Sami food: what to eat in Lapland
Food, for me, is always an important part of my travel journeys. On my recent Swedish Lapland road trip I was looking forward to getting to know a new cuisine. When I think of Sweden, I think of Ikea and its iconic meatballs. Little did I know, that the Sami food in Lapland is very different from the rest of Sweden.
The food in Lapland is influenced by the Sami people. They are the indigenous population of Lapland that lived as nomadic reindeer hunters in the arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The more I learned about their culture, the more I learned about Sami food as well.
Sami food culture
Sami food is still very much based on local ingredients that come straight from nature. Obviously there is reindeer meat, but also fish and lots of berries, herbs and mushrooms that come from the forest.
Trends like slow food and foraging are nothing new to the Sami. It’s the way they have always lived. Therefore, Sami food is seasonal and the seasons change quickly in Lapland. According to the Sami people there are no less than 8 seasons.
Each season brings different types of foods that are available. The Sami people developed several techniques to preserve the food for the rest of the year. For example, the reindeer slaughter is in autumn or early winter when the meat is dried, cured and smoked.
Reindeers are central in Sami food and therefore the animals get a lot of respect. Once a reindeer is slaughtered the Sami make sure they use every part of the animal including the hooves, the skull, the marrowbone, the bones, the intestines, the skin, and the blood.
Reindeer meat is in fact quite healthy. It is one of the leanest meats and compares with fish if it comes to omega 3. In addition it is rich in vitamin B12. Reindeer husbandry in Lapland is also free from the suffering common in other animal farms. Reindeers spent most of their time grazing freely in the tundra or forests eating a natural diet of lichens, herbs and berries.
After two weeks in Swedish Lapland, trying several Sami dishes, I was amazed by their unique cuisine. In the end, it was through Sami food that I got to know their culture best.
Sami food in Lapland
Gahkko or tunnbröd (thin bread) is the main bread that the Sami people baked. It used to be crispy so it could last for months and the Sami could carry it with them on their nomadic journeys with their reindeers. Nowadays there is also a soft variety that I got to try at the cafe Sapmi in Jokkmokk.
Thin breads, soft or crispy, are popular throughout northern Scandinavia, what makes the Sami variety unique is that sometimes anise is added for taste.
Renskav is one of the most popular reindeer dishes in Lapland that has its origin with the Sami people. It was a simple dish that could be prepared quickly. The Sami dug up frozen reindeer meat from the snow, cut it in thin slices and sauteed it over an open fire.
Nowadays it is more like a stew with onions, cream and mushrooms. It is absolutely delicious with mashed potatoes and sweetened lingonberries. In Swedish supermarkets, such as Ica, you can buy frozen reindeer meat that is specifically for renskav. I tried Renskav in Kiruna and it was a hearty and satisfying dinner.
Suovas is dry salted reindeer meat that is smoked for more than 8 hours. It was one of the traditional ways of the Sami to keep the reindeer meat edible for long time periods. The Sami brought it along with them together with Gahkko on long journeys.
Suovas has a quite strong taste. Maybe too strong for some, but I absolutely loved it. The first time I tried it was at a mid range restaurant. I was surprised to also see it on the menu in some fast food restaurants serving grilled meats and pizza. The quality was a bit less, but it was still pretty good. I must say I skipped the Suovas pizza option as that combination seems a bit strange to me. I think the taste is best appreciated as it is.
Gurpi is cured reindeer meat tied together like a sort of sausage. I already said that the Sami use every part of the reindeer. Gurpi is often made of left over meat and fat. It is then tied together with the fatty lining from a reindeers stomach.
Gurpi was hard to find and unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to try. However, I did find regular reindeer meat sausages in the supermarket. These commercially produced reindeer sausages are probably a far cry from the traditionally smoked reindeer sausages prepared by the Sami. Still, they were a nice souvenir to bring home.
Dried reindeer meat stays good for long periods and, if you want to take some reindeer meat with you, this is your best option. I bought some excellent dried reindeer meat at Sapmi rent och vilt in Jokkmokk.
Blood pancakes are popular throughout Northern Scandinavia. Known as blodplätter, blood is used instead of eggs to bind milk and flour together creating a dark and savoury pancake full of iron. Of course, the Sami have their own version using reindeer blood in the pancake batter. Fried in reindeer fat and eaten with lingonberries it makes for a nutritious breakfast.
As nothing of the animals gets wasted, the blood too, is used for a variety of dishes. Another sami blood delicacy are blood dumplings made with barley and wheat. The Sami people used to eat this with the reindeers bone marrow.
The Sami people believe the blood is nutritious and healthy. Small buckets of reindeer blood are for sale in the supermarkets in Lapland in case you want to try.
Bidos is a Sami stew with reindeer meat and vegetables. A simple recipe with no seasonings, yet tasty and filling. Unfortunately, the Sami people mostly cook this on special occasions and I didn’t find it on any menu.
Kalix roe or Kalix Löjrom is Sweden’s first food item to be awarded the Protected Designation of Origin status by the European Union. It’s like Swedish caviar as the Kalix roe refers to the eggs of the vendace fish that swims in the Bothnian Bay off the coast in Kalix. Kalix vendace roe does not necessarily have its origins with the Sami people, but it is unique to Swedish Lapland.
Vendace is a rather small fish and as a food it is not that interesting. However, due to the water chemistry in the small village of Kalix, its roe (the eggs of the female fish) is of exceptional quality there. The eggs can only be harvested during a 5 week period in September and October. Fishing is strictly controlled and therefore it’s availability is limited.
Arctic char is a cold water fish common in mountain lakes above the polar circle. Part of the salmon and trout family, this mild and fatty fish taste something in between. I thought it was delicious when I got to try it in Kiruna.
Although the arctic char is not unique to Lapland, it was the most popular fish to eat among the Sami. Besides reindeer herding, fishing was an important source of food and income for the Sami people and the arctic char was a prized delicacy.
Another popular fish among the Sami people is the whitefish, another freshwater fish that belongs to the salmon family. In Sweden, the best whitefish is at the Kukkolaforsen rapids in the Torne valley near Finland.
Unfortunately the restaurant at Kukkolaforsen was closed when we were there and I didn’t get a chance to try this.
The Sami people were nomadic reindeer herders, but also hunted and gathered products from the forests. Occasionally they went after moose. These large animals roam freely in the forests of Lapland. While reindeers also graze in nature, they all belong to the still existent Sami herding communities. Moose, however, belong to noone, but the forest.
Nowadays, the moose hunt in autumn is a yearly tradition in Lapland. In a similar practice as with the reindeers, the Sami use everything from the animal, from the nose to its tail. Being wild meat it is low in fat and rich in vitamins and minerals.
Unfortunately elk meat is more digfficult to find on the menu than reindeer. I tried elk meat in Kiruna and it tasted a little bit like beef, but with a more gamier flavour.
The forests of Lapland have lots of berries and thousands of people go foraging once the berry season starts in late Autumn. The most sought after berry is the cloudberry, locally known as hjortron, that grows exclusively in boggy areas above the arctic circle. It’s a bit of a rare delicacy and foragers do keep their cloudberry spots a bit of a secret.
For the Sami people, the cloudberry was an important source of vitamins. Nowadays, people often eat hjortron warm with ice cream as a dessert.
Lingonberries are popular throughout Lapland and in autumn they are easy to find in the forests. Though certainly not unique to the Sami people, many of their dishes like reindeer stew and blood pancakes are eaten with a lingonberry sauce for extra flavour.
You might also know lingonberry from Ikea’s iconic meatballs. Thanks to Ikea you might be able to buy lingonberry jam in your home country.
Autumn was also the time to forage for mushrooms. The Sami people have a wide knowledge about edible and inedible mushrooms in the arctic. Some shamanistic rituals even included the Amanita muscaria, a hallucinogenic mushroom.
Nowadays, the people in Lapland head into the forests in autumn to find mushrooms. While in Lapland many people have done this for centuries, foraging is growing in popularity throughout Scandinavia. Chanterelles are a big favourite.
Besides mushrooms and berries, the Sami people also gathered herbs from the forests. The good thing about herbs is that they are available year round. The herb called garden angelica, that grows wild in Scandinavia, has a special place among the Sami people.
It was not only used as a food, but also in shamanistic rituals for its healing and antibacterial properties. Its most common use was to make Guompa. The herb was mixed with boiled reindeer milk and then left to ferment in barrels.
Almond potatoes grow exclusively in Northern Scandinavia. It’s name comes from the small almond size that the potatoes have. Although unique to Lapland they were not really part of the Sami diet. The potato only became known in the 19th century, but soon developed into a delicacy.
In many restaurants in Lapland, the almond potato is on the menu. In Finland you can find it on the menu as Lapin puikula and in Sweden as mandel potatis.
Where to find Sami food
Sami food is easy to find when you travel in Lapland in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Especially in touristic places like Rovaniemi in Finland or Kiruna in Sweden there are some excellent restaurants serving Sami food. Lulea in Sweden is also an upcoming foodie destination with restaurants specializing in local products from nature.
Outside of northern Scandinavia, Sami food will be more difficult to find. Even when I visited the Russian parts of Lapland in the Kola peninsula it was hard to find. Reindeer meat, that is so central to Sami cuisine, is rarely exported. As reindeer herding is a lifestyle in decline, so is its meat production and therefore it barely meets demands on the domestic market.
Sami food also makes use of natural products from the forest like mushrooms, garden angelica and berries. Most grow exclusively in the arctic regions. You might be lucky in shops specializing in nordic cuisine or the ikea store that sells swedish products like lingonberry jam as well as cloudberry jam.
Sami food books
There are very few books about Sami cuisine. Although there are lots of scandinavian cook books that might include one or two reindeer recipies, you will need to look hard for one that is only about Sami food.
I bought Hävvi Southern Sámi Cuisine as interpreted by Elaine Asp at the Sami Duodji store in Jokkmokk. As far as I know you can not buy this outside of Sweden. It is a wonderful book that gives a unique insight into the Sami food culture. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make most recipies at home as it is difficult to find key ingredients like reindeer meat and garden angelica
Another book that I came across was Taste of Sapmi by Victoria Harnesk. Like Havi, it is difficult to find outside of Sweden.
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