The Alutiiq verb allukulu means to mix together or to stir up. This word is often used in conversations about cooking, and its root, –aku, appears in the word akutaq. Akutaq is a popular Native dish made from Alaska to northern Canada by mixing an assortment of wild ingredients into a base of fat. Depending on where you live, you might use caribou tallow, seal oil, or bear fat as your lard, and add to it a combination of dried or fresh fish, fish roe, meat, greens, and or berries. Every family has its own recipe. Akutaq should not be confused with ciitaq–another popular dish made with berries. Ciitaq means “something mashed.”
The word akutaq comes from the Yup’ik language. Although akutaq has become a desert dish, and now often includes sugar, it was traditionally food for travelers. People mixed foods in fat to prepare an easily transported, filling, nutritious meal. Akutaq was fuel for outdoor work in cold weather.
Today, akutaq is a favorite treat at potlucks and celebrations. People freeze ripe berries to make the dish throughout the year, and mix both wild and store bought ingredients together. Crisco, mashed potato flakes, and canned milk are popular additions. Some people even mix pilot bread into their akutaq! Before you eat, however, it is a Yup’ik tradition to take a pinch of the mixture and throw it in the fire, so that the ancestors can eat as well.
Photo: a pot of duck soup.
There is no one English word that describes tugluq, a flavorful, traditional, Alutiiq dish. Like akutaq or ciitaq, tugluq was a mixture of ingredients tailored to the maker’s tastes and the availability of foods. The base was uququq–fermented seal oil. To this, chefs added berries and greens to form a tasty, aromatic, uncooked meal. Although tugluq is not currently served in Alutiiq homes, Elders remember eating it as late as the 1950s.
A key feature of tugluq was its longevity! This dish was the Alutiiq version of the never-ending pot, a perpetual plant food stew that was never fully eaten and could be replenished for months. In Alutiiq communities, a barrel of tugluq might last all winter, as people added more fermented oil, and whatever fresh or stored plants were available. And as the mixture aged, and continued to ferment, it becomes more flavorful. Both the fermentation and the oil in the dish acted as preservatives.
Making tugluq was a way for Alutiiq people to avoid waste, as leftovers could be added to the mix. Thrift, especially with food, is an essential Alutiiq value. It demonstrates respect for the natural world and ensures a future supply of plants and animals. Tugluq makes good use of the foods you have. Moreover, tugluq supports another Alutiiq value, hospitality. The pot is always available when guests arrive.
Many cultures have a perpetual stew tradition. The hunter’s pot, with meat and tubers, was part of medieval European cuisine. Caribbean cultures make pepperpot. Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen are often made with stock from a perpetual pot of bone broth. And a legend from India tells of a woman with five husbands who fed her large family from a never-ending pot.
Photo: Phyllis Peterson holds a jar of berries preserved in oil, an ingredient in Tugluq. Photo by Priscilla Russell, Kodiak Area Native Association Collection.
For many thousands of years, people around the world have used holes in the ground for cooking. From the Hawaiian pig roast to the New England clam bake, earth ovens provide an excellent place to cook many types of foods, and they are easy to build. Line a hole with some rocks. Add a pile of burning embers and top them with more rocks. Place your food on the rocks, cover it with some leaves or grass, and then burry everything with dirt. The heat generated by the coals will be stored in the rocks, gradually cooking your food. People often prepare meat in earth ovens, as the slow, sealed, cooking process creates a tender, juicy roast.
Among the Alutiiq people pit cooking appears to be thousands of years old. In ancient settlements, archaeologists find pits of all sizes that have layers of rock and wood charcoal. Some pits may have been for cooking food, other for drying foods over a slow burning fire. Pit cooking is especially common after about 800 years ago, the time when people began living in large, multi-family houses and hosting large gatherings. This technique allowed people to make quantities of food to feed extended families and hungry visitors.
Alutiiq roasting pits were up to about two meters (six feet) across, with sloped sides. Most have gravel or burned rocks inside, and some had a lining. On the shore of Afognak Bay, people applied a thick layer of glacial clay to the sides of some pits, forming a barrier between the wet soil and the cooking feature. Sometimes the pits have a layer of dirt or a clay cover, suggesting their contents was covered for cooking. Others have post holes around the edges, suggesting that people hung food over the pit to roast it.
Photo: Food storage and roasting pits at the Settlement Point site, Afognak Island.