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The Nunavummiut Diet: “The Edible Road Trip” On Food And Culture In Canada’s North

Lindsay Anderson and Dana VanVeller are the Vancouver-based writers, adventurers, and foodies behind FEAST: An Edible Road Trip. With a wide array of experience in food, including but not limited to herding goats, cheese mongering, tree-plant cooking, authoring of cookbooks, and overseeing and operating other food blogs, these two super friends decided to take on a new project. FEAST: An Edible Road Trip was born of a desire to understand what a typically Canadian diet was. Combining their passions for writing, travelling, and food, the duo head off an adventure across the country in an attempt to document and share stories about Canadian cuisine and food.

While their travels took them across Canada, few places compared to the incredibly dynamic territory of Nunavut. We caught up with Lindsay and Dana to discuss caribou stomachs, ancient sewing needles, lighting the Qulliq, and to inquire about what Nunavut tasted like.

So what were your expectations prior to your trip? Was Nunavut as you imagined?

We had no expectations. We were dumb. We started our cross country trip in June and our plan all along was to stop at a Value Village on the way and pick up some jackets. Thankfully we had friends that gave us proper parkas. It was November, but we got lucky. If we showed up without those we would have been cold.

So how was Nunavut different than the other places in Canada you visited?

LA: It was an interesting juxtaposition of modern day and past. We were sitting speaking to an Inuit hunter about spending nights out on the tundra and the necessity of having caribou skin. He was telling us about how in that climate, the best adventure gear on the market doesn’t compare to having caribou skins to keep you warm. We’d be learning about traditional culture and lifestyles while his kids were watching TV and eating sub-style sandwiches. It was really cool to see how the traditional and current times co-exist so easily in the North.

And the food. That’s why you visited; as part of your tour of Canada. Was it vastly different?

DV: The traditional Inuit diet consists of meat, and fat, and berries. That’s what the community has survived on for years. So it was really interesting to think about how diverse our diets, in the south, are. It puts lifestyle diets into perspective a little bit, you know?

Which food experience had the most impact?

We went to a local Inuit woman’s home, Monica, for a day and spent some time with her and it was so interesting. Just fascinating. She showed us how one can take a caribou’s stomach, place caribou marrow in the stomach, tie it up with a straw so it can still have air inside, and then hang it up for seven days.

DV: It becomes something like butter that is traditionally spread on food.

Nutritionally, did you learn a lot?

DV: It was cool to see how important the diet of the animal was. How it equates to the nutrients in their meat. In the summer, the tundra is completely covered in berries and wild greens, but in the winter, they are essentially getting their vitamins and nutrients from the greens still stored in these animals.

LA: It’s funny to compare the Inuit peoples cuisine to, say, the nose-to-tail diet scene down in the south. In comparison, it makes the southern concept of nose-to-tail laughable. Southerners are like, “We’re eating pig ears. Woo!”

Which dish was your favourite?

LA: Pipsi was so good. It seems like there are a thousand different ways to cook and prepare fish in the north, but pipsi is so good.

DV: So good. Pipsi is this dried or cured fish that’s not really dried all the way through, so it’s still chewy.

Were there many hybrid dishes? Dishes that incorporated southern and northern cuisine?

LA: We had this really great meal of muskox stew, candied Arctic char and all of that. It was so good. We had fermented whale fat.

DV: The fermented whale fat. And we tried beluga.

Beluga. What was that like?

LA: More than anything beluga just tasted chewy. It was such beautiful meat. It looked like glistening watermelon on top of marble. It was cut into tiny squares and dipped in China-Lily soy sauce. It has to be China-Lily.

DV: Seal stir-fry. We came across a northern cookbook. But we didn’t eat many of the hybrid meals. Maybe something like the muskox stew, which I think, is sort of southern. Cookbooks were southern style cooking, but with northern ingredients. Seal stir-fry, seal-pot-pie.

DV: We had arctic char sushi that was so good. Oh, and bunt cake with arctic berries that were so good.

What would you like to try again?

LA: All of it. But we dipped frozen raw caribou in fermented whale fat. It looks almost like Vaseline, very clear, and it’s so strong. I’d try that again. It’s like blue cheese times a billion.

In a good way?

DV: Oh yeah! It basically grew in your mouth.

LA: You felt it in your feet. It was humid and you felt it in your body. It took over.

That sounds wild.

DV: Yes! You have to try it. If you ever get the opportunity, try it.

LA: The cooks who we were with were all from the East Coast and none of them had tried it. The Inuit chef that prepared it asked us if we wanted to try it, and when we said yes, and they were all like, “really!?”

We’d try all of it again. It was so good. But we dipped frozen raw caribou in fermented whale fat. I’d try that again. It’s like blue cheese times a billion.

Are visitors typically afraid of it?

LA: Totally they are. It’s really strong. But you have to understand that it’s like blue cheese. When you first try blue cheese, you’re like, “what is this stinky stuff?” Then, after awhile, you love blue cheese. It’s amazing. If you grew up with it I can completely understand why people in the northern communities would love it. They were joking that it’s like their Frank’s Red Hot. They put it on everything.

Are there any cooking techniques or recipes that you learned that you’ve integrated into your regular cuisine?

DV: We’ve got two in our cookbook: The arctic char and the pipsi.

LA: The pipsi is cool. You score the flesh, then soak it in brine for a couple of hours, and hang it on a rack on an angle where there is constant airflow, but it has to be at room temperature.

DV: We were like, is it going to reek?

LA: Dana has roommates, so we decided to try to make it in my tiny apartment. So I had this fish hanging next to my bed with a fan on it. I was so afraid everything in my house would smell like arctic char, but it didn’t! It didn’t smell at all. And it’s so cool, because that’s probably the simplest way to prepare or preserve fish. All you need is a fan, a rack, and preferably a room that’s slightly warmer than my apartment.

What would you tell people who were interested in visiting Nunavut?

LA: If people are going to visit, I think they should visit in the spring or summer. The tundra is beautiful and you can be outside for longer periods of time. You can pick berries and just see that incredible landscape. I had nothing to compare to the tundra. It’s just so colourful and covered in life.

DV: Definitely reach out and try to meet locals.

LA: If there were any volunteer opportunities or a way to sort of integrate into the communities, it would be really beneficial. Our trip was set up through fisheries and they took us to meet the hunters, and we got to meet a lot of really interesting people in the community through that connection.

Ultimately, how did the experience compare to the rest of your experiences; travelling across Canada?

DV: In terms of a Canadian experience, it’s pretty unique. It’s like a definitive Canadian thing.It was an essential part of our project. It’s a perspective that’s starkly different from the rest of Canada. It’s so different; much different than the territories. We learned things that we never thought we would learn.


Like this post? Check out The Unique Architecture Of Nunavut and 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Nunavut, too!

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