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Blog Post
18 September 2017
Author: Mariusz Rybak

Indigenous food: More than taste buds tingling

The hotspots of food biodiversity often coincide with regions inhabited by indigenous peoples. Old animal breeds, plant cultivars or traditional processed specialties like cheeses, breads or cured meats survive in these areas because they form an integral part of indigenous peoples’ identities. Traditionally, food used to be strongly linked to religion, ecology, history, geography and customs; Of course, food is a significant cultural marker in general. However, in some cultures, the necessity of asserting distinction by setting symbolic boundaries might be stronger due to the feeling of being endangered.

Moving to Stockholm from the Piedmontese town of Bra in Italy, where I worked for Slow Food International, I hoped not only to learn more about local food cultures, but also to identify some of the remaining treasures of the food biodiversity in Sweden and add them to the Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, an international catalogue of endangered heritage foods.

In Sweden, people abandoned many of their food habits due to a changing lifestyle and because of other socio-economic changes. A great number of heirloom foods, and with them local customs, crafts and heritage, are disappearing. It is true that the New Nordic Cuisine brought some pride back to the people of Sweden. Still, the innovative chefs are always on the lookout for products with identity and history. This is why the region of Sápmi (Samiland, i.e. the part of Europe inhabited by the Sámi), which remains one of the most interesting areas in terms of food biodiversity in Sweden, drew my attention.

Needless to say, Sápmi is not a region untouched by globalization, where the local stubbornly resists the global. It is much more about cultural resilience, where traditional food still finds its way to family and community celebrations. At the same time, traditional products, through new culinary interpretations and creative adaptation to current food trends, attract more interest – one has to think of reindeer suovas on pizza or pasta.

Reindeer herding is the best-known means of livelihood of the Sámi people, so it is no surprise that reindeer is a centrepiece of the Sámi cuisine. Salted and smoked reindeer meat called suovas has become quite popular over the last few years.

However, there are many more reindeer specialities in the Sámi cuisine: Gurpi – minced and smoked reindeer meat in the fat lining that surrounds the animal’s stomach, biđus – a soup containing reindeer heart, as well as blood sausage, blood dumplings, aromatic reindeer fat and roasted marrowbone. Until the 20th century, Sámi also used reindeer milk, both fresh and soured. A kind of grainy cheese was produced from it, too, and added to coffee.

Apart from reindeer, Sámi also keep goats and make cheese and whey cheese from their milk. The Lapp goats – nowadays almost extinct – provide meat and milk, but also skins for bags, hats and clothes.

Another staple food is fish, often trout or Arctic char. Smoked fish is called suovasguolli (suovas means just ‘smoked’) and there is also rakfisk – fermented fish, similar to the famous Swedish fermented herring. Salting and burying fish underground to sour is an ancient method of fish preservation known in Northern Europe.

Then, there are the gáhkku ember flat bread and a range of wild berries and plants used for cooking: cloudberries, bilberries used for a type of cider, black crowberries, Arctic brambles, cowberries, juniper berries, mountain sorrel cooked as a side dish or soured with milk, garden angelica, butterwort used to make ropy milk, and fireweed.

The list of interesting Sámi foods can go on. However, food biodiversity is not only about a great wealth of flavours and textures on our plates. Local animal breeds and plant cultivars add to genetic diversity within species, making them more resilient. This supports food security.

Indigenous varieties tend to be more robust, are adapted to the local conditions and need less treatment to keep them healthy. Genetic diversity of species might prove critical for us in case a global disease devastates production. Diseases or pests spread faster and easier in monocultures, and even faster in populations with low genetic diversity. Dramatic famines, like those in 19th-century Ireland or in 20th-century Ethiopia, are tragic examples.

This is why promoting traditional food cultures like the Sámi one is not about putting them into some outdoor museum or treating them like mere folklore. It is about learning from creativity, which grew from the need of self-sufficiency and subsistence in a harsh climate, it is about making the best use of the richness of knowledge and ideas for new-old trends, like nose-to-tail cooking or foraging. The traditional specialties and dishes allow for less food waste and more local ingredients, and reindeer husbandry, which is adapted to animals’ natural behaviour, generally promises better animal welfare.

Diversity is surely beautiful for its own sake, but solutions preserved in indigenous cultures offer alternative answers to modern problems, too. When we lose cultures, we also lose knowledge as well as unique ways of thinking and being. Thus, protecting and promoting the Sámi culinary heritage, and food traditions of other indigenous peoples, is not only about tingling taste buds.

Defending biodiversity along with cultural diversity of indigenous peoples forms part of the Slow Food’s philosophy. Working towards a world in which everyone has access to good, clean and fair food, Slow Food is convinced that the right of peoples to have control over their land as well as to hunt, fish and gather according to their own needs helps to defend biodiversity of indigenous animal breeds and plant varieties.

Thus, Slow Food supports the Indigenous Terra Madre network that is going to strengthen indigenous voices in the debate on food systems. Slow Food’s first event dedicated entirely to indigenous peoples took place in 2011, in Jokkmokk – a significant center of Sámi culture that hosts the 400-year-old Jokkmokk Market.

The Slow Food’s Ark of Taste contains four products from Sápmi: gáhkku, suovas, mountain sorrel (Rumex acetosa lapponicus) and Lapp goat. There are many more to be added. While the efforts of the Slow Food Sápmi group helped to popularize and valorize suovas, further promotion of the local food culture would add value to the local tourism and create jobs, too. In fact, cataloging diversity of the Sámi food in the Ark of Taste is just the first step.

Everyone can and is invited to help with saving food biodiversity. If you know rare domestic plant varieties or indigenous animal breeds, wild species tied to ancient methods of harvesting, processing and specific traditional uses, or particular locally processed products with long history, you can nominate them to the Ark of Taste.

The nominated products, breeds or varieties must be (a) facing a potential risk of extinction, (b) produced in limited quantities, (c) of distinctive quality in terms of taste, and (d) linked to a specific area, memory and identity of a group and local traditional knowledge. Surely, these general criteria always require an interpretation according to the specific local situation.

The goal is to learn as much as possible about the products with identity and history and to protect them as a resource for us and the future generations.

This blogpost is by Mariusz Rybak. Mariusz is a sociologist, specialized in food and wine culture, and an active Slow Food member. Having lived in Berlin, Belgrade, Michigan, Piedmont, Stockholm and Krakow, he explored the local food cultures and investigated topics like identity and wine, sustainable agriculture and food biodiversity. Working with the Slow Food organisation in Berlin and Bra (Italy), he built networks amongst small-scale producers, chefs, scientists and activists in order to raise consumers’ awareness.