I’ve been invited to a barbecue at -5°C at the Arctic Circle—a popular ‘summer’ occupation amongst Longyearbyen’s residents. Standing in the balcony of my host’s home, guests marvel at the good weather, while my feet slowly go numb. It’s a relief when we go inside to eat. We’re all being treated to grilled sausages, thin strips of beef, and, most excitingly, a green salad. The latter doesn’t feature prominently on menus this far north, in the last inhabited town before the North Pole. Permafrost and four months of polar darkness a year make agriculture impossible. So what do people eat in a place where nothing grows?
Located on Spitsbergen, an island of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, Longyearbyen was established as a coal-mining settlement in 1906. It’s a popular destination for those looking for adventure in the Arctic wilderness. The town is not particularly picturesque: there’s an industrial dockyard on the outskirts, and the melting snow reveals the escarpments of dark scree encircling the settlement. But I find a stark beauty in these piebald slopes, dotted with the wrecks of mining apparatus. Squat reindeers amble through the town, searching clumps of frozen snow for food. Looking for the same, I stop at Kroa, a restaurant on the main street. I order the fish soup—a rich, creamy concoction flecked with fish and infused with the flavour of smoked salmon. The bowl is empty far too soon for my liking.
The next day, I visit a restaurant called The Winter Garden. Every available surface inside is covered with luxuriant houseplants; walls adorned with photos of grizzled explorers and animal furs from hunting expeditions of a bygone era. The menu here has a decidedly Arctic theme: seal, reindeer and minke whale. I choose the whale. In the early 17th century, whaling began in earnest in Svalbard. European whaling crews set up stations to flense whales, boiling blubber for oil, extracting baleen for corsets. By the end of the 18th century, whales had almost disappeared from Svalbard’s waters. In the years since, and now, regulations put in place allow only the hunting of minke whales and Norway imposes strict whaling quotas to ensure the population remains steady.
Even so, I feel a pang of guilt when my fillet of minke arrives, accompanied by fried potatoes and vegetables. I cut into it, revealing bright red flesh which looks a little like steak. At first, it tastes like one too, but after a few morsels I feel like I’ve been sucking pennies. It has a metallic aftertaste that gets stronger with every bite. Later someone tells me minke whale meat has such high iron content that it should only be consumed once a month. Considering the problematic history of whaling here, it’s unlikely I’ll try it again.
Hearty, high-calorie meat dishes dominate the menu in many restaurants. After the whaling crews came the trappers. From the late 19th century, men and women stayed on Spitsbergen in the dark season, hunting polar bears and foxes for their pelts. They survived by eating ptarmigan, seal and reindeer. Although eating robust meats is still popular here, hunting quotas have been in place since 1950.
The Coal Miners’ Bar and Grill, a former mining mess hall on the outskirts of town, is renowned for its barbecue and burger menu. The restaurant’s famous reindeer burger oozing with melted cheese, and salad lives up to its reputation. I wash it down with a pint of Spitsbergen IPA produced in the local brewery, Svalbard Bryggeri AS. It contains a unique ingredient—water from the 2,000-year-old Bogerbreen glacier, about eight kilometres south of Longyearbyen. Perhaps that’s what makes it so refreshing.
Longyearbyen’s not all about beer and burgers. Huset, the world’s northernmost fine-dining restaurant, combines locally sourced ingredients with modern Nordic cooking techniques. It serves a seven-course tasting menu, with dishes including Isfjord cod and tartar of Svalbard bearded seal. An annual food festival held in October, Taste Svalbard, also champions local ingredients, showcasing both traditional and modern dishes. Some of the standout events last year included a reindeer liver pâté-making class, and a feast of smalahove, a Norwegian dish of sheep’s head.
However, although tourists are intrigued by these unusual ingredients, the residents I meet wish the restaurant scene was more cosmopolitan. Longyearbyen is surprisingly multicultural, as you don’t need a visa to live and work on the island. While roughly half of the about 2,000 residents are Norwegian, there is also a large Russian and Ukrainian population, a thriving Thai community and a growing number of residents from the Philippines. But this diversity isn’t reflected in the restaurants. In 2017, the town’s two Asian restaurants, Taste of Thai and Sushi KITA, vacated their premises due to a building remodelling and high costs have prevented them from reopening. Although there’s a Thai supermarket where residents can buy ingredients to use at home, there’s definitely a demand for greater dining diversity.
Eating out in Longyearbyen is also expensive. Even my small bowl of fish soup set me back NOK 149/Rs1,300. When I visit Longyearbyen’s main supermarket, I discover prices are astronomical there too—an orange pepper costs NOK 74/Rs630. The prices are courtesy of the vast distances the food travels by sea to get to Longyearbyen.
The day after my supermarket visit I meet a man on a mission to help reduce Longyearbyen’s carbon footprint. Ben Vidmar has set up Polar Permaculture, a company which aims to grow vegetables locally and sustainably. I step inside his geodesic greenhouse, where he shows me the trays of microgreens he sells to local restaurants. He’d like to be able to supply more vegetables to residents, but the inhospitable climate means growing season is very short. I see only a few containers of seedlings right now, at the start of the season, but a couple of months later, he will be harvesting daikon, kale and other produce.
After a few days exploring the town, it’s time to travel further afield. Svalbard has more polar bears than people, so nobody can leave town without a rifle or an experienced guide who can use one. I book a hike up the nearby Trollenstein mountain with Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions. We strap crampons to our feet and set off. As I walk through an otherworldly landscape of flat ice planes and snow-capped mountains, I find myself thinking of the explorers that crossed Svalbard attempting to reach the North Pole. A common expedition meal used to be hoosh; a stew of crushed biscuits, melted snow, and scraps of seal meat or tinned pemmican. Explorers also resorted to consuming their sled dogs, a bitter lichen called rock tripe, and sometimes even their shoes.
Luckily, our lunch is more palatable. Modern-day explorers carry light sachets of dehydrated expedition food, reconstituted with hot water. I end up with a kebab meat and rice mix, which I imagine tastes far better than hoosh. Our guide also offers us toddy—not the palm alcohol produced in Kerala, but a thick blackcurrant syrup, which Norwegians often take on hiking trips. Some shops sell toddy, but it is usually homemade—with store-bought berries, since blackcurrants don’t grow here. It’s supposed to be mixed with hot water, but I add to a cup of snow, making my very own ice gola.
I eat surrounded by blue and white hills, which undulate like sand dunes. Wraith-like shadows of clouds drift across the icy expanse and I feel as if I’m in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard to believe that there’s a fine-dining restaurant only a couple of miles away.
There are no direct flights from India to Svalbard. Flights from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru have two or more stops at a Middle Eastern or European gateway city such as Dubai, Munich, and Oslo. No one needs a visa to visit Svalbard, however check whether you need a Schengen visa to transit through some European gateway cities.
Dani Redd is a food and travel writer based in Bangalore. She loves visiting remote islands across the world, and trying out new dishes on on her travels. She's currently writing a novel about a woman setting up a curry house on an Arctic island.