Right from my first evening in Point Hope, AK, I was introduced to the amazing native foods of the Inupiaq (in-noo-pak) people. My first delicacy was caribou meat with potatoes and carrots. We dipped it in seal oil. The fats and blubbers of whales and seals are often “rended”. I’m not sure on the process, but something around allowing it to turn from jello to liquid in special buckets, that are stirred often.
It was exquisite.
The seal oil flavor was strongly “fishy” tasting & smelling at first. But like many foods, became mellower with more dipping. It brought out the flavor of all the other foods. It acted like a type of butter, but with a nuttier and more rounded flavor. Once I started, it was hard to stop. I could have eaten several bowls!
I found out recently that game meat must be boiled for longer periods than beef. Wild animals that are not domesticated often have bacteria that can harm humans. The caribou seemed a bit overcooked for this reason. Game meat is almost never eaten rare, unless it’s whale which I’ll get to in a moment.
That was the beauty of the seal oil. It moistened the caribou in a way to make it more enjoyable, and less chewy. It was quite a combo!
Along wit the caribou that night, I had whale flipper. It was the outer skin of the whale, along with the inside flipper “meat”, which was really more like cartilage. Since the flipper pieces were frozen, they seemed chewy. But, they may have been chewy even if thawed. Even dipped in seal oil, this was not my favorite of the evening, because the texture of the flipper was simply too chewy for me. However, I graciously accepted the generosity of my hostess.
Throughout the next days the primary food was salmon and trout. However, it was literally just pulled out of the ocean that day. The fish was so incredibly fresh, I can’t describe it. The salmon flavor was unlike anything you can buy in stores today. The pink of the flesh was just a certain way, and the flakiness & flavor was perfect, not overly done. Folks in the lower 48 have no idea what “real” salmon is like. The trout was also excellent, highly flavored, yet fluffy and white. Simply dee-lish!
One day a lovely couple & their grand-daughter invited me out on their “honda” to go berry picking. It was a gorgeous Autumn afternoon. Yes, Autumn arrives early in the Arctic North. The sun shown down, warming us as the winds relaxed to a breeze. After excitedly filling my first quart size ziplock of salmon berries, I shouted to my new friends about it and was met with smiles & laughter & “Great! I’m on my fourth bag already…but that’s ok. I’ve been doing this my whole life!”
Despite that jab, we picked on & laughed on. It was hard to only stuff berries in the bag, and not into my mouth by the handful. Despite the temptation, I managed to pick an entire gallon! Even my hosts were impressed. As mentioned in a prior post, salmon berries are a unique flavor unlike any other I’ve experienced. They have a creamy texture, with a tang and then a sweet undertone unlike any other. Eating them with sugar & carnation condensed milk is a little slice of heaven descended upon this sinful earth. Yes, it’s that good.
Salmon berries look about the same color as salmon roe. They are like oversized raspberries, with each little globule of juice inflated like it’s on hormones. The more orange the color the better, as the paler berries don’t have as strong a flavor. Secretly, though, I like the paler berries, at least for instant picking (meaning instant into my mouth), while the more orange berries are better for long term storage in zip locks. Sometimes berries only grew with one or two juice pockets on the stalk. These are still good, as long as they are not red & hard.
One word of caution: seeds. Each little juice pod has a seed in it. The Apa (grandpa) who took me said that chewing them had cancer fighting properties. Given my family history of the disease, I gave it a try. How my crown survived, and no other fillings cracked out of my teeth only the cosmos can tell you. The husk of the seed was quite thick. It seemed like the more I tried to chaw on them, the more they softened up, and eventually were chewable. My jaw & teeth were sore for several days after, though. Who knows – maybe it will keep illness at bay? A few sore teeth are worth a try.
Finally, at the end of my stay, I was lucky enough to try maktak (muck-tuck), which is whale skin with a layer of blubber on it. Sounds icky, but trust me, this is dee-lish! The skin is much less chewy than the whale flipper, and the blubber simply melts in your mouth like butter. Back in the day when folks ate fat with their steak, it would be a similar experience. The maktak I was offered was unfrozen and raw. I only had a few small pieces, but wanted more! It could easily become an addiction; but after a while, too much might leave an intense fatty taste in your mouth. I wouldn’t know since I didn’t overindulge, and it might also be the reason the pieces were cut so small.
Well, that wraps up the culinary tour of Point Hope, AK. Didn’t have a chance to try seal, but there were several seal skins hanging around the village. Maybe in the next town!