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Food is the connector to everything that surrounds our culture. Each celebration includes a huge feast. We believe food tastes better when it is shared with family, relatives, and many other people. In my grandfather Makivik's time, all types of food were cached on the land, ready for a celebration. Back then there were many ways to prepare the foods, including different types of sauces and dips. I know of three sauces that are very good: aalu, misiraq, and nirukkaq.
Aalu is made from choice parts of caribou or seal. Here is the recipe. Make sure the meat is very lean and clean. Cut it up in tiny pieces and put it in a bowl. Add a few drops of melted fat. Then add a few drops of blood. Add uruniq (ptarmigan intestine) to taste. Stir everything very friskily with your fingers until the volume doubles and the mixture turns fluffy. This is one of the most popular dips for all kinds of meat.
Misiraq is another dip that is made all over the North today. It is made from blubber. Cut up pieces of seal blubber, whale, or ujjuk (square flipper seal), making sure not to include any meat. Put the blubber in a safe container with a perforated top — for example, an old coffee tin container. Don't use plastic bags or containers with airtight lids. Store it in a cool place where it can be slowly aged away from heat. When it ages properly the liquid ends up clear, like a fine white wine. The aroma is delicious and never bitter. (If it smells bad, throw it out! The offensive smell means it hasn't aged properly.) All kinds of meats can be dipped in misiraq.
The third dip is called nirukkaq. It requires special care. Nirukkaq is the contents of caribou stomach. Here is my Uncle Annowalk's recipe. The hunter, when butchering the caribou, carefully removes the stomach contents and puts them into a container. The contents are frozen until ready to be used. When the time comes, the contents are thawed and a process called siingijaijuq is begun. This involves cleaning the contents very carefully with kneading motions. Undesirables like pieces of grass, leaves, lichen or lumps are removed. When smooth, it is ready. Caribou meat is used for dipping.
Our food is much more than just frozen or raw meats and sauces. We also enjoy different types of dried fish and meats, such as caribou.
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When we feast on a seal we follow the traditions of our ancestors. One particular feast is called alupajaq. The men are around the seal, and two or three of them cut up the animal in a particular way. The women are grouped together in another area several feet away. The men's conversation is audible to the women. They tell hunting stories, pleasant stories. The women are talking about the seal, how nice it is to be so blessed with plenty.
The meat is then passed from the men to the women. The choice parts of the seal are for the women only. The first parts to come are the upper flippers. Two women are responsible for cutting up pieces for everyone. It is considered rude to leave anyone out. Next, the heart is cut up in small slivers and passed around, followed by the liver. The upper spine is then passed to the women while the men take the lower half. The ribs are cut into equal parts, with the women taking the front ribs and the men eating from the back ribs.
Guests are careful not to eat up every part of the seal. They must leave some for their kind hosts, unless they are urged to take some home. Some guests leave as soon as they have eaten, even before washing up. They feel they must not take up too much space and overstay their welcome. Appreciation is expressed more than once before leaving. The remaining guests help clean up everything.
Stories and pleasantries are exchanged. There is much laughter. This kind of feast rotates throughout the community, with each home taking a turn. In a community feast where everyone gathers in a public place, all food is donated by families that have something to give. In bigger communities, much of the food is provided by designated hunters.
Feasts are very special because we believe sharing food is an important part of our culture and is an important link with our heritage. We believe food makes friends out of strangers. When we eat together, we feel more harmonious. And food doubles its volume when it is shared.
Staying With an Inuit Family
When we have a guest in our home it is a great honor because it means we are accepted as we are. We feel needed and humble that our home is good enough for other people. This includes parents, relatives, friends, visitors, or anyone who needs a place to rest. There are just a few guidelines you should know before staying with an Inuit family because sometimes we take it for granted people already know what to expect.
First of all, you are very welcome even if no one tells you so. You must feel at home at all times. Do not knock at the door before entering. Make normal noise. We don't like it when people try to be too quiet; it seems like they are sneaking behind our back.
In earlier times we never needed to lock any doors or secure any personal belongings because everything was shared. Our elders told us stealing was a very bad thing to do. As children, we were told that if we took something we were not supposed to have when no one was at home, a big hand would appear and grab us. Communities had different superstitions to discourage stealing. Today, it is still like that in some communities. When we enter a house where no one is home, we simply make tea and wait. This is considered one of the ways to become part of the family. The host feels esteemed and valued for her or his generosity. In bigger communities, locking doors has become a new custom, but this doesn't mean you are not welcome when your hosts are not at home.
It is important to take part in the household. This does not mean you have to do chores or take over. When guests are willing to try our country food, the host feels pride. At first, the host might be shy to offer any country food for fear of rejection. Sometimes we think our food will not be accepted by our guests because it has blood in it or it does not look clean enough. When we are feasting on a seal, caribou, ptarmigan or any other country food, we hate to be stared at and we don't like it when people take pictures of us eating. We would rather have you eat with us, or try a small piece and swallow fast. Please don't express any "yucks" or other words of ridicule. When our guests take interest in our food fare, we feel we are sharing our culture. If you don't like the meat raw, just ask your host to cook it for you.
Your hosts may take you for a trip on the land in any season. Do what they do and say; they know best. When we are getting ready to go on the land, it is often hot and it is very tempting to leave dressed as we are, but we know it will be a lot colder out there on the sea or land. Help with the grub, camping equipment, and children as much as possible. Everyone is expected to help as much as they can, no matter how big or little. Your hosts are doing their best to make you feel welcome and important.
There are three age groups of hosts that you will probably meet. First, there are the more mature Inuit who speak only Inuktitut. They were born on the land and lived the "real" nomadic Inuit way of life that existed before today's community-based wage economy. We look to them as experts on hunting, weather, directions, astronomy, plants, beliefs, ethics and anything else that has to do with the Inuit world. Please respect them as we do.
Then there is the 35 to 45 age group, the first bilingual generation. These people were born when transitions to a new wage economy were taking place. People in this group know both the Inuit and white worlds and are comfortable with both. The memories of those who grew up on the land are held dearly because this generation is the link between life on the land and life in a settlement. They are called the "in the middle" crowd.
Thirdly, there are the younger people who are in their 20s and early 30s. Most of them were born in a hospital. They are modern in just about everything they do, yet the elders have taught them ancient values such as respect for the land, the sea, the animals, and the weather. They have been taught to be good to other people, to share what they can, and to expect less.
Our young people, who have been in school most of their lives, have spent much less time on the land and sea than their parents and grandparents had by their age. To save our language, they had to be taught Inuktitut in school. They have gone through a lot of public scrutiny because they have been told over and over that they are our future and that they must carry on our "Inukness." This has been discussed on radio and television, in newspapers, and even in land claim negotiations. Sometimes this age group has heard unpleasant comments such as: our young people are not Inuk enough anymore, they are forgetting our language, they don't know the land well enough, or they are breaking the law too often. But in reality we know that our young people are still as Inuk as we are. They can be your most interesting hosts because they have gone through a lot of history in a short time and still maintain their Inukness.