Tasting North: The Universal char
My stepmother, Alexina Kublu, comes from Igloolik, where she recalls feasting on fresh-caught Arctic char as a child. “Most char fishing was done in the spring and summer and early fall,” she says. “In the spring before the run, holes were made in the lake to jig from. In the summer nets were set. We’d eat it raw right from the net, or boiled.”
To preserve the extra catch, much of it would be turned into pipsi—brined, smoked and dried for eating throughout the year. Larger char would be gutted with the head removed and hung upside down to dry in its own skin. In the Pond Inlet region this is called siriaktaq.
“The fish were caught in the saputi weir on their upstream journey back to the lake. Most of this fish was cached for winter use and was called qasaarraq. In the early fall after the ice formed, nets were set and the fish froze while being transported home.”
The other day a large box of frozen pipsi and other char treats arrived from Rankin Inlet, the busy hub hamlet on the shore of Hudson Bay where I lived as a small child. I don’t recall ever eating pipsi there, though I do remember my family’s delight when we were given char by neighbours. It would be cooked liked salmon—it’s a member of the Salmonidae family, but also has some trout in its genes. Its flavour is a nuanced blend of full-bodied salmon with the lighter sweetness of freshwater trout.
The box that showed up at my office was a family pack, courtesy of Rankin’s Kivalliq Arctic Foods. It contained a mix of their top char sellers: traditional pipsi, mesquite-flavoured char sticks, plain char sticks, cold-smoked char (very much like a slightly lighter lox), candied char belly.
The standout: the traditional pipsi, scored like a checkerboard, thawed and eaten by hand straight off the skin. It delivered the pure essence of char. “It’s essentially done the same way as it was done traditionally,” said Kivalliq Arctic Food’s manager Todd Johnson when I called up the company. “What we’ve taken away is any potential contaminants. We do it in an entirely clean facility with positive airflow so there’s no outside influences on the product. We’re making traditional pipsi in a non-traditional environment.” I ask the plant’s taciturn, veteran processing manager, James Innukshuk, what the process of making pipsi involves. “Make brine about 20 percent salt. Leave it there for 15 minutes. Then we’ll start drying it. If it’s dry enough then we’ll pack it.”
Another standout was the melt-in-your-mouth candied char belly. It’s a new product, introduced a couple of years ago to much success. “That’s one of James’ creations,” says Johnson. “He thought—and was right—that a more rich, full-flavoured, fatty product like the char belly would work. It’s a variation on our candied nuggets. A 48-hour marinade [brown sugar and salt] to accent the flavour, then baked and smoked in the oven.”
The two products—traditional pipsi prepared in a manner that essentially hasn’t changed in thousands of years, and an entirely new preparation created by a veteran employee—represent the future for Kivalliq Arctic Foods. It’s a careful blend of preservation and innovation, fine-tuned by Johnson’s commitment to listening to his long-time staffers.
“James is constantly developing new products that are, let’s say, spins on traditional,” Johnson tells me. “Just recently James smoked caribou hocks [a tasty joint connecting the leg and foot], and it is phenomenal. It is a traditional food, but it’s not something that we had in our item list, and we had some hocks kicking around. They turned out deliciously.”
Says James: “I want to ask around and see how they used to make stuff out in the land more. We can make it safer, so people can try some.”
Johnson, a Nova Scotian whose background is in the grocery business and who “came up [North] as a Co-op boy” in 2000, figures he’s there to listen to his staff about the products they should be making. “Just because I don’t think it’s going to be popular doesn’t mean I’m going to be right. In fact, if I think that anything the staff suggests is not going to be popular, I’m going to be wrong. I respect any innovations that they bring to the table because they’re more experienced than I am.”
James Innukshuk has been with Kivalliq Arctic Foods for over two decades now. He started shortly after the company itself—owned by the Nunavut Development Corporation, with sister companies Kitikmeot Foods and the Pangnirtung and Papiruq fisheries—opened in 1992. Officially he’s the plant processing manager, but “James does pretty much everything,” says Johnson. “He’s been here so long he has full knowledge of all the ups and down, ins and outs of the entire operation.”
“I was just going to work here for two weeks,” says James, still sounding a bit surprised to find himself here at 43.
When he started, much of the company’s product—things like caribou smokies and teriyaki caribou jerky—was designed with southern tastes in mind and most of it was sold outside of the Kivalliq region. “We were sending it to Yellowknife, Vancouver, places like that.”
“We no longer do that because we no longer have our Canadian Food Inspection Agency certification for red meat,” explains Johnson. “We’re strictly territorial now, because there’s such a market for it in the territory. But previously, it was the meat wholesalers and processors in Vancouver, or in Edmonton or Ontario, who were purchasing the product and reselling it. It created a huge market for which I’m still getting calls, but now, of course, the harvest on Coral Harbour has stopped and the raw material isn’t there anymore to provide for the southern market, so we’ve focused specifically on Nunavut.”
But it isn’t just logistics that have fueled the company’s move to a more domestic audience. There’s a philosophical motivation as well: “The company wanted to try selling traditional food to the people,” says Innukshuk. “So we tried it. It started growing. Every time we’d make something, a product, people would see it and buy it. Come down here and buy more. And from there it just kept going and going. Everything was gone, basically. Everything was selling.” It varies from community to community and depends greatly upon availability, but there is a resurgence in interest in traditional Inuit fare. Innukshuk’s children are among a new generation that hunger for the flavours of their forefathers: “My kids always want more.”
“We’re concentrating on things that people want in the North, rather than things people want in…Denver,” says Johnson. “They have cows, they have pigs, they have all of that food down south. They can eat that. But up here in the territory we have char, caribou and muskox and that’s kind of Nunavummuit food. If it’s from here we want to be able to provide it back to here.
“We’re also trying to be socially responsible. We’re trying to make a real impact here in the territory by buying char and caribou and muskox, and putting money back into the communities.”
Kivalliq Arctic Food products are sold throughout Nunavut, at Northern Stores, Co-ops and independent retailers. Or you can contact the company (867-645-3137 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and order a box for yourself—they can only ship fish out of the territory though—which is how I ended up with eight kilograms of char in the office. After we photographed a tiny portion of it, I set the rest out on a table in the main office, with a little tasting station, and announced to everyone that there was char for the taking. Judging from what followed, Kivalliq could fly in an endless stream of char and never keep up with demand. It was a feeding frenzy, and proof that though the company may be focused on making food by and for Nunavummiut, its appeal is entirely universal.