Self catering in a country with no roads

Sápmi food have now finally, and rightfully so, become popular. Restaurants are serving up suovas, gurpi och juobmo, all dishes with very old traditions. There is a long standing tradition in the Swedish part of Sápmi, among the Sami and new settlers alike, to take care of raw produce.

It is not easy to differentiate between what is Sami food and what belongs in the new settlers camp. Before the 2000 century there were few new settlements without Sami present. In just about every farming household there were Sami family ties. It then stands to reason that different food traditions and food preparations has intermingled over a long period.

Helpfulness – a question of survival

To have enough food has for centuries been a question of survival. To be helpful to one another. If I help you now, then you can help me later. What I haven’t got you have, and back in return.

Self-catering does not necessarily mean that I make everything I need myself, but to use my time doing what comes naturally to me to get, or produce. Meat, fish, berries and other raw ingredients could be traded and exchanged for goods and services. Even during the Stone Age people exchanged meat, skin and hides, perhaps to receive some wanted pieces of flint from the Russian Onega area or Norway’s coastal planes. Even into the 2000 century food has been used for trading and exchange. It was quite often the way to get tools, a horse or a window. Or other food that one could not get hold of or produce.

People in the region managed to get hold of food in many different ways and also had different ways and techniques to preserve and store the food. It was a huge job. Drying, smoking, acidification and souring are all ancient methods. Knowledge passed down during centuries.

Food before and after discovery of the salt

Sour fish, sour meat and to dry, smoke and freeze food is probably among the most ancient methods from the time prior to having access to salt. It was easy to freeze meat and berries in winter. Either imbedded in snow, in timber sheds on stilts or up high in trees to out of the reach of animals. Whole reindeer could be frozen without having to butcher them.

A sarv neck – neck from a reindeer bull – would be hung up to dry in autumn and was ready to eat as dried meat in spring. In cold springs that never freeze, where one got the drinking water, meat was kept as well as a local variety of yoghurt – sour milk, and other fresh produce. Lingonberries and cloudberries kept all through winter. The cool water and lack of oxygen environment kept the food fresh.

Since salt was introduced and became an exchange and trade item it has been in use, sometimes sparingly sometimes not. Salt preserves. It was used to salt fish and meat prior to curing, smoking and drying. Meat and fresh fish would be boiled with salt, but just a little bit of salt.

Important to get properly full up

The most important aspect among Sami as well as the new settlers, was to get really full up. At every meal. Without proper food in your belly nobody had the energy to work in the timber forest, reindeer forest or on the land at home.

Fresh food was easily accessible, even in winter. Whilst people in the cities sometimes had to starve and farmers crops in other parts of the country failed, the people in the north had food. There were always fish, small birds, and smaller animals to trap and eat. Domestic animals and reindeer were butchered when needed. When food was scarce one single household could butcher 20-25 reindeer during a winter.

Taking care of the whole reindeer

The reindeer has been the basic food supply in the Sami household. Everything on the animal is taken care of, absolutely everything.

The tradition to prepare brain, heart, tongue, intestines and hooves are, for the most part, still happening today. Nothing will go to waste, even if our tastes change over time. In the Princesses cookbook from 1931, edited in Stockholm, you’ll find the recipe for a sandwich-dish made with calf heart. These Princesses were also taught how to grill brain. Old Sami still remember brain-palt (palt is a traditional dish of the north), vuojnam-balte, where reindeer brain is whisked and mixed with flour and some blood. To make the dish the reindeer must be slaughtered in a set manner to ensure the brain stays unharmed. The brain was also used to make bread, vuojŋasjgáhkko, a thin and very tender cake baked on the fire in the tipi. The bread was then served with cured fish or meat.

Even dried and fresh blood has been an important ingredient to make blood-palt, blood-pikelets, or palt bread. Traditionally cooked/boiled reindeer is still very much appreciated. It makes a substantial meal with blood-sausage, blood-palt, boiled reindeer-back and side, not to mention the marrow bone itself. This is then served with ‘Rårörda’ being uncooked, sugar stirred, lingonberries.

Fresh fish was eaten immediately

Fish would be consumed immediately. When the men came home with the catch of Sik (a local white fish), the women were ready to clean and cook the fish. Once the fish was done it was time for a huge meal. The fish left to be eaten later would be either salted, soured, cured or smoked. Or it was hung out to dry on a wall, in the sun. Having butter on dried fish was every day food. Not because bread was not available, the fish dish was simply better food.

Even as trading flour became a part of the winter-market in Lapland since the 1700, bread was still not part of the staple diet among the permanent residents nor the nomads. A small sack of four per year may have been enough. In the mountains bread and porridge are part of modern times from the 2000 century.

Tastes changes

Just like some food dishes are no longer in vogue there are also many tastes that are no longer as popular as they once were. For instance, meat slightly rancid, goasste, acquired a particular spicy flavour. Even dried cow milk could contain that stronger, slightly rancid, taste that many found very palatable. The red fish meat in salted Sik that had gone off in wooden kegs and then boiled was also appreciated. A dish hardly appreciated or accepted in homes in the area today.

Good and nourishing reindeers fat

To survive in a cold climate the reindeer put on large reserves of fat, on the outside of its muscles, during autumn to prepare for winter. When spring arrives the fat is all but gone, hence the fat cannot store any harmful substances.

Reindeer meat is a lean meat and will therefore need fat during cooking and other food preparation. The Sami consider the Reindeer fat to be healthy. Research has shown that fat from the stomach and back of the reindeer contain a lot less cholesterol than other animal fats like butter, lard and tallow. The iron content is more than 100 times larger and the fat contains more vitamin B, riboflavin, thiamine and zinc. The harmful trans-fatty acids are considered to be much less than in butter.

Days in the past required more energy

Older Sami are of the opinion that people used to stay healthy due to the reindeer fat, acting as a lube oil for the whole body. The fat also gave strength.  The fat has different tastes and consistency depending upon where on the animal it has formed and traditionally used to be cooked fresh, or smoked and dried.

A reindeer owner and handler, hard working woman or a lumber jack would need approximately four, or five, times as many calories compared to, for instance, todays IT technicians, or bus drivers. Even children needed more calories since they walked, ran, went skiing and constantly moving.

Sitting still was not on the agenda for anyone.

Replenish your energy

Accept the knowledge from the people that have lived their lives in the region. Take a bit of dried meat on your hiking journey. It is amazing how well you pull up after a coffee break including a couple of slices of dried meat. Treat yourself to freshly smoked char should an opportunity arise. These healthy fats is like nectar to a “walked out”, tired body. A couple of slices of fried gurpi is a fantastic and more sustainable alternative to hamburgers. Gurpi is cold smoked handfuls of mincemeat that tastes absolutely heavenly with gáhkko, the soft traditional bread cooked on the fire.  If you find cloudberries, lingonberries, blueberries during your hiking – just eat till your heart’s content. Here you have antioxidants, vitamins and energy in a prime packaging that is nice and free. Even if you consider Crowberries not to be the most palliative berry you’ve ever eaten you might like to know that that very berry is among the most nutritious berries and is a marvellous thirst quencher.

Pick the golden nuggets from the menu

When you get a chance to sit down to a set table at with one of the restaurants in the neighbourhood or any of the alpine resorts, look for the golden nuggets, choose a dish from the area. A journey doesn’t come to its conclusion until the local kitchen has been investigated. Jokkmokk’s forests, mountains and clean waters delivers fantastic produce. The food preparation have ancient history. You can get a traditional dish on your plate, or something just created by the chef by adding new and perhaps unexpected condiments that will get your taste buds going.

Let your stay in Jokkmokk include a journey into our culinary world.


Ryd, Lilian, Urfödan Om självhushållets mat hos folk i Lappland. 2015

Slow Food Sápmi: Smak på Sápmi. Samisk mat – tradition, innovation och framtid. 2014

Text: Iréne Lundström


Gáhkko = thin bread made over fire

Gurpi = traditionally smoked reindeer mince wrapped in it’s fat, can also be dried

Juobmo = cooked leaves of mountain sorrel, used as flavour in hashes or as a condiment with meat and fish

Reindeer skav = fried, thin slices of frozen reindeer steak

Suovas = lightly salted, tipi smoked reindeer meat (suovasbierggo)

Dried meat = salted, often cold smoked and air dried reindeer shanks

Sàpmi Ren och Vilt AB Foto Therese Rydström

Sàpmi Ren och Vilt AB

They sell reindeer meat from high quality reindeers that has lived in freedom and only eaten what nature offers. They use the meat from every part of the reindeer like Sámi people has done for generations.

Utsi Ren

Utsi Ren

They have most of the traditional cuts and varieties of reindeer meat. Flavourful, organic and natural meat from Porjus in Jokkmokk municipality.