Jon Mikkel Eira is a 26-year-old Sami reindeer herder and trained chef. He lives in Karasjok in northern Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He works as a chef in a local school and runs Ravdol Reindeer Herding, where he offers guests the chance to experience Sami culture firsthand. Here he tells us about modern reindeer herding, identity, and how traditional cooking can get young Sami to embrace their ancestral roots.
Being a reindeer herder in the 21st century is difficult. Everything I know about it, I've learned from my dad, who learned it from my grandfather, who learned it from my great-grandfather. Now it's up to me to give the knowledge that has been passed down to me, to the next generation—and that is a responsibility I take very seriously. But the world is changing, and so is my profession.
When my grandparents were young they were constantly following the reindeer herd around as it moved through the tundra. During summer the herders were on foot, and in the winter, on skis. My generation is more lazy. We move around on snowmobiles and on all-terrain vehicles and I use drones to keep the herd together. The older generations had to constantly keep an eye on the herd, but today I use GPS trackers and thus I can just go online to see where they are.
This past winter has been tough on the herd. The weather has been unusually hard. Rain, snow, freezing temperatures, then rain again means that layers upon layers of ice have made it difficult for the animals to move around and difficult for them to penetrate the snow to get to the vegetation beneath. Many of the reindeer abandoned their calves in order to ensure their own survival. Nature is brutal like that.
My mother was the culture bearer in my family. I was always following her around and she taught me what's right and what's wrong. She used to craft everything by hand. She would sew our clothes and cook all the food for my dad, myself, and my brothers. She made blood pancakes, fried reindeer heart, fried liver, liver pate, blood sausages. She boiled, smoked, and dried reindeer meat.
It's an important part of Sami culture not to let anything go to waste. My grandparents used every part of the animal in some way or another. Today we're not quite as exhaustive. We do eat the most of the animal, but certain things, like boiling reindeer heads, are just too time-consuming. Thankfully more and more people are reviving the old ways: For instance, boiling reindeer hooves to extract their gelatin which you then use for baking.
When my mother passed away, I started to get really into the traditional Sami cuisine. I was 16 and very few of my peers knew anything about our ancestors' way of eating. Most Sami my age were more interested in fast food: Hot dogs, burgers, and fries. But lately more and more young people have been returning to traditional Sami slow cooking.
One of the reasons is that our grandparents' generation is getting older. I know I have a ticking clock in the house next door to mine—my own grandmother—and I know I have to make the most of the time we have left together to learn as much as possible. That's why when she's cooking I am always close by, watching and learning.
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Traditional Sami cuisine revolves around a wide variety of produce—trout, ducks, moose, cod, berries, and herbs—but the most important thing is reindeer.
From my dad, I've learned the traditional ways of slaughtering reindeer. One way is to jam a knife through the neck of the animal into the brain in order to paralyze it before you bleed it and butcher it. Then you open the stomach, take out the belly, then take off the legs, all before you remove the skin. But the method of butchering depends on how you're planning on cooking it. For example, you have to decide if you want traditional boiled reindeer back, or if you should cut out the loin and tenderloin. For me that's always a dilemma.
One Sami tradition that a lot of people don't get is that we boil a lot of meat. I once told the chef from the Norwegian national ski team that I like to boil the loin and tenderloin, and he just called me crazy. The dish is called Čielgemális and you boil the meat for at least an hour to get it as tender as possible. You only add a little bit of salt and then you can use the stock to make sauce afterwards. That way we get to eat both loin and tenderloin in the same dish, which is really nice.
My favorite part of the reindeer is the where the ribs meet near the heart. You have this layer of meat, fat in the middle, then meat again, and fat on top of that. I love those layers of reindeer fat and meat. You can boil it, fry it, or roast it in the oven. Or you can cook it sous vide, which I love to do. But that isn't too traditional.
While I view myself as a traditional Sami chef, I do try to fuse the traditional way of doing things with Western cooking methods. For example, I like to make blood pancakes. It's a kick-ass recipe. They're similar to normal pancakes but the blood makes them more nourishing. Then you can add mascarpone cream, cognac, and cloudberries. You take something traditional and do it in a modern way by adding something new. I think that's the way to get young people more interested in traditional Sami cuisine. You have to get out there to get a new perspective on things. That's how you learn.
Not all traditions are meant to be messed with though. I would never mess with the traditional Sami feast meal called biđus. It's a stew made with cubes of reindeer meat, potatoes and carrots. It is so flavorful, such an deep-rooted part of Sami culture. You just don't mess with traditional biđus. Just like you don't mess with the fact that you can't eat reindeer meat without lingonberries.