Fishermen travel by motorboat to sell fish in the shops of Inari. In the photo, Einari and Eenok Seurujärvi, Uula Saijets and Vilho Seurujärvi. Siida, Pentti Kärkkäinen’s archives.



The food tradition of the Inari Sámi is based on a natural subsistence economy: fish, game and berries from nature. Inari Sámi food traditions vary areally. This text bases on interviews made in Nellim area.

The Inari Sámis practiced reindeer and cattle husbandry and grew turnips and potatoes as well. But important foodstuffs were procured mostly from Bugöynes in Norway. Goods used for bartering were reindeer steaks, shoulder and hindquarter cuts, and reindeer cheese, which was a prized good in trading. Different kinds of furs, reindeer hides and pelts, salted fish, cloudberries, willow grouse, reindeer antlers and boot hay. Goods they brought home with them in their ahkio-sledges were flours, barleycorn, sugar, salt, coffee, fish lard, margarine, cod and other sea fish. Sweet homecoming gifts bought were twist buns, round wheat bread (made with unshelled wheat), raisins and molasses. Various kinds of sweets and biscuits were brought home for the children.

The Daily Rhythm

In the morning, they drank coffee, ate sandwiches, unleavened barley bread, cheese (from cows milk), oats and rice porridge. Food taken during the day was salted fish and barley bread as well as warmed-up yesterday evening’s soup. Salted fish taken with “viili” (a processed sour milk product) and berries were eaten as snacks. The evening meal was more complicated than the afternoon meal. The main course was usually fish soup in the summer and meat soup in the summer.

“Godmother baked long pulla or rye bread for the godchildren”

The most important festival of the year for the Inari Sámis was Christmas. It was prepared for already in the autumn by choosing the best foodstuffs for the holiday. Reindeer shank and steaks were saved, as well as large cheeses and rye bread. Fish were caught in the beginning of December from the “Christmas lake” – wherever they could catch fish that spawned late. The largest and fattest trout made it to the Christmas table.

A whole reindeer milk cheese was warmed up on the stove on Christmas
Eve and a piece of frozen reindeer milk, or “children’s ice-cream” was brought in. A fine cooked fish or fish soup was eaten in the evening. On Christmas day in the evening, reindeer-hoof soup and bone marrow were eaten during the festive meal. Frizzled reindeer meat was prepared, if they happened to have a joint of reindeer meat. Coffee and cheese as well as cloudberry and blueberry pie were enjoyed for dessert.

The Haversack Was Packed Often

Good food was always taken along on the trips to church, but the best delicacies were still left at home for those that stayed behind. In the summer, provisions packed into the bottom of the boat were potatoes, turnips, dried meat, reindeer and cows’ milk cheese and pieces of dried cod on top. In the winter, reindeer stomach or kidney for frizzling, salted fish, bread and butter, were taken.

A lot was demanded from the housewife; she was the one who had to keep the haymaking workers all satisfied. Provisions for haymaking were prepared for in many ways: bread and maybe even pulla (soft bread made for coffee and festivals) were baked and dried. Viili, butter, dried meat for soup and unsalted dried lard was fried on the end of a stick with a piece of bread. Dried blood bread was cooked in milk for a nourishing meal and unleavened barley bread was baked. If they were on the bank of a river or lake, fresh fish was available; otherwise they had to take along small fish caught earlier by seine. Fat ragout stew eaten with bread was a good strengthener for haymakers: it was made by blending dried lard, barleycorn, salt and water. For drink, there were milk and sour milk, and berry soup was always cooked whenever possible.

Fish Nearly Every Day

Fish was salted, dried, frozen and fermented. Frozen, ungutted, dried fish was preserved in the snow. Salt fish was salted with large-grain salt in wooden vessels, and then stored in a hole in the ground or in a swamp. Salt fish was a year-round food for the Inari Sámis. An addition to it was grated turnip - a favorite treat for the children – or a piece of bread with Norwegian molasses spread on it. Fermented fish was made from mildly salted fish, sometimes even by accident, but true fermented fish was prepared using rye flour. The best fermented fish was said to have been made from large perch. In the spring, before “the flies came”, large pike were cut down the back and stretched out with sticks and salted the same way as with meat. Early in the summer small fish were dried in drying boxes on the lake or small islands. Dried fish was saved in sacks or birch bark containers on the crossbeams of storehouses.

Fish eggs were salted or cooked with milk into a soup (mätiterni). Fish liver, especially from burbot, and whitefish liver was roasted or boiled. Fish foods were prepared by boiling or roasting over the open fire, in a pot or on an oven sheet. Like all other foodstuffs, fish was thoroughly used: the heads of large pike and whitefish innards were eaten as delicacies. Even the fat on the top of fish innards dishes was collected.  

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The Whole Reindeer Was Used

The blood of the reindeer was carefully collected. Immediately after slaughter, the meat from the back and the tongue were boiled, and while waiting for that the liver was grilled on a stick. Blood sausage was not neglected to be made right away.

Reindeer meet was frozen, dried and salted. At the School of Household Management in Riutula, canning was learned and, after the evacuation years, aspic (galantine) was cooked. The whole reindeer could be dried; only a few boney parts were left as soup bones. Steak cuts and shoulders were boned. Dried meat was taken especially from steak cuts, but the flank of a fat deer roasted over a blazing campfire was the best. A good travel provision was when the fat from reindeer stomachs and innards was kept in a sheep or reindeer rumen. Sausage intestine skins were saved filled up with air. Blood was frozen inside the reindeer stomach which was split up into pieces when needed.

The game stores were filled in the autumn. Moose, sheep and cattle meat was used the same way as reindeer.

“We went to the cow farm to eat viili”

A cow or several cows was after fishing an important source of food for the Inari Sámi family. Cows’ milk was turned into viili or sour milk and churned into butter. Wooden milk containers and fish casks were disinfected by soaking with juniper water. Inari Sámis prepared cheese from cows, sheep and reindeer milk: milk was turned into cheese in a rennet made from the stomach of a reindeer or calf. Reindeer were milked only in the autumn in grazing lands, and cheese was also made there. Reindeer milk was frozen for the winter in a sheep or calf stomach: for coffee, “children’s’ ice cream and “tuti-" warm milk.

The Tubs Were Never Completely Emptied

Especially the islands of Lake Inari were opportune egg-gathering places. Pochard, goldeneye and merganser eggs were gathered; loon eggs were not suitable for food. The eggs were preserved in large grain salt for a short time. They were cooked and eaten with salt, made into egg-milk (a kind of pudding), fried in pancakes and egg cakes.

Berries All Year Long

Containers full of berries, turnips and potatoes were covered for the winter in a pit which was not opened until spring. Cloudberries, blueberries, lingonberries, crowberries and northern bilberries belonged on the dinner table in the summer. They were eaten voraciously with viili and jellied porridge.

Berries were also preserved as winter food: blackberries were dried to serve as a stomach remedy; frozen bilberries were saved for the spring when they were sprinkled onto soups. Cloudberries were preserved in wooden containers: sugar was poured on top of berries in order to soak the berries up to the edges with berry juice. Blueberries were mashed and cooked and bottled. Lingonberries were mashed. Tubs of cloudberries and bottles of blueberries were preserved in a ground cellar or a cellar built on a swamp.

Pettu Was a Valued As a Health Food

Many a Lake Inari island name is derived from pettu (inner bark taken from a pine tree), like e.g. Makea Petäjäsaari, (Sweet Pettu Island). The use of pettu was rather diverse. It has been said that if there was not any pettu available, oat grain would be used as a substitute. The actual pettu-making time was in the beginning of the summer, or nila-time (the time right after ground frost has melted). The sheets of bark were dried, roasted and crushed into a powder, but it was eaten fresh a lot. A log could be taken in during winter from which pettu was taken. Pettu was eaten with berries, added to bread dough and barley bread dough and mixed with rye flour to make a good fish or meat soup into a creamed version which was eaten after the evening meal.

Birch sap was gathered from the live tree, but also from gauged holes made in stumps of birch trees felled in the winter. The sap was drunk at meals; creamed soups were made with it and coffee sweetened with it.

Delicious and Fast-Made Barley Bread

In most winter homes, there was an oven and stove. In bigger houses there were real baker’s kitchens. Summer homes and also year-round homes had outdoor ovens and stoves as well as tables and benches for outdoor eating. Unleavened barley bread was baked either on a flat stone, a perforated sheet or a grill made of woven metal wire. Cakes were baked from various ingredients: rye or Lapp cake, brain, fish egg and egg cake, pettu barley blood-bread and unleavened potato bread.

Ritva Kytölä

Photo: Seppo Lammi
Inka Valle from Tsurnuvuono carving dried reindeer meat.






Briitta Morottaja baking bread; her husband Iisakki Morotaja is sitting behind her. Samuli Paulaharju, 1914.




An old housewife at Nirrola baking bread and daughter-in-law Saara Valle making cheese. Samuli Paulaharju, 1914.





Traditionally salted fish were placed crosswise on a salting dish. Nuoran Pekka, Pekka Saijets at Paatsjoki River salting trout caught by batten line. T. I. Itkonen, 1913





Santeri Valle cutting juniper bark with a bone-handled scraper. T.I. Itkonen, 1913.













räätileipä = sweet Norwegian bread
kuu = reindeer stomach lard
tutimaito = e.g reindeer milk, used thinned either with water or cows milk
kaara = an elongated wooden platter or trough made either from birch or conifer
pailakka = a castrated bull reindeer






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