Disclaimer: Before reading, this is an obvious controversial issue. If you are sensitive to the topic of hunting or to the realities of some cultures hunting practices, please don’t read. Eating polar bear meat has been a traditional part of the Inuit diet for centuries. It is their right to maintain cultural traditions and these controlled hunting practices are not the cause of their threatened, not endangered status. I do wholeheartedly believe in conservation efforts, but climate change is the primary cause of this threatened status. Retreating sea ice that is relied upon has been diminishing for years and only getting worse.
The Inuit respect the king of the north with their nose to tail mentality and I was merely lucky enough to be present for a taste of a true Arctic delicacy. To clarify, I do not endorse the hunting of this beautiful animal. However, I do understand the cultural significance and tradition surrounding it. This is solely a time and place scenario for me that I felt honored to be a part of.
Polar Bear Meat
Now if you are still reading, I hope you are a true culinary adventurer. Polar Bear Meat is not something I came to the Arctic looking to try nor did I expect to find it. Until spending more time in the great white north and asking questions about their cuisine that is unknown too much of the world, did I learn that it was a traditional part of the Inuit diet. Even still, I didn’t expect to get the opportunity to taste it for myself.
Spending a handful of months over a couple of years in Nunavut, I realized as a temporary visitor trying traditional foods would be no easy task. I say this because they hunt what is needed for their family. In limited supply at the odd store or H.T.O and while sharing is a huge part of their culture, I was never exactly part of the community only there for work.
Arctic edibles are not in restaurants either other than Arctic char or a caribou burger. Found solely in the homes of the Inuit, I am grateful for the friends I have made through my time in the north. This alone has allowed me the opportunity to have a true taste of the Arctic.
I have personally tried polar bear meat twice.
The first occasion had me humbled. From my understanding, when a young man hunts his first bear, it is tradition to give it away among the community. A good friend of mine got the call and she brought me along. It came with an odd and surprised look, but the hunter’s family gifted me with a equal portion. Grateful and caught by surprise myself, I imagine it isn’t very often a non-Inuit is excited about such a thing.
I couldn’t identify the cut of meat it was. Large chunks of dark rosy red meat alongside thick, dense fat pieces with a cream colour. The smell was unlike any raw meat I’d ever put to my nose. Gaminess of the bear mixed with a fishiness from their diet of seals. Unique to say the least.
Polar Bear Meat can be toxic if handled and cooked improperly. Lethal quantities of iron can be found in the polar bear meat and if prepared poorly and ingested it could be potentially fatal.
This was a little disconcerting as my friend had never cooked this or eaten it since childhood. With no guidance and a touch of research, the key point I came to learn was to boil it for 2-3 hours. What this does, I am not 100% sure, but I diced the flesh and fat into approximately two inch chunks and began to boil. The stench this released into the house almost had us evacuate. The smell was intensified from that of raw and permeated every room. Windows open and Arctic air in, it became manageable.
3.5 hours later, I thought I’d air on the side of caution. I removed the cooked meat from the murky water that was left behind. I stared at it like it was going to jump and bite me. Neither of us wanted to go first. The meat pulled apart like a pork shoulder and had a strong gaminess. Comparing this to another animal isn’t really possible, but if I had to do it, fishy pork.
The fat had a potency all of its own. Taking on all the fish qualities in flavour, the texture wasn’t helping its case. Greasy, gelatinous and chewy, why it’s often favoured is beyond me. Oddly enough, together they work combined into a single bite. The meat with a small piece of fat marry in your mouth transforming into something new. The intensity mellowed while the textures complimented each other.
The second occasion was an unsuspecting treat. I was out cooking for a wildlife expedition near Pond Inlet, Nunavut. One of our guide’s popped into my cook tent with a pot of murky water and a smell I immediately recognized. His mother had dropped off a care package in the middle of nowhere. Knowing my love of country foods, he was kind enough to offer me a bite. I tried a bite all three ways again and discovered the taste to be much milder than before.
I’m not sure if it’s an acquired taste or the flavour is that drastically different from animal to animal. Needless to say, I doubt I’ll ever put this to the test. I am grateful for these rare opportunities to taste this culturally unique edible exclusive to the Arctic, but my curiosity has been satiated. If you are a culinary enthusiast ever in a scenario with this opportunity, I don’t suggest passing it up. It will be a special memory and potentially a once in a lifetime experience.