|A very Danish-style buffet of open sandwiches was served to the|
Explorer passengers while we waited for the plane back to Iceland.
Food has been a major problem for the many peoples who settled in Greenland over the last 4000 years: including the Inuit, the Vikings, and even the modern residents. All of them have dealt with the challenges of one of the world's most extreme climates. The current population of around 57,000 people includes around 90% Inuit people, with the remaining population mainly Danish people. Greenland is a part of Denmark, so the imported food often comes from Denmark, and the cuisine in restaurants is influenced by Danish traditions.
Most produce, meat, dairy products, and grains have to be imported to Greenland today: approximately 80% of food is imported. (source) Supermarkets and smaller shops are the major source of food — but the prices are high, and some of our guides told us that many families still hunt and gather traditional foods, which they share with their friends and relatives. Small local markets also sell fish and game, and commercial fishing provides a source of nutrition for the population. There are a few farms, especially in the south, but the growing season is short, and very little land is hospitable to farming; climate change has recently enabled some cultivation of a wider variety of crops. Sheep and goats can be raised in a few favorable areas, but an author writing a few years ago noted there were only 16 cows in all of Greenland; all milk products are imported.
Almost every local guide mentioned how terribly expensive they found the food in the supermarkets. We noticed the supermarkets: huge buildings in every small city where we walked around. In fact they looked like typical European or US supermarkets. However, the foods they sell are more-or-less unaffordable by many families.
|A supermarket in one of the towns we visited.|
|Inside another market.|
|The bakery inside the market.|
I know very little about economic and social conditions in Greenland, or about their welfare system, which is funded by Denmark, and which attempts to provide for all residents. However, I'm aware that many families are very poor, young people are troubled, there are high rates of alcoholism and suicide, housing shortages are an issue in some areas, and many Greenlanders have problems adapting to rapid cultural change, including the availability of non-nutritious processed foods.
Food insecurity is an issue for many people in Greenland although some can continue to obtain food by fishing and gathering shellfish and seaweed; by hunting for game like reindeer, hare, swans, geese, and other birds; by going to sea for large mammals like seals and walruses; by fishing in the salmon rivers and other streams, and by gathering edible plants. Households and small producers continue with traditional ways for making sausage, drying fish, and preserving berries, as well as modern methods of freezing meat and seafoods. It is out of necessity that many people still hunt, fish, and gather the small wild berries and other tundra plants when they are in season. The traditional hunting technology has of course mainly been replaced by guns and modern fishing equipment. I have no real idea of whether the food thus obtained is in any way adequate or just a pious fiction told to tourists. I need to do more reading on the harsh realities of life for the Greenlanders.
From the point of view of a birder and amateur wildlife photographer, my understanding is that almost all wild birds and animals, both large and small, are valued as food, and that indeed hunting affects the populations of these animals. As a tourist, I see the pressure from humans who hunt as a reason why these creatures are quite shy and hard to see. For example, the ptarmigan is a small bird that we would have loved to see and photograph, but this species are wary of people and we never sighted one. In fact, they are a highly valued food of the local population, which probably makes them avoid all contact.
Takanna: Delicious Food from Greenland.
I bought this Greenland cookbook, which has recipes for fish, game, and wild plants. It's interesting but not useful. There are many recipes for ptarmigan!
A Tourist Tastes Modern Greenland Food
During our trip to Iceland and Greenland from July 31-August 16, we had almost all of our meals onboard the National Geographic Explorer, which has a wonderful kitchen, a skilled chef and kitchen staff, and uses excellent quality ingredients. However good these meals are, the cuisine of the ship is in no way native cuisine of the area we visited. Therefore, this post is based on the few times we ate off the ship, and on various lectures, books, and so on. A future post will describe the food served on the ship.
|At a hotel in Sisimuit, we tasted a number of local special foods.|
Here is snow crab, lumpfish roe, and various game sausages.
|A friend caught us tasting another bite of dried cod|
at the end of the tasting event. It was really nice.
|One of the open sandwich choices |
at the airport buffet.
|Dining at the Rowing Club of Kangerlussuaq.|
|Reindeer sausage on the Club buffet.|
|Musk ox tenderloin, which I found quite tasty, slightly sweet.|
|Reindeer stew was a choice at one meal on the ship.|
I found it somewhat dry.
With sadness, I'm aware of the stark contrast between the luxury foods we eat while touring exotic areas and the actual conditions of the life of the residents of the area. This is always an issue for tourism, and I don't know any good way to deal with it. I am aware that Denmark provides a good deal of aid to the people of Greenland to alleviate poverty and social problems.
Historic kitchens of Greenland
Museums and reconstructed Viking dwellings often included kitchens and cooking equipment from historic times.
Viking settlers, who lived in Greenland from the 10th to the 15th centuries, learned to hunt, fish, and gather wild plants, relying on local food as well as European food. They raised pigs and cows brought with them by ship for meat and dairy products, and also ate the meat from sheep that they raised mainly for wool. They planted European crops, and gathered hay to feed their livestock in winter. The climate became colder in the 14th century making it more difficult to farm, but they had adapted to locally-available products. Although at the end food was indeed scarce, it seems to have been other factors that mainly caused the Viking settlements to disappear.
|The hearth inside the reconstructed long house of Eric the Red’s farm.|
|An old-time kitchen from one of the museums.|European colonists returned to Greenland in the 18th century. Like earlier immigrants, they had to adapt to the local hardships and climate challenges, though they were able to obtain imported foods along with those available locally. As these early kitchens show, these settlers had a lot more European household goods, especially metal stoves and utensils, wooden furnishings, etc.
|Another old-time kitchen.|
|A set table from the museum in Nuuk.|
These photos only document the European historical kitchens. The museums provide quite detailed information and many artifacts illustrating historic Inuit ways of hunting, especially kayaks, harpoons, and other equipment for taking seals and walrus. However, I didn't really see much about food preparation and cooking, though it was mentioned that hunting, fishing, drying the fish, gathering and preserving berries and other vegetation, and sharing of food were important factors in Inuit nutrition.
Blog post and photos © 2022 mae sander.