It was our main motivation to get up north, and a term we’d never actually heard before starting FEAST. As Dana mentioned in the last post, country food is traditional “food from the land,” and has made up the Inuit diet for thousands of years. Among many things, country food includes caribou, arctic char, seal, whale, berries, muskox, and wild bird eggs, each of which have many different forms of preparation and preservation.
In the museum in Churchill, I found this newspaper clipping tacked to the wall; in it, locals kids were interviewed about their favourite ways to eat country food. Their preferences ranged from raw narwhal with soy sauce to cooked seal with salt, two dishes we certainly didn’t see anywhere else in Canada.
We did, however, see plenty of familiar foods at the grocery store, since communities around the north now heavily depend on expensive, imported foods. While country food is as direct a nutritional source as you can get, the most popular imported foods tend to be highly processed, meaning health issues like diabetes are a huge concern. Part of the reason for this is that processed foods are simply cheaper to buy, and last longer than fresh ones.
We had expected things to be costly up north, but neither of us were prepared for just how extreme it really is. In the café attached to our hotel, for example, a plain burger and fries cost $21, while a dozen chicken wings at the hockey arena canteen went for $18. For families that don’t have the resources or knowledge to hunt, gather, and prepare their own country food, the local grocery store is their only option, and it’s understandable that customers would stretch their dollars as far as possible. Food costs can get so outrageous, there's even a Tumblr dedicated to it.
But, back to what we were there for - food of northern origin. Before I share the courses of our first big meal, here’s a great country food fact, which I find especially fascinating as the daughter of a woman who never dared serve roast beef even the slightest bit rare: foods like whale and caribou can be served frozen, cooked, OR raw, and whale is so forgiving it can be thawed, eaten, re-frozen, thawed, and eaten again. Polar bear, on the other hand, must be fully boiled before it’s ingested, or else it’s dangerous. Fascinating!
Our first big opportunity to try country food came from a collaboration between Tourism Nunavut and the restaurant at Inns North; they put together a “Welcome Kablunaaq Dinner” for us. Though I was unaware at the time, Google has since told me “Kablunaaq” means “white person.” Welcome, white people!
We started with a platter of appetizers, and baskets of freshly-baked bannock.
There was jerky-like dried caribou, and several preparations of dried and smoked arctic char (called ‘pipsi’) from Kivalliq Arctic Foods, a local business we’ll share more about later.
Char is a phenomenal; it’s related to both salmon and lake trout, and is the northernmost fish in the world. Depending on the time of year and location in which it is caught, the colour of its flesh can change dramatically.
Our next course (of this appropriately meat and fish-heavy meal) was battered and fried turbot, pan-fried char, risotto, and steamed vegetables.
We did our best to eat all the veg (be gone, scurvy!) and gladly would have eaten ALL of the tasty rice and fish. We still, however, had an entire course of muskox stew and caribou on the way, so we held off as best we could. Yes, that’s eight proteins in one meal, putting this dinner in high competition with our Keenawii’s Kitchen spread on Haida Gwaii. Maybe you protein powder-obsessed body builders just need to move north.
The stew, with finely ground muskox, was rich and warming - the ultimate dish for -40 weather. The roast caribou loin was dark, lean, and densely-flavourful; just by looking at caribou you can tell it’s packed with iron, protein, and vitamins.
Impressively, the chef managed to sneak meat or fish into every course – including dessert! Our final plate was a poached pear with candied pipsi.
This was an outstanding meal shared with wonderful hosts. Thank you to Nunavut Tourism and the Inns North for an incredible introduction to country food!