How Climate Change is Transforming Food Culture in Greenland
For decades now, Greenland has been at the cutting edge of research into climate change—the tip of the melting iceberg, if you like. On this elemental, ice-bound island, the issue is impossible to ignore. Last year alone, average temperatures in southern Greenland rose by nearly a degree, part of an ongoing pattern of warmer weather. Meltwater from its ice sheets now contributes up to 1 millimeter a year to rising global sea levels.
While these and most other consequences of global warming are ominous, to say the least, there has been one strangely positive outcome. For Greenlanders, the increase in summer temperatures has meant an unexpected abundance of homegrown food. Where once it was the case that only potatoes and turnips grew here—and those only in the south, in the short-lived summer months—now large swaths of the island are sprouting, blooming, and fruiting in ways previous generations could never have imagined.
Greenland’s chefs are working especially hard to turn the negative phenomenon of climate change into something deliciously positive. The results have been so impressive, it’s not hard to imagine that Arctic cooking could be the successor to Denmark’s much-vaunted New Nordic cuisine. Driving this culinary movement are chefs like Jeppe Nielsen and Inunnguaq Hegelund, at Ulo restaurant in Ilulissat, and Björn Johansson at Hotel Hans Egede’s Restaurant Sarfalik, in the diminutive capital of Nuuk. Johansson, originally from Sweden, is creating extraordinary dishes from the island’s new bounty of indigenous ingredients. He has built relationships with Inuit hunters and fishermen around the island, meaning he doesn’t have to import meat or fish from Denmark or elsewhere in Europe. His malt-stuffed reindeer, accompanied by blood sausage flavored with smoked reindeer heart, carrot purée, parsley root, and baked onions, is one of the most intensely flavorful meals I’ve ever eaten. “In the cold Arctic climate, animals grow more slowly and thus have more taste,” Johansson explained. Everything I ate at Sarfalik had come from a plant or animal harvested in the wild—had grazed peacefully and blossomed voluptuously, in pure soil and air. I could taste it in every mouthful.
Ordinary Greenlanders are also reaping the benefits of the island’s warmer climate. It’s common for people in the south, where much of the population is concentrated, to grow their own produce. At Upernaviarsuk Experimental Farm, Efa Poulsen and his team man the Greenlandic government’s agricultural research and training station, working to push the boundaries of what can be cultivated in this changing climate. These days, he said, even strawberries, iceberg lettuce, and tomatoes can flourish in polar soil. Gardeners and farmers have the added advantage of working in what remains one of the world’s least polluted environments. “Thanks to our isolated location and the clean, dry air, this region is still mostly diseaseand pest-free,” Poulsen told me. “Crops thrive without the need for insecticides here, so it’s a paradise for organic food.”
For this unique culinary destination, the islanders I met may represent the future. Learn more about what they do in the following slides.
The town of Ilulissat, with the icebergs of Disko Bay behind it.
Inunnguaq Hegelund, Forager and Chef at Ulo restaurant
For the kitchen at Ulo, where Hegelund is sous-chef, he takes daylong foraging trips, bringing back mussels, berries, and a bouquet of wild herbs—all of which become part of Ulo's Greenlandic buffet the following day. The restaurant has become known for taking the island's foraging tradition to new heights, with wild ingredients prepared in elaborate, inventive ways.
Inunnguaq Hegelund, Forager and Chef at Ulo restaurant
Hegelund foraging wild mussels on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.
Arctic berries garnished with bellflower and fireweed at Ulo.
Björn Johansson, Restaurant Sarfalik
At Sarfalik, in the capital of Nuuk, dishes like angelica-blackened salmon with raw shrimp, dill-marinated cucumber, and Jerusalem artichoke (left) have earned Johansson the reputation of being one of Greenland’s finest chefs. Originally from Sweden, he moved to the island in 2007 and quickly became hooked on its high-quality ingredients. “The most fascinating thing is that people still eat what is available locally,” he said. “The hunters, the fishermen, all the ordinary people who go out picking herbs.”
Ole Guldager, Beekeeper
As the first beekeeper to successfully produce honey in the Arctic, Guldager is a true pioneer. By day, he manages the museum in Narsarsuaq, in southern Greenland. But in the summer months, when the wildflowers are in bloom, Guldager spends his spare time tending to his honeybees. He keeps them in a meadow of herbs and wildflowers: fitting fuel for what he claims is the most healthy honey in the world. “These bees feast on wild thyme, bellflowers, fireweed, and angelica,” he explained. “They don’t have to deal with pollution or chemicals. Wouldn’t you produce liquid gold under those conditions?”
Efa Poulsen, Experimental Gardener
At the Upernaviarsuk Experimental Farm in Qaqortoq, Poulsen and his team are working to broaden the contents of islanders’ farms and vegetable gardens. On a tour of his greenhouses and hotbeds, I nibbled on ultra-sweet carrots, fresh from the soil. With icebergs sparkling in the bay behind him, he picked a pepper from a plant and said: “Can you believe this is the first commercial batch of red chili peppers ever grown in Greenland?”
The Upernaviarsuk Experimental Farm
Andreas Pedersen, Brewmaster
Soon after Andreas Pedersen left his native Denmark to become Immiaq’s in-house brewmaster last year, he was inspired by Greenland’s unique climate to develop new beer recipes. “We produce dark, creamy beer for the long polar winter and fruity, crisp versions for when the sun is out,” he told me. Locally picked ingredients include black crowberries, juniper berries, Arctic thyme, and narrow-leafed Labrador tea.
Sofie Kielsen, Home Cook
A home food experience is one of the best ways to sample typical Greenlandic cooking. In Qaqortoq, I dined at the home of Sofie Kielsen—a lively 76-year-old in a flowery dress, Crocs, and woolen socks, who darted around her kitchen with the energy of a professional chef in her twenties. She made arctic char, smoked in a cabin at the end of her garden, with new potatoes straight from the soil, and a glorious tzatziki-style dressing made with homegrown garlic and herbs. “I like to keep it simple and easy. Pure, just like the Arctic air,” she said.
Angelica leaves from home cook Sofie Kielsen’s garden in Qaqortoq.
A young cyclist in the town of Sisimiut.