The Greenlandic word for ‘eating’ is derived from the word for ‘meat’: neri. And it doesn’t stop there: “dinner is ready” (nerisassat ); bon appetit (nerilluarisi); and even (dinner) table (nerivik). What are we ‘meating’ tonight?
Meat is the most reliable food source — and for the larger part of the year it is the only local food source for most of Greenland. Not surprisingly, in traditional Greenlandic culture food is synonymous with meat. It’s not that nothing (else) grows in Greenland. There is dwarfed vegetation and, in summer, a colorful carpet of wild flowers and edible weeds. Small farms (mainly in South Greenland) grow vegetables (potatoes and turnip do well) and keep sheep. And some production (both of sheep and of potatoes) is even on a commercial scale. But with a climate ranging from arctic to sub-arctic, only a teeny tiny fraction of Greenland is suitable for agriculture, and conditions are unpredictable at best.
The Greenlandic population of about 60,000 (predominantly Inuit) traditionally live on what their land provides. Arctic game like musk oxen, reindeer and snow hares, sea birds and fish, and, yes, marine mammals like seal and whale (bound by international quota) are a traditional part of the local diet. Ingrained in their culture is: take only what you need and use everything when you do take it.
This post is an introduction to travel stories to come, including an interview with Swedish chef Bjorn Johansson who’s made Nuuk his home and where he explores modern Nordic Cuisine using Greenlandic ingredients. On the local food trail (pink shrimp and fish galore aside):
In Qaqortoq, the fish market is right next to the harbor where once upon a time Charles Lindbergh landed his plane for an overnight stop. Local hunters and fishermen bring in what they have, when they have it. The first time I found the fish market completely empty, and the shopkeeper waiting with sharpened knives. The next two times he was busy butchering seals that had just been brought in. Skillfully he arranged different cuts as he went: organs, blubber, meat, bones, flippers (for stock), intestines. Days later, in the capital Nuuk I saw an older lady selling her freshly butchered seal on the street. She filled a large plastic bag with chunks of dark red meat, dangling from a handheld weigh scale. The woman purchasing seal meat nodded and handed over the money agreed on. Seal is mostly eaten in Suaasat (a hearty soup loaded with meat) and can also be found smoked. It is strong-flavored meat (or so they say: I didn’t try it) with a very dark color.
Done with chores for the morning, the guesthouse crew sat around chatting and nibbling: tearing off bits of dried fish to eat with mattak: whale blubber. The cream-white part is the blubber, I was told. The black is the skin. Apparently quite costly, they nevertheless offered a taste. How could I refuse? I didn’t, nor did I let on that I struggled with what tasted like fishy raw lard with an impossibly chewy black rind. Mattak is often eaten together with dried capelin (in the smelt family, this small fish is larger than anchovies and locally called ammassat). As with all dried goods: aroma intensifies, and texture toughens.
Reindeer or caribou roam the empty land foraging on dwarfed plants, berries, mosses and weeds. As is traditional in Inuit hunting, all of the animal is utilized, from its fur, antlers and bones to its meat, organs and even stomach contents (you are reading that right: traditional hunter-gatherers like Inuit consider the contents of this grazer’s stomach a delicacy). The best dish with reindeer we tried (and in fact: the best dish all-round) was reindeer tartare with slivers of dried reindeer heart served at restaurant Sarfalik (story to follow) in Nuuk.
Muskox (in Inuit Umimmak, or ‘long-bearded one’) is the largest land animal in Greenland, though still a lot smaller than domestic cattle (800 versus 2400 pounds average weight for bulls). In the bovidea family, muskox is related closer to sheep (and often referred to as a ‘giant sheep’) than to oxen. Its meat, however, more readily compares to beef, and is tender, lean and full of flavor. Native to north Greenland, over the last couple decades muskoxen have been successfully introduced in other (but still more northerly) parts of Greenland. We were lucky to try muskox on several occasions, including on pizza, in a stew, slow-roasted and smoked.
Tiny little berries with hard seeds, these grow wild in arctic tundra. Once you know what to look for, they seem to be everywhere along the hiking trail. Crowberries provide an essential addition to the Inuit meat-centric diet. Even leaves, stems and roots are used: boiled and drank as tea. We found wild crowberries baked in a cake that we ate with a view of the massive Equi Glacier in the Arctic Circle.
Angelica Archangelica (also known as wild celery) is one of the most common wild edibles. Used flower, seed, stalk, leaf and root, it is widely used in Greenlandic cooking and favored for its complex flavor that seems a combination of celery, licorice, juniper and even musk. The larger stalks (Angelica can grow up to six feet) are rather fibrous and tough. A great tasting of local flavors, I found, is smoked meat (muskox or reindeer, for instance) with chopped Angelica leaves.
There is so much more to tell of Greenland’s food, villages, scenery and people. Coming up next is Greenland: South!