, comfort food, cosy food. Food is an important thing- not only does it keep us alive, but it can bring us together, make us smile, connect us to our cultures, traditions and to the landscape around us. This week we will be taking a look at food in the Arctic- how the environment has shaped traditional diets there, what some specialty local dishes are, and what has become a recent necessity in one part of the Arctic. Of course, Arctic diets can be very varied with the option to import foods from all over the world to many local super markets, or even to grow these foods locally with a very sturdy warm greenhouse. However, here we will focus on what is local, traditional, and has been used for hundred if not thousands of years as sustenance. Enjoy!

Food is important in many ways beyond sustenance, like being a way to show love and bring people together.

Meat

Pretty much all of the Arctic at some point or another in the year is covered by snow. Actually, that is a bit of an understatement- many parts are frozen solid and snowed under for months and months. Much of the Arctic is also quite boggy. With this kind of climate and soil, it is not a place where lettuce and quinoa grows happily naturally. This is why the staple of many Arctic diets is meat.

Humans are a bit odd ecologically, as we have spread to all parts of the globe surviving in vastly different environments. We’re pretty decent at generally surviving, but we are not specialised creatures as such. Many animals however, tend to have much smaller ranges, and are far more specialised within these environments. For example, reindeer and moose in the Arctic have a specialised digestive system that allows them to survive off lichen, bark and woody shrubs during winter. We wouldn’t survive on that diet, but we can let the reindeer and moose transform those plants into energy, and then we get the energy by eating them. The importance of this chain of events hasn’t gone unnoticed by Arctic peoples. The indigenous Saami in Northern Europe have said that historically, there was no way they could survive without reindeer in that environment. The reindeer looked after them by providing them with a source of food, and so in return they must look after the reindeer. That is why many reindeer herders today don’t just herd for food or as a job, some even lose a lot of money on it, but they see it as a deep rooted cultural duty.

Of course, moose and reindeer aren’t always available- maybe they have migrated away from an area or are just being quite elusive, or in more extreme areas maybe there is just not enough vegetation in winter to sustain many of them. That is where rivers, lakes and seas come into play. Water, and especially the sea, is the real food bounty for the Arctic. Whilst plants may struggle to grow on land in winter, phytoplankton and algae (which perform the function of basic plants under water) can still survive on the sunlight which filters through the ice sheet covering the water, and zooplankton (the most basic underwater animal) can live off nutrients floating about in the water from other areas. These basic things go on to feed small fish, which feed big fish, which feed whales and polar bears, and of course people. A common sight in the Arctic is seeing folks sitting on a frozen lake next to an ice hole they have drilled, fishing for supper. In places like Alaska and Canada, whale and seal meat make up important parts of the traditional diet too, as these animals, surviving off the bounties of the water, can be found in winter time.

A diet of largely meat might sound, well, like it’s not the most-healthy. Whilst I wouldn’t advise it generally (although note I have zero nutritionist credentials), using traditional meats and recipes in the Arctic can be healthier than expected. Many southern European (e.g. British) voyages to explore the Arctic ended in horrific levels of scurvy amongst the crew, with the scurvy breaking their bodies down and eventually killing them. This was because the crew survived off salted and dried southern meats like beef, as well as wheat based foods. They were often confused at how the Arctic people they met didn’t seem to have scurvy. However, the whale meat that locals eat is actually really rich in vitamin C, a deficiency of which is the cause of scurvy. Many health issues in northern and indigenous communities today come from an increase in eating southern processed foods rather than local traditional diets, though that’s a whole complex topic for another day.

Freshly cut and frozen muktuk or whale meat, the pink being blubber and the black being skin (David Dodson)

Fruit, veg, dairy and wheat

Whilst meat does play a key part in many northern diets, traditional dishes are not totally devoid of diversity. Some hardy veg can survive in the North, like turnips, kale and collards. The mandel potato variety also manages reasonably well in the harsh conditions. It’s important to remember that whilst winter can be harsh, summer can have up to 24hrs of sunlight, and depending on how far north you are, it can get decently warm. If a plant can hunker down over winter then, it has a glorious albeit short summer to grow lots.

Another important plant food is berries. The Arctic is a treasure trove for good berries, including blueberries, vitamin C rich cloudberries and lingon berries, and crowberries. Mushrooms can spring up in abundance in autumn, and in areas where reindeer were milked (rare now as cow milk is imported) dairy products like milk, cheese and butter are/were staples.

Rye grows better than most other wheats in damp, peaty soils, and is quite frost resistant. Though it wouldn’t manage in the very high Arctic, it has been an integral component of Arctic diets a little further south with rye breads and rye crackers commonly eaten.

Rye bread with a creamy potato and mushroom soup. It’s not all meat!

Specialised dishes

As with all areas, specialised local dishes have sprung up around the Arctic. In amongst reindeer herding peoples in Northern European and Russia, there is a policy of not wasting any part of the animal, especially the nutritious bits. One dish that has sprung up from this conscious eating is blood pancakes- a mixture of blood, flour and milk that is fried, well, like a pancake! It is an excellent source of iron, and because it’s quite savoury in taste, molasses or lingonberry jam are often added.

Akutuq is an Alaskan dish, somewhat akin to ice cream. It is made up of a whipped mixture of snow, berries and seal oil (or fish oil or reindeer, bear or muskox fat depending on what you have to hand). Greenlandic suaasat is a soup made of potato, onion and the meat of either seabirds, seals, reindeer or whales, hearty and warm for a cold northern day. Then there is Norwegian tørrfisk (dried fish jerky) and meatballs, and then some more recent classics like polarbröd (round flatbread) and brunost (the marmite of cheeses, in my opinion the taste is an abomination, but others like it on waffles).

On the left akutuq, on the right blood pancakes with lingonberry jam.

Coffee

We have mostly been exploring the really traditional, locally produced foods eaten as part of Arctic diets for perhaps hundreds or thousands of years. However, there is one more delicacy which needs a special mention. That is coffee. 5 out of the 10 countries with the greatest coffee consumption in the world are, at least partially in the Arctic, with Finland, Norway and Iceland taking the top 3 places (Finland wins with an average of 12kg of coffee per person, per year, though this average includes children so realistically your average adult would drink more). I can also confirm this isn’t any watered down version of coffee, it is hardcore rocket fuel strength. Some say the obsession started in the 1800s, when alcohol was highly taxed to deal with alcoholism issues in the region, meaning people turned to coffee as an alternative drink. Others have suggested that if you spend 6 months each year in darkness, coffee can be your liquid energy. Either way, it is a staple of northern culture in Europe. As soon as you enter a true Nordic home, you’re likely to have a welcoming coffee cup in your hand before you can blink.

Northern European coffee- strong, black, and often accompanied by a pastry (Picture: Haggman.fi)

The traditional diets in the Arctic do vary region to region, but are united by the restrictions the local climate puts on what is available. It is largely a diet of meat, with only the hardiest plants, and in the brief height of summer and autumn an abundance of mushrooms and berries. Of course, diets in these regions nowadays are much more diverse. Everything from pineapples to pizza to pad thai can be bought in local shops and restaurants. This range is good in many ways, but importing food can be expensive and the cheapest foods are often the most processed and nutritionally void, so remembering and using local ingredients and traditional recipes can be a good way to celebrate the foods and cultures of the area whilst looking out for your health. A word of warning though, once you taste true Arctic berries, you will be disappointed with anything a big supermarket provides you with forever more… They are so good!

For more info:

An article on the decline in traditional diets: https://www.good.is/food/traditional-arctic-diets#toggle-gdpr

A book of traditional recipes from Sapmi, a region of northern Fennoscandia: http://www.backhomebooks.net/taste-of-sapmi

Music: kongano.com and Lionel Bart

Cover Image: Steven Dolby (Arctic Char with kale and mushrooms)

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