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Meet the arctic chef trying to reintroduce traditional cuisine among the Inuit

By Mark HaySeptember 3, 2015

Caribou on Arctic Tundra, Nunavut, Canada
Caribou on Arctic Tundra, Nunavut, Canada iStock

Finding food in the arctic, a land of ice and rock, has never been easy. But over thousands of years, many northern peoples have developed exceptional traditional cuisines. Although heavy on the meat, arctic diets are surprisingly heart-healthy thanks to an abundance of omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and other nutrients in native ingredients like whale blubber and seal meat.

Yet in recent years these traditional diets have been on the decline. Formerly semi-nomadic people have become sedentary, the food chains they have relied on have been disrupted by climate change and development, and processed Western foods have become readily available. These factors have all played a role in turning the arctic from a rough but livable region into a hotspot for food insecurity and chronic health issues, like diabetes and heart disease.

Because it’s easier to just eat junk, especially in poor towns, many see little hope for the revival of declining traditional cuisines. But in Nunavut, the autonomous Inuit territory of northern Canada, one woman is doing her best to promote native foods via a novel TV show.

Rebecca Veevee, born near the Inuit town of Pangnirtung, grew up on traditional foods, but witnessed the challenges of dietary changes all around her. After building a career as an entertainer, the Inuit Broadcasting Company convinced her to turn her passion for food into an arctic cooking show, Niqitsiatin which Veevee promotes the ease of preparation, low cost, and nutritional benefits of what she refers to as “country food.” She conducts her show with a signature vibrancy and near-slapstick humor.

Here, Veevee shares her thoughts on the value of promoting arctic cuisine among the Inuit:

Let me tell you about my background: When I was a kid, I didn’t have a mother. I was hungry. I said, “Growing up, I want to eat. I don’t want to starve anymore.” That was my goal as a kid.  

I worked in 1973 in a hospital and I had to learn how to cook the fatty [Western] food. Everybody was starting to go from healthy food to fatty food and people were sick more. When I was growing up, I’d never seen a heart attack before. Now, so many people are having heart attacks and cholesterol and high [blood] pressure.  

After that, I said, “I want to cook this [Western] food less... I want to help other people out.” That’s how [my cooking career] started.  

People still eat a lot of country food today. But sometimes it’s hard to do because we live in a high-cost [area]. Sometimes you don’t feel that you have any choice. It’s not cheap anymore. My uncle, he was always hunting. He always gave me free food—caribou and seal. But [the hunters] aren’t there anymore. Near my home [in Iqaluit], we don’t have any more caribou. It’s difficult to make good cooking, healthy food. It’s not the same anymore. Still, it’s cheaper if you cook on your own and better if you don’t put in so much salt.  

[One day, my bosses at the station] asked me, “Would you like to try cooking [on TV] for only one day?” And I said, “I’m not going to cook on the TV because I want to help other people.” 

But I started to cook my first caribou [on TV]. And now I have so many ideas for caribou and seals and fish. It looks good and it’s cheaper than if you’re going to restaurants.  

I have a cookbook. A lot of people like to cook, but they’re too lazy to cook. You’re in a hurry to go to work or go to school. It’s hard to eat the healthy food. I try to tell them [how to do things] in different ways.  

A lot of people watch my TV show. People try to do a little bit better cooking. Some people try. Sometimes it’s hard, but I don’t mind. I’m not going to give up on it. I’m going to try my best. —Rebecca Veevee