WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because cultural exchange doesn’t get tastier than this.
Zona Spray Starks was born in a village above the Arctic Circle. There, food was an expression protected by the frozen tundra, preserving the culture in a way that became difficult for southern Alaska neighbors to match. “To me, Alaska is in the bush — that’s Alaska, period. And all of the rest is pretty much tainted. It’s become very white.”
That’s not to throw out the merits of other Alaskan cuisine, from the street eats of Anchorage to the smoky drinks distilled from the catches of the Kenai Peninsula. To feast like an Alaskan is to celebrate the local bounty and take part in a cultural exchange that is ongoing, as new residents find themselves in the Last Frontier. Here are a few ways you can join that culinary conversation.
Seal and Reindeer Ice Cream
Alaskans lay claim to perhaps the most bizarre take on the beloved dessert: It’s called “akutaq,” a frozen treat made from reindeer fat or tallow, seal oil and either berries or ground fish. (Alaskans have given it the decidedly un-P.C. nickname of “Eskimo ice cream.”) The most traditional dish on this list, it’s also the most difficult to try — you’ll have to find an Inuit chef. Once a practical staple for traveling, easily frozen which prevented spoiling, wives would prepare it for their husbands before hunting or polar exploration trips. And it was a common entry at annual trade fairs, where cooks would compete to create the most original takes: “The most bizarre thing you could throw into it was usually the dish that won,” Starks says. “The innards of some fish that were edible, fish eyes … everything.”
In the summer, berries were more readily available. The real draw, though, was the texture — smooth on the palate, luscious and silky. “It’s very sensuous,” Starks says. And it’s that texture that draws comparisons to standard ice cream — although its ingredients sometimes recall something more akin to mincemeat pie. “There’s no waste. That’s one of the dictums of the culture: You don’t waste anything,” Starks adds.
Smoked Salmon Vodka
At the turn of the decade, Alaska Distillery merged two of the state’s greatest loves: salmon and booze. It may be the answer to something nobody asked for — ever — but used as a bloody mary base, the fishy touch isn’t so bad, writes Christina Maness, who reviewed the strange pairing for Drink Me Magazine. Probably not best for straight shots, though, she adds. The phone number listed online for Alaska Distillery seems to be disconnected, although the site still advertises sales, so the web may be your only way to get a hand on a handle of this only-in-Alaska concoction.
Oh, Rudolph, we hardly knew ye. If you don’t mind chewing on your childhood heroes, you can find reindeer sausage in pretty much any Alaskan grocery store — although locals question what percentage of that meat really is reindeer. For a more satisfying experience, stop by a Reindeer Redhot stand and enjoy this take on the Lower 48’s all-beef classic. The taste isn’t for everyone: a bit gamy, but not as much as elk or moose meat. But for the curious, Tiki Pete’s in Anchorage sells them, as does Reindeer Redhots in Sitka, although for the latter you’ll have to catch them at the Saturday farmers market, says stand owner Carole Knuth.