As seal steaks sizzle in the kitchen at Sir John Franklin High School, local chefs recount their first experiences preparing seal meat.
“I tried it for the first time yesterday and loved it. It was not what I was expecting,” says Drew Steadman, chef at Thorton’s. “From what I was told it could be a very strong liver taste, lots of iron. I didn’t realize it was as subtle as it was. It’s beautiful though and the texture is just amazing.”
“It’s very interesting,” says Ethan Mackenzie, chef at Larga Kitikmeot. “Yesterday we just had it seared with salt and pepper and different toppings. It was quite nice to taste and then last night I made seal sausages and it was great to work with.”
The meat is very lean, everyone gathered agrees. Led by restaurateur Joseph Shawana, famed restaurateur at Ku-Kum Kitchen, these chefs are parttaking in a two day introductory course put on by the GNWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment. Shawana says the course is giving students a taste of what it’s like to get seal meat to Yellowknife and prepare it. “I know that every province is different but I never knew there were tighter regulations up here in the Northwest Territories than there is down south,” he says, adding he is learning along with his students.
Shawana, who has everything from elk, bison, whitefish, arctic char and partridge on his menu, says he faced backlash when he introduced seal meat at his Toronto restaurant. “We got bombarded with negative reviews, people calling us, death threats started coming in,” he says. “But we also got a lot of positivity from the community – Indigenous and non-Indigenous people started coming in and supporting us. We were booked solid for six months.”
The anti-sealing propaganda lives on, Shawana says. “It’s something that we need to just stop and say that the 70s and 80s propaganda of sealing campaigns is over, this is 2019 going into 2020. Almost 40 or 50 years later, and people are still miseducated around the practices of seal.”
For Shawana, who was raised on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron, preparing seal is about re-learning things which were passed down orally, some of it lost forever.
“We just have to dig and dig and dig and figure out how everything was done before colonialism came. And finding that out is important to everybody, it’s important to every culture in the world,” he says. “Losing our language, you lose part of your culture. Losing your food, you lose part of your culture and so on. And then you lose your identity and it’s just a big circle that you’ve got to stop from moving and focus on one thing.”
The chefs prepared delicacies – seared seal with candied beats, seal tartar, seal sausage, seal flipper pie – which they shared with the crowd at Saturday’s Long John Jamboree. After their first taste of seal, they say are planning to experiment with it on their own menus.