Arctic Food and Culture

Kristen Borré.  Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Editor: Solomon H Katz. Volume 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003.

The Arctic lies north of 70° latitude, marked by the tree line of the Subarctic. Few cultural groups occupy the Arctic: the Inuit live across the circumpolar region from northern Siberia throughout Greenland; the Aleuts and Yu’pik live on the coast and islands of southwestern Alaska; and six major Saami groups live in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and western Russia. Arctic diets are unique because animal products are staples and plants are seasonal supplements. Inuit diets traditionally are composed of marine mammals, fish, caribou, small game, birds, and plants, while Saami depend on herded reindeer for milk and meat, fishing, gathering plants, and hunting small game and birds. The diets of Aleuts and Yu’pik are similar to that of the Inuit.

Inuit Food Lists and Categories

Inuit are famous for eating marine mammals, mostly seal (natsiq). Bearded seal (oodguk), walrus, polar bear (nanuk), narwhal (tuugalik), beluga (qilalugaq), and the large plankton-eating whales are preferred foods. Seabird, goose, and duck eggs (maniq), ptarmigan, ducks, and geese are also eaten. Arctic char (iqaluk), an anadromous fish, is preferred above sculpin (kanuyak) and cod (oogak). Shellfish are consumed, but are not a major food resource. Land mammals, caribou (tuktu, or reindeer), and Arctic hare are eaten to achieve a culturally desirable balance in the diet. Commonly eaten plants include kelp, sorrel, willow, blueberry, crowberry, soapberry, winter-green, lichens, Eskimo carrots, and Eskimo peanuts. The vegetable matter from herbivore’s stomachs is also consumed.

Animal foods are divided into those associated with the sea or ice and those associated with the land. Inuit are subsistence hunters and divide themselves into two categories, Sikumiut are “people of the ice” and Taramiut are “people of the land.” These categories relate as well to hunting on the sea and on the land. For a community to maintain an ecological balance in the animals, subsistence rules are practiced. One rule is that, whenever possible, hunters seek to provide a mixed diet with animals of the sea and animals of the land. If this balance is not maintained in hunting, it is believed that the animals may disappear. Some years the seal are more prolific and available, so more seal is eaten. Other years more caribou or char will be abundant and consumed. The diet reflects this balance among land and sea animals. Hunters carefully respect the animals by maintaining the balance and thus ensure their future harvests. Plants are considered separately in the diet as treats that complement the standard animal fare when they are available. The most culturally desirable diet of the Inuit varies by mixing sea mammals, caribou, and Arctic char. The relative proportion of these three staples in the diet depends on the geographic location and local foraging practices of the group.

During the contact periods, European dry and canned staples were introduced as trade items across the Arctic. These new foods were slowly adopted into the Inuit diet. Foods became divided into two categories, “country” or foraged food produced by Inuit themselves, and store-bought or imported foods, obtained by trading furs or for cash. Common store-bought foods include tea, sugar, flour, biscuits, and breads. Other imported foods include canned fruit and jam, meats, fish, and vegetables. Store foods are considered inferior and incapable of sustaining health for anyone raised eating country food.

Meal customs and food distribution. Hunting and food sharing form the core of Inuit society. When hunters return with fresh game or fish, it is distributed for consumption according to social rules. This occurs at least several times a week. Meals are communal and all animal foods are shared, distributed first within the community and then within the household. During the distribution, fresh, or uncooked, meats are eaten by anyone who is hungry. The remaining portions are distributed according to the kinship or friendship relationship of the receiver to the hunter. The hunter, his wife, father, mother, or a related elder conducts this process. While this food remains in the household, family members eat it communally at least once a day.

The typical traditional meal includes fresh, boiled, fried, or grilled meats, organs, and soft bones. The food is served on the ground outdoors or on the floor of the shelter. The animal food is cut away from the butchered carcass with the personal knife of the individual and eaten without any other utensils. If the animal food is boiled, its broth is drunk after eating the meat. Everyone is expected to eat until hunger subsides. All visitors to a home are expected to partake of whatever game is available. Hoarding or overeating food is not acceptable. Birds, eggs, plants, and small fish or shellfish are usually eaten by individuals, but are shared on demand with anyone who is hungry.

As a result of contact with Europeans, drinking heavily sugared tea and eating bannock or some form of bread has come to follow the consumption of animal food. The bannock is made from flour, water or milk, and fat (lard, vegetable shortening, or caribou or seal fat) and baked on a rock or in a frying pan over a fire. Tobacco is then shared. Before black tea was introduced, herbs were collected for making teas.

Meal patterns are guided by hunger and age. Young children and babies are fed frequently on demand until they reach five or six. The adult demand for food varies, but fewer meals are eaten in winter than in spring, summer, and fall. On average, one full meal and two or three tea breaks are taken between sleeping. Elders eat less as they grow older, but drink sweetened tea more often. Immature seal, cached meat, and fish are favored by the very old individuals.

Men, women, and children eat together. The men eat with long knives (sevik) as they squat near the animal food, and women use the ulu, the traditional curved knife of Inuit women. Children use smaller versions of adult knives as soon as they can control them. Older infants and toddlers eat premasticated foods from their mothers, but are typically breast-fed until they are four or five. Orphaned or adopted babies are fed seal broth.

Food preparation. Food preparation varies by season and environment. At camp, Inuit share the communal feast daily. “Fresh” (uncooked) seal (mikiayak) or other marine mammals are prepared within a short time after the animal is captured. Camp dwellers are called by children to the feast. The hunter or a designated relative, typically his wife, opens the animal after the body has had time to “cool.” Those who are feeling cold would eat first, as the rich blood (auok) and warm chunks of exposed liver (tingook) warm the individuals’ bodies and restore health and well-being. The blood not consumed is drained and the animal gutted. Organ meats, especially kidney (taktu), are eaten or fed to dogs along with the fat scraped from the skin and other waste. Intestines are saved, and the outer covering chewed. A delicacy among the North Baffin Inuit is chopped fat and brains mixed with the animal’s blood (allupiauoq) in the body cavity before the meat is eaten. Eyeballs are sucked but not swallowed. The skin is saved for household and clothing use. During hungry periods, when animals are scarce, the skin, scraped on both sides, can also be eaten. Seal “hips” are preferred by men in the Eastern Arctic, while women enjoy the tenderloin along the spine, the backbone, and the ribs. Shoulders, flippers, and forelimbs are eaten by both men and women.

Marine mammals can also be eaten frozen (quok), sliced thin as the individual eats from the carcass, or the meat can be aged. To prepare aged seal, for example, seal is packed in its skin and stored a few days or as long as three weeks. Rotted seal is cached in the fall for consumption the next spring or summer. Ooyuk is soup made by boiling meat in fresh water, and seasoned with kelp. Salt or dry soup mix often replaces kelp. Chunks of meat are eaten out of the pot, which is usually set over a seal oil lamp or an open hearth. Cupfuls of rich broth (kiyuk) are drunk. Seal is deep-fat fried in the summer or grilled on flat rocks over heather fires. Seal oil is produced by pounding the fat. This rendered oil is then stored in a seal bladder to be eaten with plants or raw or dried fish. In spring and summer, foods are cooked on heather fires, which gives them a wonderful herbal taste. Polar bear and walrus were once consumed fresh, or raw, but they are only eaten cooked, due to concern about Arctic trichinosis. Narwhal and beluga whale are prized for their sweet skin (muqtuq). The meats of these animals and other whales can also be eaten prepared as other meats are. Polar bear organ meats are never eaten.

While seal typically dominates the diet, caribou (tuqtu) is also widely consumed, prepared in ways similar to the seal. Caribou meat is also cut into pieces and hung to air-dry for storage. Birds are captured, their feathers plucked, and then eaten uncooked. Eggs are sucked. Arctic hare is boiled as ooyuk, never eaten uncooked. Arctic char are eaten fresh, filleted into three boneless pieces hung from the head, or partially air-dried (serata) or freeze-dried (pisi). The fish can be boiled as ooyuk or fried (satoya), or grilled as well. Shellfish are eaten raw or boiled, but are rare in the Eastern Arctic.

Seasonal variation. Seal, walrus, and polar bear typically dominate winter foods. Ooyuk is popular in winter, as are frozen foods. As the sun returns daylight to the land, spring begins and groups of related Inuit begin to congregate for camping and hunting seal. Short hunting trips include fresh seal picnics. Easter is marked by the spring caribou hunt and feast. Once the ice begins to break up, Inuit cannot travel safely. Whatever foods can be captured near land-based camps are eaten. When dried caribou, fish, and cached marine mammals are exhausted, the diet is aged seal oil with plants and, perhaps, fresh fish. Summer continues with full daylight, marked by open-water sealing and whale hunts, and muqtuq is prepared and consumed. Summer fish camps produce large numbers of char to eat fresh, frozen, or dried. Plants are gathered during long walks, mostly by women and children. Seal and caribou are fried and grilled. In August, the sun begins to leave the northern sky and early fall begins. A fall caribou hunt culls the migrating herds. Bulls are especially desired because of their rich fat. The quiet winter season returns and the annual cycle begins again.

Foods of the Saami

Saami occupy the Arctic and Subarctic. These people were colonized in the thirteenth century and little is known about their indigenous foodways prior to colonization.

Saami lived traditionally by following the herds of reindeer seasonally as the animals fed on lowland lichens and mushrooms in early spring and winter and highland grasses in summer. The bulls were culled from the herds in October, December, and January to provide meat for fall and winter feasting and storage by smoking and drying.

Saami, like Inuit, eat caribou, or reindeer, using all the edible parts of the animal. Like the Inuit, they eat their foods cooked, boiled, smoked, and roasted. Reindeer meat is boiled in a thick soup that resembles Inuit ooyuk. Meat is eaten out of hand from the pot and the gravy scooped up in a cup to be drunk. Saami drink reindeer milk and use it to make cheese, which is often smoked, something Inuit do not do. While some Saami are known for reindeer herding, other groups and frequently eat fish. Both Saami groups, however, consume fish, land mammals, plants, and birds. Saami diets have been greatly influenced by northern European cooking patterns and foods for the past seven hundred years.