Cross Canada Cooks: Nunavut
The icy waters that surround Baffin Island are home to a rich assortment of sea life. Credits: The icy waters that surround Baffin Island are home to a rich assortment of sea life.
Cross Canada Cooks: Nunavut
Area: Land and freshwater area total 2,093,190 square kilometres; Canada's largest territory.
Location: The largest and newest of Canada's territories, Nunavut is bordered on the south by Manitoba, on the west by the Northwest Territories, and on all other sides by various bodies of water, including Hudson Bay, Baffin Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Nunavut extends north to the North Pole and includes most of Canada's Arctic islands, including Ellesmere Island and Baffin Island.
Capital and largest city: Iqaluit
History: Nunavut officially separated from the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999, which marked the first major change to Canada's map since the incorporation of Newfoundland in 1949.
Main industries: Mining, resource development, arts and tourism.
Local & tasty: Arctic char
Prized for its delicate taste, striking colour, sustainability and health benefits, Arctic char is becoming increasingly popular in fish markets and on menus across Canada. But in Nunavut, Arctic char has been a staple food for thousands of years.
Closely related to salmon and trout, Arctic char is a saltwater and freshwater fish that thrives in the deep, icy waters of Canada's North. Like salmon and trout, Arctic char flesh can range in colour from pale pink to deep coral red, depending on the season, and the diet and location of the fish.
There are small wild-caught Arctic char fishing camps, fish farms and processing plants based in Nunavut (and in other provinces and territories across the country). These support local economies and the communities that consume Arctic char regularly. SeaChoice, Canada's leading sustainable seafood program, lists Arctic char as a "best choice" fish.
Arctic char is not only good for the environment; like salmon and trout, it's high in healthy omega-3 fats. This high fat content helps people stay healthy in the cold climate of Canada's North, where a higher-fat diet is said to warm the body.
In Nunavut, fresh or frozen Arctic char is often enjoyed raw. Northern cooks also use traditional Inuit cooking techniques, including smoking and drying, to preserve the fish. Modern cooking techniques have also become popular, and Arctic char's firm, fatty flesh makes it ideal for grilling, roasting and pan-frying
Page 1 of 3 -- Discover Nunavut's rich country food on page 2
In Nunavut, summer only lasts about eight weeks. But with the sun burning brightly for up to 20 hours a day, the thin layer of soil that thaws comes alive with brightly coloured wildflowers, mosses, grasses, lichens and berry plants -- many of which are edible.
Traditionally, these wild plants were picked and eaten to complement the protein-heavy Inuit diet. Like most fruits and vegetables, they contain essential vitamins and minerals that aren't abundant in meat or fish.
Today, foraged wild plants are still an important part of local diets. Some wild plants commonly eaten are mountain sorrel, snow-bed willow, Labrador tea, lamb's quarter, violet and shepherd's purse. Local berries include cranberries, cloudberries, blueberries, gooseberries and crowberries.
When foraging, always consult a guidebook or, preferably, an elder who knows his or her way around the tundra. Many safe-to-eat plants closely resemble toxic ones. Elders with many years of foraging experience can also share useful information on how best to use the plant.
About 85 per cent of Nunavut's population is of Inuit descent, so the territory's culture is strongly tied to Inuit culture and traditions. And food is no exception.
For generations, the Inuit relied on the land and surrounding waters for sustenance; they hunted, fished and gathered seasonal plants. In Nunavut, the term "country food" is used to describe any food that the land supplies, including caribou, Arctic char, salmon, musk ox, seal, whale, seafood (including clams and mussels), Arctic hare and ptarmigan. There are also some edible leaves, grasses and berries.
These days, southern staples -- fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and canned or processed foods -- are flown in and readily available. They tend to be expensive and are often not top quality, so more than 70 per cent of the adults in Nunavut still harvest and eat country food.
Country food is usually enjoyed frozen and/or raw, dipped in a variety of sauces. Today, soy sauce is a favourite, but diners also enjoy traditional sauces made from caribou or seal. Menus also include many types of dried fish and meat, which offer contrasting textures and flavours.
But country food isn't always enjoyed the traditional way. Modern recipes have evolved that fuse country food with spices, flavourings and cooking techniques that are more familiar in southern Canada. Tasty options include caribou kabobs and burgers, and fish and chips.
No matter what people eat, sharing and community are central to Inuit food culture. Celebrations always include a feast, because people believe that food tastes better when shared with family and friends. Food is also thought to turn strangers into friends and to increase harmony. Some also say that food doubles in volume when shared -- a lovely sentiment no matter where you eat.
Page 2 of 3 -- Learn about a community organization that's making big steps in Nunavut food distribution on page 3
Spotlight: Project Nunavut
In July 2010, William Hyndman realized it was time to stop making excuses and start making things happen. The result? Project Nunavut, a community-oriented, Iqaluit-based organization focused on growing traditional markets.
A resident of Nunavut since 2005, Hyndman noticed the difficulties hunters had selling their catch and people had trying to buy traditional foods.
Hyndman hopes to fill growing gaps in Inuit culture by supporting traditional economic activities in the territory, such as harvesting local fish and game, and developing studios for traditional arts and crafts. "It is hard to overstate the importance of food to any culture, and it is also hard to overstate the importance of the principle of self-reliance for the Inuit and especially for hunters," he says.
Project Nunavut primarily creates a country market where hunters can sell their food directly to consumers. The inspiration came from similar markets in Greenland. The market gives sellers and buyers the chance to meet and solve problems together.
Since the first market in November 2010, each subsequent one has had a larger attendance than the last. Volunteers set up tents and tables, with the help of local government and hunting organizations, and hungry shoppers pick up their favourite foods: nipku (dried caribou), clams, maktaaq (whale skin), seal meat, berries, caribou stew, bannock and char. The food is often sold out half an hour before the posted start time, and some hunters don't even have the chance to set up their tables.
Looking ahead, Hyndman and his team are working hard to make sure that markets happen on a regular (hopefully monthly) basis. They're exploring ways of bettering infrastructure for hunters to increase the amount and range of foods on offer -- good news for hunters and country-food consumers in Nunavut.
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