HAY RIVER DENE RESERVE, Northwest Territories - According to the kitchen of Elaine Tambour, the best way to get rid of the gamey flavor of beaver is to boil the rodent in coffee.
Such is a traditional recipe included in a soon-to-be-released cookbook that will be incorporating the dishes of the Northwest Territories. Besides the accumulation of a variety of northern meals, the publication is also a project to preserve the South Slavey dialect.
Sponsored by the Northwest Territories Literacy Council, Tambour is likely creating the first book in this language spoken by those Indians south of Yellowknife, the territorial capital. To be distributed for free throughout the region, with a first-run edition of 500 copies, these recipes will be an education tool for the more than half of the population that understand South Slavey and its related North Slavey tongue.
"There was nothing, not a storybook, nothing that was in Slavey," said Tambour. "That's why Northwest Territories literacy was so interested."
With more than 100 recipes from wild meat to vegetables and another dozen combinations of bannock and baked goods, there's enough variety to please the palate of both adventurous and discriminating diners. Consulting eight elders plus a multitude of staff and parents from the reserve's day care, where Tambour is the coordinator, this endeavor required four months to compile and was released during the community's fall feast in mid-October, the Canadian Thanksgiving.
This celebration follows the moose hunt and appropriately there are several ways to prepare these animals. Following the rule that nothing edible should go to waste, one of the simpler recipes is moose stomach that requires nothing more than the stomach, blood and an open fire.
"This would have more nutritional value than the liver would because the stomach would have all the vitamins you would get in the vegetation and double the iron from the blood," Tambour said.
While moose stomach and boiled beaver (add onion seasoning to taste) might not appeal to everybody's tastes, the simplicity of these meals is by design. Recipes have been modified to exclude what would be deemed modern conveniences because, as Tambour notes, such ingredients like canned goods and spices might not be obtainable in some remotes areas of the Northwest Territories.
Also, by sticking to easy-to-prepare meals improves the local diet. With a high rate of diabetes among Aboriginals that's attributable to artificial flavoring and chemicals, Tambour sees traditional foods as a means to control this epidemic.
"Of the people who are born here, their bodies are not designed to eat southern foods," she said.
To convert the recipes from English into Slavey was the effort of Tambour's husband Alex. Most of the translation was easy and for those foods that weren't originally native to the north, such as those brought in centuries ago by the trappers and explorers; the English remained and is listed as such in the cookbook. Besides, he said, some words just wouldn't translate.
"There is no word for vinegar, vanilla and um, (pause) Viagra," Alex said with a laugh.
Leafing through the unbound rough draft, most of the recipes are only a couple of sentences with just a handful of ingredients. One that caught my eye was the cranberry chicken casserole and when inquiring how the rice with cranberries is combined with the poultry, Elaine's response was in line with the preparation's simplicity.
"In case you haven't noticed, everything up here is cooked in one pot," she said adding these meals are designed to be cooked without the need of modern appliances as well.