Our First Taste of Maqtaaq

Yesterday, we shared our experience with Annie, a Rankin Inlet elder who showed us how to light the qulliq.  After the lamp was lit, we ate.  We ate whale!

Yes, first up was maqtaaq.  Raw whale is a quintessential northern food, and while whales are not hunted as often as they used to be, those that are get distributed amongst numerous communities.  We were both excited to try it, though also somewhat hesitant; it’s just seemed so visceral.  The processing that much of our food goes through – especially meat and fish – means we’re often one step away from what our food actually looks like.  But this - this was just a big ol’ chunk uh’ narwhal, sitting on a piece of cardboard on the table.  Its skin looked like marble, and the flesh like a glistening piece of pink watermelon. 

Also, it was narwhal, so we were both aware of the fact we were essentially eating the unicorn of the ocean.

Veronica used an ulu to cut the maqtaaq into small squares, and Sarah provided a popular condiment to eat it with – soy sauce!  

Interestingly, the aroma I got from the maqtaaq was that of raw sunflower seeds, but the flavour was very mild (hence, the salty kick from the added sauce).  In fact, it is the texture that stands out in my memory - its chewiness, how the soft meat gave way easily, but the skin required some work to gnaw through.  It was pleasant enough that I had several pieces.

We also tried these:

No, they aren’t brownie cookies.  They’re whale sausage.  And no again - they’re not traditional.  There’s been some local momentum to create value added foods with northern ingredients, so the fisheries department has been working with recipe developers from the culinary institute on PEI to create whale sausage.  This test run was half successful – they liked the flavour, but the texture was a bit too dry.  Whale meat alone is too lean, so they figure they’ll add fat in one form or another to the next batch.  We wish them luck, and hope we can try the final version someday!

We washed it all down with tea made with northern greens, and little muffins Sarah made with tundra-foraged berries.  Thank you so much to Sarah, Annie, and Veronica for being so generous with their time, food, and knowledge.  This was certainly an afternoon (and meal) we'll never forget.



Lighting the Qulliq

This is Annie.

She’s an Inuk elder living in Rankin Inlet, and she and her niece Veronica very kindly agreed to meet with us one afternoon.  Annie, who’s nearly blind, slowly and carefully climbed the stairs up to the local fishery’s office, while Veronica followed behind, carrying a heavy bag.  In it were all the supplies they’d need to light the qulliq, a traditional ‘women’s lamp,’ the tool with which women kept their families warm and fed for centuries on the tundra. 

We’d seen one in Monica’s house, but had yet to learn how they worked, and as Annie spoke (she’s one of the few community members who solely speaks Inuktitut, so Veronica translated), we were astounded yet again at the ingenuity of the Inuit.  

Today, women’s lamps are used only ceremonially, but Annie can remember when they were used daily.  About 60 years ago she contracted tuberculosis, and was sent to a hospital in Brandon, Manitoba to recover.  When she returned, four years later, her baby son was a boy, and women’s lamps had been replaced by camp stoves.  As a side note, we were horrified to hear that no interpreters were available to the Inuit who recovered from tuberculosis in southern hospitals, so people like Annie spent years in cultural isolation, unable to communicate with the people around them.  Annie also mentioned how much she disliked “white man’s food,” which would have been made all the worse considering it was white man’s hospital food.  She was relieved when she finally returned to her family, and to country food, even if it was no longer being cooked with a familiar tool.  

Basically, the lamp works like this: there’s a half moon-shaped platform carved out of soapstone; sometimes it’s support by three dowels, but in this case, Annie just rested it on a small wooden box.  

The curved part of the platform has a raised edge, while the opposite side just has a groove, carved about an inch from the edge.  

Oil is then poured onto the surface – traditionally, it would have been from animal fat.  Whale fat is the best to use because it burns the brightest, and cleanest.   That day, Annie and Veronica just used canola oil.  

Bunches of Arctic cotton, harvested on the tundra during the summer, are delicately placed along the groove, and then it’s lit. 

Bunches of Arctic cotton at Monica's house, Rankin Inlet.

Earlier, Monica had shown us the practice of flint-striking for fire, but we used a matchstick for Annie’s lamp.  

Once lit, the arctic cotton acts as a very slow-burning wick, fed by the oil sitting in the lamp, and tended to occasionally with a hook-shaped tool. 

This was just a small one, but traditionally they were much bigger, with flames running the length of the lamp’s edge.  

It was such an honour to be shown the qulliq by Annie.  It happens so rarely now, Veronica had never actually seen her aunt light it.  Check back in tomorrow, when we’ll share the second half of our visit, also known as Our First Taste of Maqtaaq….