“Greenlandic cuisine for me? It is the reindeer and the musk ox; the wild nature; the freshness of fish”. The words come from Bjørn Johannson, head chef of restaurant Sarfalik in Greenland’s capital Nuuk. I met with the Swedish chef last August to talk about Greenlandic cuisine and what defines it in his chef’s mind.
Bjørn Johannson came to Greenland in 2007, invited by a friend who worked there at the time. “Why not!” he thought. “I didn’t know anything about Greenland.” When he landed in Kangerlussuaq (the international airport with connecting flights to Nuuk which has a regional airport only) the arctic temperatures nearly sent him home on the same flight. But once he got over the cold and into the kitchen, the one-year plan turned into three. He became the sous-chef after three months. And fell in love with a Greenlandic girl who grew up in Nuuk. The two married and decided to move to Sweden but came back to Nuuk after four years, in 2014, when chef Johansson was offered the position of head chef.
“We have amazing ingredients here in Greenland,” said the chef, mentioning wild berries, roots and herbs like angelika. “The hardest thing is vegetable; we have to fly most of that in”. Weather-related conditions often ground planes in Kangerlassuaq, and with them the fresh produce they may have on board destined for Nuuk. “There’s no point running to the store: If we didn’t get fresh products, then they didn’t get any either.” It forces the restaurant to be creative and plan ahead: process vegetables, fruits and herbs when they come in—whether flown in or harvested in season locally. An active process of marinating, pickling, canning, drying, dehydrating and freezing keeps the restaurant’s larder well stocked.
Who he is and where he came from is a large part of how the chef approaches food. “My childhood is reflected in my food,” chef Johansson said. He has great admiration for what contemporaries achieve for modern Nordic cuisine, and worked with a team of guest chefs from René Redzepi’s NOMA (Copenhagen) for a full week in 2008. But when it comes to personal inspiration the chef again looks toward his home country Sweden: “My big inspiration is Magnus Nilsson.” Chef Nilsson runs Fäviken in northern Sweden.
Some of the Greenlandic ingredients that challenge him the most are local protein. Marine mammals and sea birds in particular tend to be strong-flavored. Before he tackles any local meat, he makes a point of learning how locals usually eat it. Laughing he said: “The usual answer is: suaasat.” It is the traditional Greenlandic soup of meat boiled with onions and potatoes. “Whale, seal, reindeer, birds: they make suaasat of everything.”
A popular protein in Greenland—other than reindeer and musk ox—is seal. “Seal is hard to work with. It is very strong,” chef Johansson said when I asked him if (and how) he cooks seal meat. “I have a hard time with the taste when you just cook it. If you smoke it, or dry it, you can soften some of that hard flavor.” Among the dishes he made with seal are cold-smoked seal and seal jerky: thin slices of seal marinated in soy sauce, honey and some angelica and dried for several hours at 45 Celsius.
Smoking is a regular preparation in his kitchen: “We smoke small portions in our own kitchen but larger pieces we send to a friend who has a big smoker. He can smoke about 500 kilos. So when we want smoked reindeer heart and smoked musk ox tongue for our Christmas buffet, we sent it to him to smoke”. Thinly sliced, I believe him when he says it is quite a delicatessen.
Some of the dishes in the tasting menu later that evening in the restaurant capture Greenland for me as I came to appreciate this land of stunning natural beauty.
The bright colors in the dish of soured mackerel, cherry tomatoes (including green tomato mousse and yellow tomato foam), edible flowers and gooseberries brings to mind the colorful houses of Greenlandic villages, including Nuuk’s old harbor.
Poached in an immersion circulator, sea trout soft as butter is crusted with smoked parsley and trout skin. Paired with a hearty sliver of musk ox lard and pickled turnip the dish is Greenland sea and land as I experienced it hiking around fjords, stepping on mosses, breathing in the cold, salty sea air.
The whale dish—rich in flavor from the potent licorice-angelica rub, variations of onion and sautéed fresh angelica—is perhaps the epitome of the chef’s culinary style liaising Greenlandic ingredients with a personal approach. Aware of the controversy surrounding the consumption of whale the chef points out that in Greenland people hunt for survival (in a land unsuitable for agriculture) with a whole-animal approach: nothing goes to waste.
And then there is the reindeer heart tartare. With its contrasting flavors of sweet beetroot, sharp horseradish, salty rehydrated capers and aromatic red onions, the tender hand-cut reindeer heart showcases how the chef interprets a classic and transforms it to a dish that tells of origin and place: of dark rocks, barren land and reindeer trudging up the lonely slopes.
But that, of course, is my interpretation.
Photos (clockwise): pouring parsley oil to finish a dish of sea trout with musk ox lard; grating house cured scallop roe on soured mackerel; finish the dish of licorice-angelica-sansho pepper rubbed whale with variations of onion and sautéed fresh angelica; chef Bjørn Johannson
Photos: Sea Trout with Musk Ox Lard and parsley oil; reindeer tartare.
Photos: soured mackerel dish; colorful houses in a village on Greenland’s coast
photos: greetings from the kitchen in a box. Warm breads (left) and sweet treats (lime macaron, chocolate blueberry and thyme mousse).
Photos: a play on lasagna with layers of fennel and local seafood (left) and a dessert of sea buckthorn berries and smoked apple (right)
Restaurant Sarfalik is located on the top floor of Hotel Hans Egede in Nuuk. With its old harbor and modern center, Nuuk is a great base to explore some of Greenland’s spectacular natural beauty of nearby fjords and glaciers. When I visited in August, daylight lasted for almost 20 hours. In winter that is completely reversed, and darkness rules for most of the 24 hours. The upside? Chances are you see the Northern Lights more times than you care to get up for!