"Where's the blubber?" is not a phrase you hear often in restaurant kitchens.
But tonight, in the kitchen of Ottawa's National Arts Centre, it's a common refrain. Executive sous chef Martin Lévesque is overseeing a menu that will include raw caribou, seal meat, muktuk (beluga whale), arctic char, and even narwhal blubber. It's all part of the Taste of the Arctic event which forces Lévesque to push his boundaries on an annual basis.
"The challenge with these ingredients is that you don't cook with them every day," he says. "When you get into these types of meats, you really have to do your homework; you have to talk to the butchers and look online. Seal, for example, is popular up North, but down here in Ottawa it's really rare. But it's fun, too; my guys in the kitchen like it and it introduces them to new ingredients."
"Down here in Ottawa" is another phrase you don't hear often in Canada, but many of the attendees have travelled over 2,000 kilometers south to the nation's capital. Needless to say, Lévesque was mindful of honouring a very rich culinary tradition.
"You really have to pay attention to these ingredients," Lévesque says. "It's not like, 'Caribou is like beef, so let's cook it like beef!' It's not beef. Seal is seal, muktuk is muktuk, and caribou is caribou even if it's in the venison family—it's its own thing. So the challenge for us is to serve this food the way it's supposed to be served."
For Lévesque, who is offering his own twist on indigenous staples, like a caribou roast in Saskatoon blueberry jus, it's also a lesson in simplicity—the emphasis is squarely on raw tonight.
"To really pay homage to the muktuk and narwal, you have to eat it raw, like the caribou. Once they hunt, they eat it raw or in stews," he says. Same goes for vegetables, "There are no gardens in the North and the produce is so expensive up there, so we're limiting ourselves to root vegetables carrots, potatoes, and rice. We're trying to keep it simple."
A Taste of the Arctic is hosted by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national association that represents 55,000 Inuit living in 53 communities across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador).
For ITK President Natan Obed, it's a chance to debunk certain myths surrounding the food of the North, namely that seal hunting is cruel or unsustainable.
"We live with these animals and we harvest them sustainably and respectfully. It is central to our culture to eat these animals, but we don't see it in the way that many animal rights groups see it—that it's an injustice to the animals. There is an inherent respect that we have for the food that we eat, and for the way in which we treat our environment."
Nicole Etitiq is a caseworker at the Nunavut Women's Correctional Center in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She's also a stand-up comedian, two occupations which she says are not as unrelated as they seem. "You need to have a good sense of humour to be a correctional caseworker," Etitiq says.
"The difference between southerners and Inuit people, and indigenous people around the world, is that we try, as much as possible, to honour the animal before we kill it and after we kill it. It's a way of saying, 'Thank you for providing for my family.' A big thing in the North is that we try to share as much as we can with everyone in the community."
For Etitiq, this event is, above all, about promoting Inuit culture and enjoying some really good food. "This is a very important part of me just because I was raised to really respect animals and embrace the fact that I'm Inuk. It's really a treat for me to get country food like caribou or seal here."
But it's also about something far deeper for her, something which gets to the very core of how Inuit relate to food.
"Every culture has its creation myth. The story of Sedna is ours. She gives us animals. We would pray to her and she would allow us to get animals from the sea. After we kill a seal, typically, we put water in our mouths and put it into the seal's mouth with our mouths, just to give it that last drink of fresh water to say, 'Thank you for everything you've done' kind of thing. It's a holistic vision of food."
Etitiq was also quick to defuse the controversy surrounding seal meat and widely held misconceptions of Inuk people by fellow Canadians. "It bothers me when people with leather shoes criticize seal hunting," Etitiq says. "Cows are herded and put it into a huge farms where they're bred and inbred, whereas we let the animals be wild and then we catch them. We don't farm them. In that sense, we give them a life that they would have never had in factory farm.
"People think we go around clubbing cute-ass baby seals. It's not true—we let them live this great and fantastic life and then we kill them," Etitiq concludes. "We're not people who are savages. Traditionally, the word 'Eskimo' means 'savage raw meat eater' and yes, we eat raw meat, but that's just because that's how it was back then and it still tastes amazing."
With additional reporting by Brigitte Noël.