Sámi Kitchen Brings History to Now

Tall spruces cast long shadows over the snow that lies deep on our yard in Porjus. It is the seventies and we children are living in a winter fairyland. The minus degrees make our cheeks red and our breath visible against the dark winter sky. Snow finds its way into our shoes and melts against our home-knitted wool socks. But it doesn’t matter. We rumble on and the dog leaps happily by our side. From the pasture at the edge of the forest, some reindeer calves look at us curiously.  

Christmas approaches. As for all children, Christmas is a highlight of the year for me. But in a Sámi family December is also an intensive part of the reindeer herding year. Dad disappears all too often with the snowmobile, an orange Ockelbo 300. My family has no special Christmas traditions from the past. ”Christmas was nothing special back then” say the elderly. They have left the nomadic life with so called renrajd (a team of reindeer pulling sleights) and tents behind. The strict Christian doctrine of Laestadianism that disapproved extravagant Christmas celebrations has begun to fade.  

Nowadays, our life is a mix of different traditions. Grandmother hums hymns at the kitchen table while sewing nuvttahat, winter shoes made of hair-covered reindeer skin. We children go to Swedish school and when I take off my Sámi hat, I blend right in among the other students. I know the thrill of Christmas Eve and enjoy the countdown opening the boxes of my advent calendar.   

Finally, Christmas Eve is here. The family is gathered in our house. Fire in the tile stove is crackling and the table is set with ham, herring and other foods that belong to Christmas. However, there is also boiled reindeer meat, dumplings made of reindeer blood and gáhkku, Sámi flatbread. It is no coincidence that the Sámi food is prepared at this time of the year. It is time for winter slaughter and we boil and use everything that cannot be stored and needs to be eaten immediately. The family, the heat from the fire and the smells from food and the Christmas tree fill the house. We eat and talk – and wait for Santa.  

Speeding forwad to year 2021. I am adult and have my own family now. Over the years, I have become more and more aware of the delicious food I have had the privilege to eat during my life. The ham still belongs to the Christmas table but the boiled reindeer meat feels even more important. I am engaged in enhancing the awareness of sustainable Sámi food through Slow Food Sápmi. One of my projects has been writing the book ”Taste of Sápmi – Sámi Cuisine”. The book is available both in Swedish and English.   

I think that local traditions are unique. Tasting Sámi food means tasting millennial tradition, fantastic ingredients and the art of surviving in the cold Arctic. It meas so much more than putting food in our mouths. Eating locally produced food involves us with the society and its cultural heritage. 

Sámi products are praised around the world. Our food production separates from large-scale farming. Where we live, plants and animals choose the best place to grow and breed, and the intense four seasons make the food we eat unusually nutrient-rich. The reindeer meat is a gourmet product and the healthy composition of it – without injected fat and naturally rich in Omega 3 – comes from the fact that the animal chooses what it eats. The lichen and herbs that grow here give the meat character. Raw materials that are not cultivated by man ripen just in time. You can learn a lot about a culture by exploring its food traditions.   

Here in the north the clean air is an important resource. It is so pure that lichens can grow and become an important winter pasture for reindeer. The cold temperatures during spring and winter give opportunities to air dry food. Gurpi means a lightly smoked bun of minced reindeer meat that is wrapped in reindeer fat. This traditional Sámi food slowly develops its exquisite taste and structure outdoors. Smoking is an ancient method that both flavours and preserves. The smoke gets its character from the trees that have grown here for thousands of years.   

The interest in the traditions and knowledge of indigenous peoples is increasing. Did you know that native peoples make up five percent of the world’s population? According to the World Bank, 80 percent of the worlds biological diversity is found on the 25 percent of land inhabited by indigenous peoples. Everything is connected: diversity in nature is a prerequisite for diversity in food and vice versa. From the sustainability perspective, local diverse food production is becoming increasingly important. Especially, since the diversity of insects, plants and animals, is curretly declining avalanche-like. Let us take care of what we have and the nature we are all a part of.  

I wish you a nice holiday season and Merry Christmas!  

Victoria Harnesk  

Cookbook author and Sámi food advocate 

Do you want to learn more about Sámi food traditions? Visit www.slowfoodsapmi.com.