For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about akutuq an awful lot. So much so that I’ve written a poem about it and developed a real hankering to try some, despite usually shunning meat.
Also known as ‘Alaskan ice cream,’ ‘Native ice cream’ or ‘Eskimo ice cream,’ akutuq is animal fat – caribou, usually – mixed with seal oil and whipped together with handfuls of berries, freshly fallen snow or water. Each family has their own recipe, and it’s said the berries you choose to use is a lifetime decision. It’s alright to eat any flavor made by others, but your social standing will be lost if you’re found using berries different to the ones you initially chose.
Interesting Note: Seal oil is used to enhance pretty much all native foods.
The word akutuq means ‘to stir,’ and is pronounced ‘AUK – goo – duck.’ The Inuit have been making akutuq for centuries, and up until fairly recently, would store it in permafrost cellars, so it was ready for when guests dropped by.
On my wanders through the crevasses of the internet, I encountered Zona Spray Starks’s excellent article ‘What Is Eskimo Ice Cream?’ in which she talks about her experience of akutuq:
My favorite jaunt was out on the river to watch men haul fishnets up through the ice, sending whitefish flapping like crazy over the frozen surface. Seeing me, a neighbor named Old Jim would grin widely and yell “akutuq!” as he stooped to pick up a fish. Holding it belly up, he’d bend it until the skin snapped open and eggs popped out onto the ice.
Jim would quickly smash the egg membranes with a rock. With splayed fingers he’d stir, faster and faster, pulling little handfuls of snow into the mass. Within ten minutes a cloud-like batch of frozen akutuq would take shape. We devoured it on the spot, scooping up portions with our fingers, savoring each mouthful as it melted over our tongues. Old Jim’s version of the dish is one of many, and perhaps the most basic.Zona Spray Starks
A century back, women would hurry the process by chewing the fat to soften it. This had the potential to spoil the dish though, if the woman chewing was a pipe smoker. Watching videos on YouTube of the process of making traditional akutuq – splayed, experienced fingers whipping the fat until it triples in volume, adding a tablespoon of seal oil at a time and a little water to maximize the fluffiness – is akin to magic.
It takes about forty-five minutes for the fat to be transformed into something that looks very much like cake frosting. At this point, berries are added and perhaps a little sugar. (Whalers brought sugar to the Arctic in the 1800s.) The taste of akutuq is apparently ‘delicate, slightly sweet and rich, with a smooth and silky texture.’ It could also be made for hunters to take with them on long trips, by using dried meat instead of fruit.
In 1842 there was a gathering along the Yukon River and an akutuq cooking contest took place. Husbands heckled their wives to create bizarre variations. Some of the ingredients that found their way into the mixing bowls were blood, beaver, otter, caribou stomach contents and bird eggs.
Crisco (shortening) is often used to make akutuq these days, along with raisins. There are several ‘How To’s’ on YouTube – this one is particularly good – if you’re feeling intrepid. You can use a whisk instead of your fingers though, unless you’re keen on a more authentic experience.
Smithsonian Magazine / What Is Eskimo Ice Cream?