Miki cooks Inuit food on cruise ships to teach passengers about his culture | Polarjournal
Greenlanders Miki Siegstad (on the left) and Peter Berthelsen are about to embark on their third seasons as chefs on the cruise ship Ultramarine. Photo: Stephen Des Roches
Greenlanders Miki Siegstad (on the left) and Peter Berthelsen are about to embark on their third seasons as chefs on the cruise ship Ultramarine, the first cruise ship to employ local Inuit chefs. Photo: Stephen Des Roches

Musk ox, reindeer and soon, perhaps, seal are among the dishes that start onboard dialogues about sustainability and cultural differences.

Last year, aboard the expedition cruise vessel Ultramarine, a Greenlandic chef had a friendly conversation about the food he had cooked with a vegetarian passenger.

The chef, Miki Siegstad from Sisimiut, West Greenland, told the passenger about traditional food customs and about local attitudes towards sustainable food use. In the end, when she was told that all local foods had been hunted locally, she agreed to give his food a try.

“When she heard we only used wild animals, she got quite interested. So we served her some musk ox, some lagopus, and even some muktuk (traditional whale dish) that my colleague and I had onboard for personal use,” Miki Siegstad told Polar Journal.

“Her reason for being a vegetarian was a concern with animal welfare and factory farming so hearing that all the food had been caught locally opened her up to what we were talking about,” he said.

This interaction is just one of many that Miki Siegstad has had with passengers aboard the Ultramarine. Since 2022, during part of its Arctic cruise, he and a colleague have been taking charge of one of the ship’s restaurants to serve local Inuit food to its passengers – not only to please their taste buds but also to teach them about local culture.

Miki and Peter view it as part of their job to teach passengers about their culture. It started as a spontanous idea but soon became an intergral part of the Ultramarine cruise. Photo: Stephen Des Roches
Miki and Peter view it as part of their job to interact with passengers and teach them about their culture. It started as a spontanous idea but soon became an intergral part of the Ultramarine cruise. Photo: Stephen Des Roches

Discussions after the dessert

When the Ultramarine finished its construction in 2021, it had already been planned that it  would be the first Arctic cruise ship to employ local chefs onboard. Miki Siegstad and his colleagues at the Inuit food project Igapall, had even had a hand in the design in one of the two onboard restaurants.

But the fact that the project became not just a gastronomic experience but also an educational one was more of an accident.

“One day, my colleague Peter and I decided that after the dessert, we would take a couple of chairs into the restaurant and talk to the guests about our culture and about Greenland. We just told them: ‘well, if you have any questions, feel free to ask,’” he said.

This impromptu Q&A became a big success, so Miki and Peter decided to repeat them. And soon, as the chefs had grown in confidence and their sessions in popularity, the staff aboard the Ultramarine asked if they would like to make the Q&As a scheduled part of the cruise.

Without much thought, Miki and Peter agreed, and a new forum for cultural exchange was born.

It is rare that local Inuit hunters have take the time to collect tinkerbells, but when they do Miki Siegstad makes sure to buy it. Photo: Miki Siegstad
It is rare that local Inuit hunters take the time to collect bellflowers, but when they do Miki Siegstad makes sure to buy them. They add a bit of something extra to the food like in this scallop dish. Photo: Miki Siegstad

Q&As to help understanding

It was not a given that these exchanges would end well. It is often in traditions around food and traditional hunting practices that Inuit culture clashes with western notions. But according to Miki Siegstad, passengers are understanding and the Q&As have generally been successful.

“Some of them are quite critical, some are skeptical, and some are just curious,” he said.

“But then we tell them about The Mother of the Sea (Inuit mythical figure), and how great of a respect Greenlanders have for nature. We also tell them that when we catch a whale or a seal, we don’t throw anything out; we use all parts of the animal. All the things we don’t eat, we give to the dogs. And no animals we eat have an agonizing death. We have a great respect for the animals,” he said.

“So after the Q&As the passengers understand us a lot better,” he said.

Shrimps on ice: the Tundra to Table project aboard the Ultramarine does not serve whales, polar bears, or any endangered animals. But soon, seals might be added to the menu. Photo: Miki Siegstad
Shrimps on ice: the Tundra to Table project aboard the Ultramarine does not serve whales, polar bears, or any endangered animals. But soon, seals might be added to the menu. Photo: Miki Siegstad

Seal on the menu

The most controversial Inuit game animals, whales and polar bears, are not sold onboard as endangered animals are against the policies of Quark, the company behind Ultramarine. If after the Q&As passengers want to try whale anyway, they are advised to do it when visiting towns and settlements on land.

But there are plenty of other Inuit foods to be had. Most ingredients are bought ahead of the cruise and include musk ox, reindeer, lamb from farms in South Greenland, codfish, halibut, redfish, shrimps, crabs, scallops, and locally grown herbs and vegetables.

Sometimes, if they find hunters willing to sell them, the menu will also include Arctic birds like grouse, eiders, and auks. Next year, one somewhat controversial animal may enter the menu: the seal.

“Seals are not an endangered animal in Greenland so we have considered adding them to the menu. In this case, it would be at the end of the cruise once we have already had some ethical discussions with the passengers,” Miki Siegstad said.

The expedition cruise vessel Ultramarine was finished in 2021 and sails in both the Arctic and Antarctic, here in Greenland. Photo: Michael Wenger

Donation to Nunavut soup kitchen

The Inuit food initiative aboard the Ultramarine named Tundra to Table has been a great success. In 2022, their first year, the two Greenlandic chefs were only aboard for one month. Last year, they added an extra month, and this year, they plan to join the cruise for three months and to hire an additional chef.

According to Miki Siegstad, the passengers are loving both the food they are served and the cultural lessons they are taught. But they are not the only ones learning: Miki and his colleague Peter are also getting to see parts of the Arctic they had never visited before.

To Miki, the stops in Nunavut in Arctic Canada have been particularly impactful. There, he learned about different Arctic food traditions: that they have different ways of preparing seal soups and have different cakes, for instance. To learn more about this, he is now preparing a cook-out with local chefs when they reach Nunavut on the 2024 cruise.

But the stops in Nunavut were also meaningful for other reasons. He saw that the Inuit population there had much worse living conditions than in his native Greenland.

“When we first went to Nunavut, it was quite a surprise. Just like us, they have been under colonial rule, but it was clear to see that they had been much more neglected than us. It was a really eye-opening experience. We could see that some of them were really suffering,” he said.

So when the Tundra to Table project, a non-profit, had to donate 50 percent of its profits to charity, Miki and his colleagues decided that it should go to a soup kitchen in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

“We decided to give it to the soup kitchen because we had heard a lot of great things about it, and we could see that people there needed it more than us Greenlanders,” he said.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal

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