culinary greenland

On my way from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaqu, the international airport of Greenland, I had three things to think about. The first was that I was hungry. I had arrived in the hotel late and hungry, the bar was closed, there were only tiny bags of peanuts available and I needed my three hours of sleep before the 5:00 A.M. check-in. At noon, halfway across the Hudson bay, I was still hungry, even though sounds and smells were beginning to emanate from the front of the plane that announced an improvement of my condition. The second thing I was worrying about was how I was supposed to eat my meal, once it had arrived. I could, in fact, hardly breathe – wedged against the windowpane of the battered B-727 (not such a big plane) by a set of frontier-culture shoulders, owned by a muscular person shorter than wide, who didn’t communicate (since I survived, I believe that I managed somehow).

Third, and that is the introduction I intended to write, I was rehearsing Greenlandian food in my mind. If you are the father of two children (seven and ten years old at the time) who eat their breakfasts from their special “Save The Seals” plates every morning, you’d better not risk having to answer difficult questions. No seals, in other words. How about Whale? The airline brochure made a great point of telling the tourist that Greenland hunts only non-endangered kinds of whale – so yes, perhaps whale. Maybe no whale blubber. I forget why I thought that.

The intake of regional specialties remained limited during most of the trip (let the word “regional” revolve in your mind for a while before opening the map of Greenland to count the miles between, say, Ilulissat, Sisimiut and Nuuk). Things changed in Nuuk, our final destination. One of our contact persons of the cultural center, Katuaq, invited our group of six musicians over to his private home for dinner. No seal? No seal.

Our host Pär turned out to be an accomplished amateur cook. We had delicious lamb from south Greenland in a lemon-orange sauce. He owned an expensive wine rack as well. It is a bit difficult to preserve French top vintages in an overheated apartment, but we were in fact lucky: two of the three wines, poured from genuine dusty bottles, were in excellent condition. Our host smacked his lips in ecstasy even when testing another red. The thing that hadn’t smacked, however, had been the half-disintegrated cork. I believed the cork and not our host.

Our appreciation for the feast was met with exuberance. On the next evening, after our first set of concerts, we were invited again. The group declined, but I couldn’t resist and took the bus out to Pär’s apartment. No lamb. No seal. This time, he had brought whale. Steak of whale out of the frying pan, with onion rings. Fatless tender steak. Sinewless too. Cut in huge slabs from a piece of fillet.

A piece of ten kilograms. That is twenty-two pounds.

And cooked in the only manner to cook steak of whale (as I learned): very rare. So here I sat, consuming unlimited amounts of thumb-thick slices of sheer, almost raw meat and more French wine, while engaging in a cultural conversation in Danish-Swedish, of which I recall little. About the food, I made a notice in my diary that it tasted like entrecote, veal liver and tuna all at once. It was, in fact, very good.

We received our third invitation on the next day. Almost the whole group attended. There were still around seven kilograms of whale left after all, which were today offered as an oven roast in one enormous piece. This time there were three salads to accompany the feast, a very welcome addition. And more French wine. We were, after all, in Greenland.

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