If you’re vegetarian, you may want to skip this essay…

I am not a licensed dietician nor am I recommending the last fad diet. While reindeer have been such a strong symbol of the Sámi for hundreds of years and remain an integral base of their diet, it is by no means the sole defining symbol of this richly complex indigenous group of people who I have been fortunate enough to spend some time with.


The Sámi Today

There are roughly 70,000 indigenous Sami people who live in the Arctic and subarctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Kola peninsula (collectively known as the Sápmi region). 20,000 of them live in Swedish Lapland.


Jokkmokk Market

While on assignment at the 400+ year old Jokkmokk Sámi Festival (whose 2011 theme happened to be "Slow Food"), I feasted on reindeer meat prepared in at least 10 different ways – similar to the way Bubba rattled off 21 shrimp recipes to Forrest Gump. More importantly, I got beneath the culture to fully understand why it's such an important element of the Sámi diet.


Reindeer Meat

For centuries, Sámi nomads depended on reindeer for their daily sustenance because every single part of the animal can be used – meat and fat for cooking, fur and skin for clothing, horns for knives, weapons, and tools, and much more. The reindeer's protein and fat are essential for thriving through cold winters.


Everyday Food

While much of their nomadic lifestyle has changed with the times, reindeer meat (along with potatoes) remain part of the Sámi daily diet. Reindeer meat is lean. Its fat is as good as olive oil, has the same combination of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats, and is often used instead of butter and olive oil.


Greta Huuva, Sámi Food Ambassador

While in Jokkmokk I met and interviewed 61-year old Greta Huuva, who was appointed Sámi Food Ambassador by the Swedish Ministry of Agriculture, which plans on spotlighting regional foods from Sweden on a global stage as part of the Nordic Slow Food movement.


Restaurang Samernas

Greta runs Restaurang Samernas (The Sámi's Restaurant) in Viddernas Hus along with her family in collaboration with the Sámi Education Center in Jokkmokk. The kitchen serves seasonal foods such as Renspån - torkat renkött och varmrökt rentunga (dried reindeer meat and smoked reindeer tongue).



Here, a soup of traditional reindeer meat and bones with dumplings is usually a main dish as opposed to a starter.



Pieces of kams - chunks of curdled reindeer blood - can be added to the reindeer and dumpling soup above for extra flavoring.



"My husband said he wished we had something green to eat," shared Greta Huuva. "Oh not now, I need the fat for the winter. Maybe in the summer, I can have something green." Very few native vegetables grow locally in the Arctic regions of Sweden, and the Sámi eat as close to nature and their environment as possible. Meaning, they'd rather incorporate local beets, roots, potatoes, and herbs into their diet than import broccoli. Here, a man pours himself a bowl of Borstj - red beet soup.



Antioxidant-rich berries such as lingonberry, cloudberry, and the elusive yet delicious Åkerbär (Arctic raspberry - Rubus arcticus) are local to the region, and are used to garnish dishes or in preservatives and jams.



Greta, who is a medicine woman, uses the angelica herb's roots and seeds for cooking. Its stalk can be used for medicinal purposes, and its mildly sweet young stems used for candy. Around 300-400 years ago it wasn't uncommon to see older Sámi folk chewing angelica root, which is said to boost the immune system and protect locals from diseases and bacteria brought in by foreigners visiting the annual Jokkmokk market.


The Sámi Slow Food Philosophy

From what I gathered while spending time with the Sámi, their indigenous food philosophy seems rather straightforward - eat from your surroundings (including animal fat) and consciously respect it. For them, this means making sure reindeer have been properly taken care of, moose have been free to roam around the forest, fish have been living in clean water, and the people who tend to these get what they need.