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Searching for the Northern Cuisine

Searching for the Northern Cuisine

With voracious foodies and some of Canada’s top chefs taking an interest in the North, local chefs are whetting their appetites with menus that tell our stories through food.
By Herb Mathisen
Sep 19
From the September 2018 Issue

So you don’t have any bear in your freezer? How about bison?

No moose? You might get away with beef.

Running low on Arctic char? Maybe go with salmon.

But what do you do when you come across a recipe that calls for seal, walrus or whale? “No substitute,” writes Alice Hunter in her seminal 1986 recipe collection, Alice Hunter’s North Country Cookbook. They have their “own texture and flavour.” And if you’ve tried them, you know what she means.

Hunter, now calling Inuvik home, has lived all over the North. She was born in Aklavik, then moved to Inuvik, Fort McPherson, Pangnirtung, Iqaluit, Fort Smith and later Hay River. She learned many of the recipes collected in her country food cookbook by dining with the friends she made along the way.

Hunter was accustomed to preparing caribou and eating maktaaq in the Mackenzie Delta, but each community she moved to was an introduction to a whole new world of culinary options. In Pangnirtung, a friend invited her over for seal, which she’d never had before. “At first, I didn’t like it. I’d eat just a little wee bit. And then afterwards I’d eat a little bit more,” she says. “I got to love it and I do crave it every once in a while.”

Hunter grew up with only salt, pepper and onion for seasoning. “Even after I got married, I didn’t have all the stuff I have now,” she says. With six kids of her own to feed, eating off the land was more affordable than going to the store. It was healthier too. “When I was growing up, we’d be up in the bush and my mother would tell us to go out and help pick willow leaves for food.” These greens are loaded with vitamins. They picked berries and wild spinach and wildrose too. “The land has all these healing [plants], but we don’t eat from it anymore. We’re so used to going to the store and buying what we need.”

But that’s starting to change. The global trend of sourcing food locally has come North and our abundance of wild game and plants are the envy of chefs the world over. Here at home, foodies, chefs and restaurateurs are making it their mission to fill plates with meals that reflect the land around them.

What is Hunter’s preferred Northern meal? “I guess caribou head soup and bannock,” she says, after considering the question for a moment. “Yeah, that would be my supper.”

Or maktaaq, if it was very fresh.”


The Yukon returns to its roots

Ninety years ago, the S.S. Klondike plied the Yukon River, shipping goods down-river to Dawson City and ore up-river to Whitehorse. Miners and residents played cards to pass the time during the four- to five-day trips from Dawson to Whitehorse, and eagerly awaited their roast dinner with legumes and desserts.

Carson Schiffkorn, chef and proprietor of Inn on the Lake, helped organize a throwback dinner as part of the Yukon Culinary Festival in August 2016. He was surprised when he looked over the sternwheeler’s near-century-old dinner menu. “It was whitefish from Marsh Lake. It was heirloom tomatoes from Dawson City. It was veal from Carmacks,” he says. “At all these places, they would stop and get food along the way.” It made absolute sense to him. This was years before the Alaska Highway was built, which facilitated the movement of goods and perpetuated a dependency on the south to keep bellies full.

To Schiffkorn, a chef who has spent 23 years serving up dishes with Yukon ingredients at his Marsh Lake lodge, it was documented proof they hadn’t always been importing food from the south. “That gave a lot of credence to what I was doing in the Yukon and what a lot of people were doing. ‘Hey, this isn’t new stuff, this has been happening forever.’”

Chefs plate a meal at Yukon chef Carson Schiffkorn’s Inn on the Lake during the ‘Across the Top of Canada’ culinary tour last June. Courtesy Edible Canada

And that means even before gold rush stampeders first arrived. Georgette Aisaican is a chef with Northern Vision Development’s chain of hotels and she’s lived in the Yukon since 1986 after moving up from Saskatchewan. Growing up around Yukon First Nations culture, food has always played a part at gatherings. “Here, they have potlaches,” she says. “Where I’m from, they have powwows.” There’s moose stew or caribou ribs and bannock frying—“and you always see the people cooking over the fire,” she says.

In April, she collaborated with prominent Indigenous chefs from across Canada at the Yukon Culinary Festival’s First Nations Fire Feast in Carcross. She found it rejuvenating to see so many chefs integrating their cultures into their cooking. It’s what she hopes to do one day when she runs a kitchen.

The Yukon is in the midst of something of a culinary boom—national headlines highlight the burgeoning scene and a coordinated marketing effort by a conglomerate of private companies and government agencies has helped get the word out.

But Schiffkorn says it’s been a long road to get here. He used to get feedback from tour operators asking him to focus on Japanese cuisine for the inn’s Japanese clientele. It was confusing. They already have the best Japanese food back home, he thought. Why not give them a taste of the Yukon? “We always tried to have at least part of the meal that was very authentically Yukon.”

Finally, people are catching on. And that’s because now more than ever people want experiences. “The world has become a lot more experimental by nature,” he says. They want to purchase experiences—sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

When pressed for a definition of the Yukon’s cuisine, Schiffkorn says most people default to salmon or elk or moose. In other words, to a signature ingredient. He says the local cuisine is more an amalgamation of Yukon ingredients that creates something fresh and unique. The local food scene tells a story through its terroir and the historical influences on the people living there. And with the arrival of new Yukon food producers—from butcher shops, to farmers’ markets and farms—there’s more fresh food to choose from every day.

Aisaican has spent the last year or so researching the culinary aspects of her culture. “I have lived off my reserve. I’m originally from Saskatchewan, so I haven’t been around my own First Nation’s people since I was very little,” she says. But she’s starting to reconnect through food.

During the Fire Feast, chef Joseph Shawana, owner of Ku̅-Kŭm Kitchen in Toronto, showed Aisaican his menu, telling her about his sweetgrass-infused crème brûlée. “Right away, the chef in me went, ‘How do you infuse the sweetgrass into the crème brûlée?’” He shared his secrets. And then he shared a story.

“There were a couple of older First Nations ladies that were in his restaurant and they had the sweetgrass crème brûlée,” says Aisaican. “When they were finished, they were in tears they enjoyed it so much.” Why? It reminded them of home. It reminded them of growing up.

In the middle of the big city, a taste brought them back in time and took them somewhere else.


The Northwest Territories gets curious

Last June, 60 foodies boarded a 737 in Vancouver destined for Whitehorse, then Yellowknife, Iqaluit and finally St. John’s for a seven-day Northern culinary experience dubbed ‘Across the Top of Canada,’ organized by Vancouver’s Edible Canada.

In Yellowknife, 16 of those visitors took a floatplane charter to a cabin on Great Slave Lake, where four top-notch Canadian chefs had been fishing all day. There, the group enjoyed a dinner pulled from the lake and forest around them. It included juniper- and butter-stuffed Northern pike slow smoked over a fire, pan-fried whitefish with spruce tip gremolata, and juniper shortbread. The following evening, Yellowknife chef Robin Wasicuna and the visiting chefs prepared a six-course meal that featured smoked inconnu, roasted lake trout, duck sausage with morel mushrooms, and locally inspired cocktails.

Wasicuna, owner of the Twin Pine Diner in Yellowknife, says the travelling chefs were surprised by the diversity and abundance of wild ingredients in the area. “I’m like, ‘I’ve got spruce tips, I’ve got morel mushrooms, I’ve got birch syrup, I’ve got juniper berries, I’ve got Labrador tea, we’ve got trout, some bison.’ They were just floored by the amount of stuff that was available locally,” he says. “Like, you can drive 10 kilometres out of the city and find anything that we used that night.” Jeremy Charles, a renowned chef from St. John’s, told Wasicuna the terroir around Yellowknife isn’t so different from Newfoundland’s. “But it was the local fish that caught his eye,” he says.

Yet, while southerners paid many thousands of dollars to dive headlong into the North’s cuisine, it’s been a harder sell at home in Yellowknife. Culinary options have long reflected the diversity of the city—an Ethiopian and a Korean restaurant sit kitty-corner from each other downtown. But Northern cuisine with fresh, local ingredients has been lacking on menus—with the exception of fish.

Yellowknife has long been a frozen burger patty and chicken fingers kind of town, says Wasicuna. But he’s seen attitudes toward food slowly starting to change. When he first introduced a ‘no substitutions’ policy at his Wiseguy Foods truck, it was a minor scandal in town. But people got over it. And when his diner runs out of food after a lunch or dinner rush, people don’t freak out like they once did. “That was another part that people had a hard time understanding. Like, ‘Why are you running out of food? You’re a restaurant,’” he says. But they make everything from scratch at the diner and, with limited storage, it’s inevitable.

Yellowknife chef Robin Wasicuna would like to see regulations lifted to allow him to serve wild game and give his menu even more local flavour. Hannah Eden/Up Here

And Wasicuna has noticed people’s palettes are growing more curious. Last October, he partnered with Rosanna Strong, owner of Strong Interpretation, for a Forage and Food event. During the day, Yellowknifers went hiking with Strong, who offers guided tours in and around the city. She pointed out plants and berries along the way, noting which ones could be eaten and when in the year they were best harvested. Later, they sat down at Twin Pine for a three-course meal—one each for spring, summer, and autumn—inspired by the plenty of the land. This included potato-crusted lingcod with capered spruce tips, and duck confit on a fry bread taco with fireweed jelly, red onion, arugula and crowberry powder.

“Yellowknifers took time off of work to take part and go out,” says Strong. “We spent about an hour outside looking at things and then we came back here and Robin had prepared these lovely dishes that emulated all of the things that you can pick at different seasons.” They’re planning similar events for the future.

As locals become more adventurous, there is plenty of room to make the cuisine even more exciting. Like incorporating more wild game. “Why isn’t muskrat on menus?” Strong asks rhetorically.

The short answer is regulations prohibit restaurants from selling game meat. But if there was a way local chefs and restaurateurs could purchase ptarmigan, or beaver, or moose from hunters, then the Northwest Territories would be better represented on local menus. “We have licensed fishermen that are going out and catching fish every day,” says Wasicuna. “Why can’t we have somebody who works with fish and game daily and just goes out and harvests animals?”

While the Yukon’s culinary scene is well-marketed, that sort of dedicated promotion is lacking in the NWT. Even a little government support could go a long way, says Wasicuna, who notes that he’s not so much promoting himself but the NWT when he’s at southern industry shows or collaborating with other chefs.

He proposes the GNWT name a culinary ambassador each year—someone who travels to industry events with local ingredients and showcases what the North has to offer. It might cost $10,000 per year to fund such a position, but that’s still less than the $12,000 ticket each Across the Top of Canada guest paid last year just for a sample. 


Nunavut sets the table

Inuit cuisine needs a push.

It’s something that’s been gnawing at Sheila Lumsden. “Our food needs to be known better in the world.” 

Lumsden’s own profile has been on the rise since her appearance last year on the nationally televised cooking competition, MasterChef Canada. There, she met chefs from all over Canada. “I was the exotic factor,” she says, breaking into a laugh. “I don’t see myself as exotic, but they’re like, ‘Whoa! You’re Inuk!’ And they couldn’t stop asking questions.” How do you prepare your food? What’s a traditional dish? What does polar bear taste like? Their enthusiasm and interest surprised her.

And then she spoke with a new chef friend from Montreal who was astonished to learn that if he spent thousands to fly to Iqaluit to experience Nunavut’s cuisine and dine out on local fare, the only options he’d likely encounter at restaurants would be muskox medallions, a caribou stew or a small serving of baked Arctic char. 

It all got Lumsden thinking.

When she returned to Iqaluit after the show, she was sought out for catering gigs. And her friends began bugging her to start a restaurant. “That’s not me,” she says. Instead, she’s working with her fiancé, Johnny Flaherty, to open a bed and breakfast with a commercial kitchen. From there, she would offer guests (and Iqalungmiut, through pop-up dinners) an ever-changing seasonal menu. “That’s more up my alley than pumping out food every day.”

Lumsden grew up in Ottawa eating well. She learned to cook from her father, who took a French cuisine course when she was young. “I was introduced to vichyssoise and duck à l’orange and all these French dishes.” She would go to school with “unevenly cut homemade bread with big hunks of leftover roast with Dijon mustard.” Her classmates had Wonder Bread and bologna sandwiches. 

One of her aims is to pass on her passion via cooking courses aimed specifically at Inuit women. Once, she held a dinner party and a woman asked, ‘Are these real mashed potatoes?’ “I didn’t know there was anything else,” says Lumsden, who wants to dispel the notion that cooking is complicated. “It’s really easy and it’s so worthwhile because you’re not eating food with preservatives in it or [food that’s] super salty.” Plus, a bag of potatoes can go a lot further than a box of dehydrated potatoes.

Lumsden is experimental in the kitchen. “I like doing new things with our food,” she says. “I always try to make sure that whenever I cook with our food that the taste is either enhanced or not lost.” For instance, she doesn’t see the sense in caribou curry. “What’s the point of making that kind of dish because, for me, I can’t taste the caribou. You might as well use beef,” she says. “I want to make sure that the taste isn’t overpowered by spices.”

Sheila Lumsden cooks bannock in her Iqaluit kitchen. She hopes to soon open a B&B to introduce clients to authentic local and in-season cuisine. Beth Brown

Her seasonal recipes have since been featured twice in Nunatsiaq News profiles and though she doesn’t like the word ‘fusion,’ it is her preoccupation. She likes to take country food staples and flip them. Muskox dumplings. Arctic char waterzooi. Or baby seal sliders, which she served to 500 hungry Iqalungmiut two years ago on Nunavut Day. 

Event organizers asked her what she’d be interested in making. “I said, I want to make baby seal sliders because baby seal is yummy and we’re in Nunavut and sliders are perfect for Nunavut Day because it’s summertime.” She was reluctant though because she had no idea how she was going to get her hands on 60 pounds of meat. 

It was an instructive experience. The uncertainty of country food supply is one reason why Lumsden is looking at a smaller operation instead of a restaurant. Country food is hard to get. For one, it’s expensive to hunt. “I think that’s the biggest deterrent for people accessing our food, the cost of going out,” she says. Fortunately, she and Johnny, a skilled hunter who grew up in Grise Fiord, have snowmobiles and a boat. But it can cost them many hundreds of dollars in gas and food for the 200-kilometre trip from Iqaluit to their favourite char fishing spot. It’s worth it. “The meat in the char is the best. It’s so fatty too,” she says. But it’s not something everyone can afford.

And then there’s an ongoing conversation between Inuit about buying country food versus sharing it. “I see Inuit saying, ‘You shouldn’t be selling country food.’ Then other Inuit say, ‘Get with the times.’”

Even when purchasing it, supply can dry up if you’re buying in bulk and that can leave you with freezer-burnt meat from the supermarkets. Instead of expending her creative energy on supply chain management and trying to secure the meat she needs for lunches and dinners, she’d rather focus on coming up with a novel take on the fresh, in-season country food she and Johnny harvest. 

That’s all part of Lumsden’s pervading philosophy on food and her own way to promote Inuit cuisine. Her menu will change with the seasons. Her meals will tell a story—they will be an experience. She has bigger dreams of offering tours to visitors “where we actually take them out seal hunting,” she says. “They can see me or Johnny catching the seal, if we’re lucky, and then coming back home, and then they eat it.”

Now that’s surely worth the flight up.