I’ll be the first to admit that Inuit-inspired dishes are unlikely to find their way onto your local mall’s food court menu. No spicy curries, no deep fried batter, no noodles or hot cheese. While the North certainly offers delightful dishes prepared with unusual local ingredients (spruce tip jelly! morels!) the Inuvialuit and Gwi’chin feast on delicacies that one might call a required taste (and they’ll be the first to admit that too). In the Western Arctic centre of Inuvik, poor weather cancelled my day’s excursion to see the pingos outside the small hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. The friendly owners of Tundra North Tours, Kylik Kisoun Taylor and his formidable Uncle Gerry Kisoun warmly invited me into their kitchen to sample some local flavours. Although dining options are limited in the town, I’d already been impressed with the muskox and brie burger I’d devoured at the Mackenzie Hotel, and the fresh and flavourful white fish tacos served out of a yellow school bus at local favourite Alestines. Tonight’s menu, however, would be a different kettle of fish altogether.
Dried meats and fish form a large part of the northern diet, with Kylik slicing thin strips of both and placing them in an electric dehydrator. Lets start with whale meat. It looks not unlike jerky, but tastes like the meat of a cow fed a strict diet of sardines. I first tried whale in Iceland, and the fishy-meaty taste doesn’t exactly roll off the taste buds. Next to the whale is a plate with similarly looking dried beaver, which tastes exactly how you’d imagine a large aquatic rodent to taste, sprinkled with the special flavour of guilt that accompanies any national animal on the menu. The dried reindeer is more recognizable with the taste of venison – lean and gamey. More appealing is the boiled tundra swan, which is deliciously ducky, while dried strips of white fish are suitably complimented by large wads of butter. Dried seal meat also looks like jerky but with a fatty, pungent fishiness to it as well. I guess mammals truly are what they eat. The star of the delicacy show, besides Gerry’s stories, is traditional muktuk, that is, raw baby beluga whale. Cut into small squares, it is very rich in Vitamin C (in case you were wondering why indigenous northern people don’t get scurvy) and looks very much like…well, raw baby beluga. Since my toddler daughter has subjected me to hour upon hour of Raffi’s classic hit Baby Beluga, the song spins its notes in my head as I reach for a firm, spongy square. Gerry suggests less chewing and more swallowing, especially with the cartilage texture. “…Swim so fine and you swim so free…” Raffi is killing me.
I plop the piece in my mouth and instantly realize that muktuk is a dish best left to those who can appreciate it, like Kylik’s girlfriend’s grandparents, who pop over for a visit and take great delight with the smorgasbord on offer. Gerry further explains that mutkuk must be served right or else the eater risks contracting botulism. This particular whale was hunted last season, and only sees light outside the freezer on special occasions. It’s a tough whale to swallow. My personal favourite dish of the evening is frozen Arctic char, served raw to melt in your mouth like ice-cold sashimi. Somewhere between salmon and trout, char is the North’s rockstar fish for good reason. The evening is also memorable for the traditional clothing. At one point I was wearing a seal jacket, polar bear mitts, beaver hat, and wolf boots. It is easy to understand why animals play such a vital role in Arctic aboriginal culture.
The weather never does ease up for a visit to Tuktoyaktuk, which along with Herschel Island, I’m convinced belongs on the bucket list. It does however allow a boat ride up the extraordinary Mackenzie delta, listening to Gerry’s stories of growing up in the region, taking his team of dogs out in the winter to trap, hunt, and visit family along the riverways. With a Gwitchin mom and Inuvialuit dad, Gerry knows both worlds, pointing out places from his childhood in the labyrinth of waterways that make up the delta. I see over a dozen beaver, some of whom slap their tails at our approach, and graceful tundra swans resting on the grassy banks. The mosquitoes are pretty fierce, but this is life in an Arctic summer. Gerry gets a sparkle in his eye recalling the dog teams that gave him so much freedom as a child, and as an adult too. A peachy sun radiates a special glow at midnight, a purity in the light that can only be experienced, much less described. As for snacks on board: delicious homemade cookies, courtesy Gerry’s wife. Sweet, buttery, and agreeably muktuk free.