Eating Narwhal

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Smithsonian staff writer Abigail Tucker recently visited Niaqornat, Greenland as part of her reporting on tracking the elusive Narwhal. We asked her to share her unique culinary experiences while up in the Arctic cold.

Knud Rasmussen, the grizzled adventurer who explored Greenland by dog sled in the early 20th century and survived all kinds of wildlife and weather, met his end at dinnertime. The deadly dish was kiviak: whole auks (small black-and-white seabirds) stuffed into a disemboweled seal carcass and buried under a stone for half a year or so, until the birds ferment practically to the point of liquefaction. Kiviak is an Inuit delicacy, rumored to smack of tangy old Stilton, but Rasmussen – though he was born in Greenland to an Inuit mother – didn’t have the stomach for it. He contracted food poisoning and died soon afterwards.

Rasmussen’s fate flitted into my mind last fall when I visited my first Greenlandic grocery store, set beside a tiny airport where I’d stopped on the way to visit narwhal scientists working in a remote Inuit village. The freezer case was full of curious meats: a snowy hunk of a fin whale’s throat, a slab of musk ox. My companion, Danish whale scientist Mads Peter Heide-Jorgensen, browsed thoughtfully in the reindeer jerky section before selecting a few pieces for the road.

I’m a meat-eater, which in Greenland was (for once) a virtue; I had been warned that vegetarians did not prosper there. Leafy things, and even grains, are scarce, and sea creatures like seals, whales and even walruses are common main courses. The scientists liked to laugh about a vegetarian visitor who had stayed at their camp, scrupulously avoiding whatever was boiling in the dinner pot. When the man could not seem to stay warm while the scientists worked outside all day, Heide-Jorgensen blamed his diet of granola and other vegetarian fare. “Out on the ice is not where spaghetti belongs,” he told me in his stern Danish accent. “It doesn’t matter how many nuts you eat.”

It turned out that many of our village meals involved that beloved American staple – frozen hamburger meat – and the endless boxes of instant bread that the scientists kept stashed under their beds. But I eventually got the chance to sample local game. During an interview I told an incredulous young hunter that I’d never tasted mattak, the layer of whale skin and subcutaneous blubber that is the favorite food of practically everyone in the village and a main prize of the narwhal hunt. Soon afterwards the hunter arrived at the scientists’ house with a plastic baggie filled with half-frozen mattak from last year’s harvest.

I thought I’d work up the courage later, but the hunter clearly wanted to witness my culinary epiphany. The scientists produced a vial of soy sauce and placed it on the kitchen table. With the tips of my fingers I seized a tiny, half-frozen piece of raw blubber, dunked it soy sauce and put it in my mouth. That first bite was exactly like chomping down on a thick vein of gristle in a great aunt’s holiday roast. It was tough as rubber, with a taste like congealed gravy. But the hunter’s eyes were upon me; I could not spit it out. In my head a chant began: Chew! Chew! Chew! Somehow, I downed the lump. “Delicious,” I murmured; the hunter beamed. The scientists mercifully helped me finish the rest.

I never braved a meal of kiviak but before leaving Greenland I did dine on a reindeer filet (actually delicious), reindeer jerky (not much different from beef) and fresh-caught beluga meat and mattak. The meat was black, dense and dry as tinder; the mattak was – well, very much like the narwhal’s.

Once or twice, I dodged offers to try more local dishes. “Oh, I’ve already eaten,” I sighed when a family offered to share their dinner of sliced narwhal mattak mixed with tiny pink shrimp. I felt rude and a bit disappointed with myself. But they seemed subtly pleased – all the more mattak for them.

-- Abigail Tucker

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