Celebrating the Samis; the indigenous people of Norway

The Sami people are the indigenous people of Norway, who arrived in northern Scandinavia perhaps as long as 10-12,000 years ago, following the last Ice Age.  Similarly to other cultures in Europe dating back to the Stone Ages, we are unsure of their ethnic background, but their culture can be traced back 2,000-2,500 years. Hence, we can conclude that the Samis have been in the area they currently live  for at least 2,000 years.


The word “Sami” (Same in Norwegian) is the Scandinavian version of the word sapmi, which is a uniform description of  the area, people and language. Their language is said to be related to Finnish and Estonian, but the development of the language is largely unknown.   The Samis have the longest history of all ethnic groups living in central and northern Scandinavia, and hence they can be classified as indigenous people.  The first written mention of Samis was in 98 BC by the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the “Fenni” people. They were described as nomads who wore animal furs.   The Samis today wear very colorful costumes when they dress up, something like this:




The 6th of February (today) marks the Sami people’s day. This day is in memory of the Samis’ first national meeting held in the  Methodist church in Trondheim in 1917.   This was the first time the Samis met to work towards common causes across national borders. The day was first celebrated in 1993, surprisingly recent considering the Samis’ history.  There have been periods of efforts to assimilate the Sami people with the rest of Norway, as with many other indigenous cultures in the world.  Starting in 1850, it was decided that Norwegian was going to be the main language in all schools and that Sami were to be used less and less, much to the dismay of the Samis.  This was a result of the nationalism, social darwinism and the current ideology in the country at the time.   After the second world war, in 1945, Norwegian politics changed.   Influenced by people’s new ideas and demands of human rights, as well as protecting the laws and rights of small nations, the law was finally changed in 1959, where Sami was again allowed to be used as the main language in schools.


Today, about 40,000 Samis live in northern Norway (mostly in Finnmark), about 15-17,000 live in northern Sweden, 7,000 in Finland and 1,400 on the Kola Penisula of Russia.  The Samis are known for raising reindeer, and were also traditionally farmers (around the fjord districts), fishermen (along the northern coast) and hunters.  The most important livelihood was hunting for reindeer, and the Sami’s annual movements depended on the route the reindeer wandered, from the inland of Norway during the winter to the gracing on the coastal fields  in the summer.  The Samis also made Reindeer Cheese (“reinost”),  based on reindeer milk which was broken with the dark fat around the innards of the fresh water fish harr.  The cheese was often shaped into round, flat cheeses and decorated with various patterns, sometimes enjoyed with or in coffee.


The reindeer cheese has been one of the most important  items that the Sami people used when trading services and products with the rest of the Norwegian population.  The cheese was also used as medicine among the Samis to treat frost damages to the skin. In the Sami religion, the cheese was wrapped in birch and hung up in trees as an offering to the illness and death demon Rota to protect their women.  In addition to the cheese, the milk from reindeer was also valuable addition to the Sami’s diet due to its high fat content.

The Samis food traditions reflect the people’s close relationship with nature.  Hunting and fishing was very important, and the changes in seasons affected the accessibility of various ingredients,  so the Samis truly were pioneers in implementing eating seasonally and locally!  The food had to be conserved, so the meat and fish were smoked, salted and dried.  These conservation methods are still being practiced today, but now mostly for flavor purposes.  Reindeer was, as previously mentioned, a really important ingredient in the Sami diet and all parts of the reindeer was used; innards, marrow bones and the blood were utilized to make sausages and blood cakes and are still being considered delicacies today.  One of the most famous Sami dishes is called bidos, a meat soup based on reindeer and just a little water.  Potatoes, carrots, and scallions are also added and cooked in a big pot for about an hour or so.


The fish was also conserved, and dry fish was often used in the cooking.  One of the unique methods to preserve fish was to ferment fish that was sown into the belly of sheep, called surfisk (lanasguolli). Perhaps not something I would try but definitely caught my attention! All of the above considered, today it’s perhaps just as common to see Samis eat pizza as blood cakes 🙂

The Sami flag represents the sun (the red color) and the moon (the blue color) and was officially accepted in 1986 at the 13th Sami conference in Sweden. The Sami now have their own Parliament so to speak, called “Sametinget”, and the representatives are elected every 4 years, at the same time as the general Norwegian election. While I won’t go further politics in this blog as I’d like to keep it somewhat focused on food, I think it’s very positive that we now have included a law in our constitution that helps protect the Sami’s culture and language.


With all this, I found it appropriate to incorporate a recipe for reindeer in this post, since it’s such an important element in the Samis’ food culture.  Obviously I am aware that my American readers will have a hard time finding reindeer here (!) so substitute venison, it’s a perfect choice for this recipe. Lean and flavorful, venison lends itself very well to earthy root vegetables and the richer, creamier potato gratin (fløtegratinerte poteter in Norwegian),  which is very popular in Norway.  Most likely, I will get back to the subject of food traditions of the Samis – but for now – here’s a manageable recipe to test out!


Serves 4

3 lbs reindeer steaks (or venison)

1/2 tsp whole cloves

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1/4 tsp anise seeds

6-7 black peppercorns

4 tbsp sunflower oil

salt, pepper to taste

3 parsnips

3 carrots

2 tbsp butter


1 lemon, quartered

Fresh thyme, rosemary

For potatoes gratin:

10 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/2 inch rounds

1 onion, sliced thinly

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 tbsp butter

salt pepper to taste

1 3/4 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

3-4  thyme sprigs

1 tbsp butter

1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 320F.

To prepare meat: Toast the spices in a dry skillet until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Grind them in a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder. Season the venison with salt and pepper and rub it in with the sunflower oil. Coat  the steaks with the spices and saute them in a skillet over medium-high heat until browned on both sides (about 2 min). Place in oven and cook for about 20 minutes.  Pull out the steaks and let them rest.

To prepare vegetables: Preheat oven to 400F. Peel the carrots and parsnips and slice them in four pieces lengthwise.  Blanch them in salted water for about 1 minutes. Place them in an ovenproof dish along with the butter, lemon and a handful of thyme and rosemary, season with salt and pepper and put in oven at 400F for about 15-20 minutes.


Image : Aperitif.no

To prepare Potato Gratin: Preheat oven to 400F.  Butter an oven proof baking dish. Place the sliced potatoes and onions, garlic ,butter and thyme into the baking dish, season generously with salt and pepper and grated nutmeg.   Pour the heavy cream over the potatoes and onions and bake in oven for about 30 minutes.   Top the potatoes with the grated cheese and bake for another 15 minutes until the cheese has melted and is golden brown.


Image: Frukt.no

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