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Akutaq, the Inuit answer to ice cream

Updated on June 6, 2013
Akutaq from Thejinan on Wikimedia Commons
Akutaq from Thejinan on Wikimedia Commons

Known as Eskimo ice cream, akutaq or agutak is unlike any ice cream found in the U.S. It’s fatty, meaty, and occasionally sweet--and an excellent sustenance for the harsh weather of chilly western Alaska. Traveling hunting parties would take akutaq as they traversed the tundra due to its highly nutritional properties.

Akutaq is not just a food of the past. Even today, native Alaskans make batches of akutaq based on old recipes and modern conveniences. Akutaq is a dish of pride.

How a native Alaskan makes akutaq

Akutaq is a staple food of the native peoples of western Alaska, and as such, there are many variants and recipes. Generally akutaq is made with a whipped fat and berries. Sometimes ingredients such as fish and sugar are added. In Yupik, a language spoken by tribes in the area, akutaq means “something mixed.”

In addition to whipped fat and berries, akutaq usually includes meat, roots, and leaves. These days, some people opt to use Crisco instead of traditional fats such as seal oil or reindeer, moose, walrus, or caribou tallow. Commonly used berries include blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries, crowberries, and cloudberries, all of which provide a natural sweetness and tartness. Although akutaq is known as Eskimo ice cream, sugar is not a traditional ingredient.

Akutaq is traditionally made in a wooden bowl known as a tumnaq. It has high, straight sides. When the fat is whipped, it becomes creamy and smooth. The snow, fats, meat, and berries are hand-mixed together with a wooden spoon.

Traditionally, akutaq was made by the women of the tribe after a hunting party's first catch of seal or polar bear. Today, as it was then, akutaq is a food imbued with meaning, made for occasions such as funerals, celebrations, and potlucks.

Mousefood, special mix-ins for akutaq

“Mousefood,” known in Yupik as anlleq, is a type of food prized by natives in the Yupik tribe. It is a mixture of various roots and plants from the tundra that are stored by mice and voles in their underground burrows. Yupik people are taught to always leave half of the mouse’s cache to and provide a gift for the mouse to eat in thanks.

There are two mousefoods are popular: raindrops and Eskimo sweet potatoes. Raindrops are the roots of the tall cottongrass plant. They are small tubers, hardly an inch long, and they are droplet-shaped. Eskimo sweet potatoes are also roots. Because of their sweet flavor, they are often used in akutaq as a natural sweetener.

A girl shares a traditional Eskimo ice cream recipe

Cloudberry from mwri on Flickr
Cloudberry from mwri on Flickr

Berries of the arctic

There are many berries in the arctic. Some berries are familiar to those in United States, such as cranberries and blueberries. Others are slightly more exotic and found only in cold regions or in other parts of the world.

Salmonberries are found in moist areas along the Pacific Northwest coastline. They are hardy enough to be found even in the extreme cold of northernmost Alaska. Raspberry Island, an Alaskan island, was named after the lookalike fruit.

Cloudberries are probably best known to those outside of the northern regions. Cloudberries are especially popular in Nordic countries, with cloudberry goods being sold at IKEA stores. Cloudberries can also be found in Canada, where there are known as bakeapples, and in England, where they are called knotberries.

According to What's Cooking America, it's said that the choice of which berry to include in the family akutaq recipe is a choice made for life. It is unseemly to include berries other than those pre-chosen by the family recipe. That said, much like using Crisco instead of tallow for convenience, some families opt to include raisins in their akutaq.

Snow as dessert

In western Alaska, there is an abundance of snow. Many other cultures have used snow as a base for frozen desserts. Even today, people can gather fresh snow, add flavorings, and enjoy a natural treat. One could argue, however, that akutaq is healthier than desserts made in more urban areas: with so much smog and pollution in the atmosphere, snow can pick up some of those pollutants even when it’s freshly fallen.

Alaskan snow from Paxson Woelber on Flickr
Alaskan snow from Paxson Woelber on Flickr

Frozen desserts are all mixed up

Halo-halo, a melange dessert made in the Philippines, is named in a similar way as akutaq. In Tagalog, it’s name means “mix-mix.” Halo-halo is made from a mixture of all sorts of ingredients. While the base is shaved ice, vendors will also add such things as evaporated milk, fruit, sweetened syrups, jellies, jams, kidney and garbanzo beans, nata de coco, sweet potatoes, tapioca pearls, rice, and cheese.

Akutaq, a blend of old and new

Akutaq is one of those foods that embraces both traditional preparation techniques and is improved upon and tweaked by current generations. It has a rich history and is unique to the native peoples of Alaska. If you want to try to make some yourself, here is an Eskimo ice cream recipe collected on the Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

If given the chance, would you try akutaq?

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