Nunavut fish and seal cookbook features Inuit cuisine

“In Nunavut, food is more than sustenance,” writes Iqaluit Chief Sheila Flaherty in Nirjutit Imaani: Edible Animals of the Sea.

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Our cookbook of the week is Nirjutit Imaani: Edible Animals of the Sea published by Nunavut Arctic College Media, with a foreword by Iqaluit chef Sheila Flaherty. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Turbot Tacos, Arctic Char Blanket in Bannock, and Arctic Char with Montreal Steak Spices.

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In the arctic city of Iqaluit, chef Sheila Flaherty lives close to land, sea and ice. She and her husband, Johnny, have a boat, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, qamutiik (sleds), a kakivak (leister, three-pointed harpoon), rifles of various calibers and a shotgun.

“We’re fully equipped and we love getting out on the dirt,” says Flaherty, who has just warmed up a bowl of caribou stew for dinner.

On their porch, there’s a batch of arctic char drying to pee, marked in a checkerboard pattern and attached to a hockey stick. His first seal’s skin is stored in their freezer, ready to be sewn into clothing – probably “a nice pair of mittens”.

Flaherty grew up in Ottawa. Even down south, she had some sense of her Inuvialuk heritage from her late mother. When she moved to Iqaluit in 2010, however, the bond deepened.

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“To really live the culture, day after day, it’s a whole new level that was offered to me. And would I live elsewhere? No, I can’t,” Flaherty says.

“Every time we go hunting and gathering, it’s breathtaking every time. It truly does wonders for our souls. And it’s really humiliating.

Pipsi, dried Arctic char
“Traditional pipsi is made by the wind — no brine at all — until it’s dried to satisfaction,” says Adriana Kusugak at Rankin Inlet in Nirjutit Imaani. Photo by Claire Kines

Flaherty, who competed on MasterChef Canada in 2017, is executive chef of the sijjakkut (inuktitut meaning “by the sea”). Now in its pilot phase, she and Johnny founded the culinary tourism business to promote and preserve Inuit culture through Inuksiutit (traditional food, eg, ringed seal, caribou and arctic char).

When the Government of Nunavut asked him to write the foreword to Nirjutit Imaani: Edible Sea Animalswho won the Arctic category at the 2022 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, she was honored to be a part of it.

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“I tried to capture what food means to the Inuit and how we are intrinsically connected to our food,” says Flaherty.

Inuksiutit has sustained the Inuit for millennia. “In Nunavut, food is more than sustenance. It holds a history of tradition, survival, medicine, storytelling, taste, place, and providing for loved ones and neighbors,” Flaherty writes in Nirjutit Imaani. Although traditional cuisine has long had a connection to land and sea, in recent years it has seen a resurgence and pride among Nunavummiut in the ways of preparing it, both traditional and new.

Nirjutit Imaani: Edible Sea Animals
Nirjutit Imaani: Edible Animals of the Sea, published by Nunavut Arctic College Media, won the Arctic category at the 2022 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Photo by Nunavut Arctic College Media

More than 40 people from almost all 25 communities in the three regions of Nunavut (Qikiqtaaluk, Kivalliq and Kitikmeot) contributed to Nirjutit Imaani. The book’s 56 fish and seal (and a few types of bannock) recipes and stories of harvesting and hunting, storing and sharing are presented in English and Inuktut dialect and major spelling (syllabic or Roman) of the contributor’s community.

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“Inuit Nunangat, our Inuit homeland, is so vast,” says Flaherty. “So to finally have a cookbook from Nunavummiut — from people who live in Nunavut and want to contribute their homemade recipes for our food — it’s really amazing. »

As Flaherty does with her dishes — including the Arctic char sushi rolls she offers as part of the sijjakkut pilot menu — Nunavummiut are experimenting with different ways to prepare inuksiutit. “There’s a real charm to the recipes, and it just gives me a sense of pride,” she adds. “There is a real food culture in Nunavut, and (Nirjutit Imaani) illustrates this.

Mike Webster of Kugluktuk, for example, shared a recipe for seal haggis: “After hearing that the Inuit make stomach food, I thought, bingo — let’s make haggis! Gwen Healey Akearok from the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Center in Iqaluit presented turbot (or Greenland halibut) in biryani. Allen Uttuqiaq and Pokkuk Koplomik in Cambridge Bay provided their arctic-char-in-a-bannock blanket, a circumpolar version of pigs in a blanket by swapping hot dogs for arctic char and pre-made dough for bannock .

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These unique adaptations appear alongside snapshots of pipsi making, instructions on how to ferment seal fins and blubber, illustrations showing Inuit cooking tools and methods, the parts of a seal and fish preparation techniques.

Flaherty appreciates this balance between traditional know-how and contemporary home cooking. “I love it. It’s nice to see that I’m not the only Inuk who is passionate about our food,” she laughs.

Parts of a Seal, Nirjutit Imaani
Malaya Qaunirq Chapman writes about the nattiq, ringed seal, in Nirjutit Imaani: “some parts of the meat even have a designated person, a man, a woman or a child. The strength of meat is the mirror of strength within a family. Photo by Ben Shannon /Nunavut Arctic College Media

For Nunavummiut, culinary creativity is often driven by necessity, says Flaherty. Having to make do with what’s available is a regular occurrence, not an occasional inconvenience. “It happens all the time where I want a particular ingredient and it’s just not possible. So you have to be creative. You know, ‘How else can I prepare this dish that I want to make?’ »

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Food insecurity is on the rise (one in eight Canadians suffer from food insecurity, according to Statistics Canada). Nunavut was particularly affected with a rate more than eight times higher than the national average.

As Navalik Tologanak recounts in Cambridge Bay in Nirjutit Imaani: “When our hunters go out, they do the best they can to share. And sometimes it’s never enough. But we are always grateful. And that is how the Inuit are. They share. So you’re always grateful when you knock on the door and (they) say, “I caught you a fish.” Here is caribou or here is seal or whatever. And we are always grateful. And we hope it will always continue, the sharing of local cuisine…”

It’s expensive to go out on land or the ocean, says Flaherty. Hunting and harvesting requires gasoline, bullets, hooks, and “grub food” (food packaged for travel). “So that way it’s a bit inaccessible for some people, but we’ve always had access to our food – it’s never been denied to us as a people. But at the same time, even though it’s part of us, there’s just an added sense of pride in people that I can see.

During the pandemic, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. hosted a Home Cook Challenge as part of its virtual Nunavut Day celebrations on July 9 (the day Parliament passed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in 1993).

As a judge, Flaherty experienced firsthand Nunavummiut’s passion for their food culture. “It’s just great to see people preparing our food in different ways. Or continue to eat it traditionally too. However you slice it, our food is delicious. People need to know that. »


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