Every spring, before their annual whale-hunting feast, groups of Native Alaskan women gather to vigorously stir bowls of caribou fat and seal oil into a special treat.
They are making akutuq, also known as Eskimo ice cream. From the Inupiaq for “to stir,” it’s made by mixing fat and oil—and sometimes a bit of water or fresh snow—into a texture similar to whipped frosting. Although some people now turn to their electric mixers, the traditional method is by hand.
Contrary to its nickname, akutuq is far heartier than the stuff of sundaes. Meat-based varieties, which use dried fish or ground caribou, often taste salty and gamey, while berry-based versions (salmonberries and blueberries are favorites) have a sweet, yet briny flavor from the seal oil.
Akutuq is an undeniably Alaskan dish, with variations dictated by local flora and fauna. If you’re in the North, you might get hints of caribou, bear, and musk-ox fat. If you live on the coast, you’ll taste saltwater fish; if you live inland, you’ll find bits of freshwater varieties. And if you sample akutuq from the Southwest, you’ll probably encounter candlefish mixed with oil and fresh snow—a delicious but ephemeral take that lasts only minutes before collapsing.
But you can get way more adventurous than that. Until the early 20th century, Alaskans held cooking contests during annual trade fairs in which competitors experimented with unique akutuq flavors. At one memorable competition on the Yukon River in 1842, husbands barked out ingredients as their wives feverishly whipped their akutuq into shape, throwing in items like blood, beaver, otter, and bird eggs.
While some modern versions swap out the blood and beaver for Crisco and olive oil, you can still find traditional akutuq if you know where to look. Your best bet is through Alaskan cultural centers and museums. And if those options fail? Swing by the hospital. The Alaska Native Medical Center features akutuq on its menu.
Need to Know
There are akutuq recipes online. Most of these, however, use Crisco instead of fat from sources like whale, caribou, or seal. For the real thing, you'll need to go to Alaskan cultural centers and fairs, or visit an Inupiaq family.
Where to Try It
Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center401 Chief Eddie Hoffman Hwy, Bethel, Alaska, 99559, United States
The center hosts a Saturday market that features Alaskan specialties.