03.26.08–Food and Recipes–Indian and Eskimo Ice Cream

Eulachon or hooligan:
From the herring family, hooligan, also called “candle fish”, average 6 to 9 inches long, living in huge schools in Alaskan’s salt waters. They are blue-brown color on the back with black flakes on the fins and the tail with a silver color on the bottom. The upper jaw extends past the eyes. In spring, between April and May, mature fish are heading toward rivers to spawn in fresh water, most all die after spawning. Females lay around 17,000 to 60,000 eggs, depending on size, after becoming mature in 3 to 4 years.

Fish of Alaska

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Rendering Oil From Eulachon

Eagerly awaited every spring is the mid–May run of eulachon. During a short period of time–rarely as much as two weeks–these fish run up into the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers. Variously written eulachon, eulichan, ooligan and hooligan, they are called saak in Tlingit, and are still important in the diet of the Chilkat people.

Present–day methods of preparing eulachon oil are much more efficient, but I found the old method fascinating, as it was described to me by a very old lady a long time ago. A large pit was dug in the ground near the river. The pit was filled with eulachon, which were allowed to ripen in the warm spring sunshine for about two weeks. Then a large fire was built beside the pit to heat rocks and water. Hot water was poured into the pit and the rocks were rolled in to help keep the water hot; the heat rendered out the oil. As more water was poured into the pit, the oil rose to the top and was skimmed off. After the early traders introduced the use of large iron pots, the people reversed the procedure, adding the ripened fish to boiling water, which greatly increased the amount of oil that could be extracted from a given amount of fish.

The eulachon oil, which is as clear as salad oil when properly made, was used for a variety of things. For instance, when poured over berries in a storage box or other container, it sealed out the air and kept the berries from spoiling. This practice, with modern freezing and canning methods available, is no longer used, although oil may be mixed with berries when they are served. Mrs. Mildred Sparks says that when her mother used eulachon oil for frying Indian doughnuts, the oil did not penetrate the dough, and the doughnuts did not taste fishy. Most important, the oil was, and still is, put into oil dishes into which such foods as dried fish may be dipped before eating, just as some foods are dipped in drawn butter.

Today’s rendering vats are rectangular or square metal affairs which can be moved over a trench in which a fire is built to heat the water. There is usually a steam vent near the top and a large wooden plug near the bottom, which can be removed to drain water and fish residue when the rendering process is finished.

When the water comes to a boil, the fish is shoveled from the ripening pit into tubs, carried to the rendering vat and poured into boiling water. The fish are carefully stirred so that they will heat as evenly as possible. The results are best if the mixture is kept just below boiling. This can be done by regulating the fire below the vat, drawing wood off it or returning it as needed.

As the oil rises to the top of the vat, it is skimmed off–a skillet makes a good skimmer–and put into temporary containers, such as gallon (3.8 L) jugs. When all the oil has been skimmed, the vat is used for the next batch. The residue is sometimes saved to be used as a fertilizer.

Within a day or two of rendering, the oil must be clarified. The thick, cloudy oil is poured into a kettle in which there is little water. It is stirred and heated to boiling. Then more water is added to help settle impurities out of the mixture.

It takes about half an hour of stirring and settling before the clarified oil can be ladled out and strained into permanent storage containers. Most people prefer to store it in the freezer, where it will remain in perfection condition. In bygone days, it was kept in the coolest, darkest corner of the house, or even partially underground beneath the house. If the oil is not to be frozen, it should be poured into sterilized glass containers and kept cool.

Cited From: Elizabeth Hakkinen and Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, 1983. Elisabeth Hakkinen’s story, originally titled “Eulachon Run” is adapted from ALASKA magazine, May 1977.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

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Diaxsh–Indian Ice Cream

Mix some of the second fall of snow with melted or heated ooligan grease. Beat it up with the hands until it fluffs. Add a bit of sugar to your taste. Pour some blueberries over this and you have Tsimpshean ice cream. This can be frozen and saved for the summer.

Cited From: Tsimpshean Indian Island Cookbook, Metlakatla (footnoted) and Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

Caribou Agutuk

Agutuk, spelled various ways when the word is used in English, is often called Eskimo ice cream. There are many ways of making it. Berries are often incorporated in the fluffy mixture and instead of the ‘cheesy’ taste ascribed to this recipe, the result is sweet. Several such recipes have been included in the berry section.

Caribou meat, preferably that along the sinews from the back and the hindquarters, is boiled and either chopped into very fine pieces or ground and added to a mixture of fats. Here is a typical Point Hope recipe:

1 cup (240 mL) caribou or edible beef tallow

1 cup (240 mL) seal or whale oil

4 pounds (1.8 kg) caribou meat, cooked and ground

1 cup (240 mL) caribou cooking broth

First, the tallow is thoroughly chopped or hammered; then softened by squeezing in the hands or by warming it slightly on the stove. It is then beaten or whipped to a fluff–using a circular motion of the hand. Seal or whale oil is then added gradually and after each small addition the mixture is whipped until it is light and fluffy. The lukewarm cooking broth is added next, again whipping and stirring thoroughly after each small addition. Lastly, the ground caribou meat is stirred in thoroughly and the mixture set aside to cool. Caribou agutuk has a very pleasant delicate cheesy taste.

Cited From: The Alaska Dietary Survey and Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

Agutuk or Akutaq or ackutuk or Eskimo ice cream in the past always began with tallow from big game and seal oil as the base for whipping various kinds of berries into a fluffy dessert. Now that these things are not always available, beef tallow and vegetable oil are used when necessary. Also in the long ago days, no sugar was used, but that is another ingredient that has come into use in recent years. The methods varied, but as a rule, the fat was broken up by beating with the hands, then the seal oil and other ingredients–berries in season–were added while the mixture was constantly worked with the hands to achieve greater lightness. The following recipes represent both old ways and new. Because each one uses berries as a major ingredient, all are sweet–tasting products, even without sugar. Agutuk made with tallow and oil, alone is said to have a cheesy flavor. The first three recipes below are reprinted from The Alaska Dietary Survey. While these are rather short on directions, read on…you’ll get the hang of it.

cloudberry_b&w cloudberry

Agutuk with Cloudberries

1 cup (240 mL) beef, caribou or moose fat

1/2 to 1 cup (120 to 240 mL) seal oil (sometimes called oogruk oil)

1/2 cup (120 mL) more or less, water or snow

10 to 12 cups (2.4 to 2.8 mL) cloudberries

0 to 2 cups (0 to 480 mL) sugar

(recipe directions follow below).

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

Discovering Wild Plants

crowberry_b&w crowberry crowberry_1

Crowberry Agutuk with Sourdock

1 1/4 cups (300 mL) beef or caribou tallow

1 cup (240 mL) seal oil

1 cup (240 mL) sugar

1/2 cup (120 mL) water

5 cups (1.2 L) sourdock, (plant) cooked

6 cups (1.45 L) crowberries

1 cup (240 mL) raisins, softened

1/2 pound (228 g) dried apples, cooked

(recipe directions follow below).

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

Discovering Wild Plants

cranberry_b&w_drawing cranberry_bush

Cranberry Agutuk

1 piece moose fat, about 4x1x1 inch (10×2.5×2.5 cm)

1/2 cup (120 mL) seal oil

1 cup (240 mL) sugar

4 cups (1 L) lowbush cranberries

2 cups (480 mL) crowberries

Akutag and now some directions:

If you use fresh seal oil you don’t get the strong taste. Put a handful of Crisco in the bowl. Work it with your hand and add a little cold water. Put in the seal oil and work it more. The real Eskimo way was to make it with reindeer fat, chopped in small pieces. They put it on the stove to melt it. They never used to put sugar in. Stir in the sugar. If you keep your hand working it a long time all the sugar melts, it dissolves. It will just fluff up, now watch. You keep adding water, more water. Every time you put sugar in, it will fluff more. Keep working it and you can’t smell the seal oil. Then put in the salmonberries. There should be blackberries, too. And then I put it up in my little freezer up there, let it cool off and eat it. If you just want to have a little spoonful now, you may.

Cited From: Alice Smith, Mekoryuk, Tundra Drums., and Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

Discovering Wild Plants

blueberry_plant_berries blueberry

Berry Creamy

Add sufficient granulated sugar to 1/2 pound (228 g) sweet cream butter to make a stiff paste. Stir in 1 cup (240 mL) tart fresh or cooked wild berries such as raspberries or blueberries. Cranberries and strawberries are not suitable. Let ‘brew’ in refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Serve as a dessert.

Cited From: Mrs. Michael Petrov, An Alaskan CookBook, Kenai, and Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

Discovering Wild Plants

Real Eskimo Ice Cream

2 cups (480 mL) seal oil

1 to 1 1/2 pounds (0.45 to 0.70 kg) reindeer fat


Boil the oil and reindeer fat together for two or three minutes. Cook until lukewarm. Take a bowlful of loose snow, not too powdery, and add oil. beat well to avoid lumps. Let freeze a bit. Fold in wild berries.

Cited From: Out of Alaska’s Kitchens, and Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

crowberry_b&w crowberry salmonberry_b&w salmonberry

Our Favorite Eskimo Ice Cream

shortening, about 1/2 to 3/4 cup (120 to 180 mL)

sugar, about 1 cup (240 mL), or sweeten to taste

berries, about 1 scant quart (0.85 L)

We use salmonberries (knotberry, baked appleberry, akpik, ground mulberry, wineberry, arctic raspberry, bramble dewberry, raspberry cousins, muck-a-muck), blueberries, blackberries (crowberries, mossberries, black crowberries). Cream shortening until fluffy. You can add a little of the berry juice to make this softer. Add berries, a small amount at a time, until you use up the berries. Serve with smoked salmon strips.

Cited From: Audrey Rearden, Cooking Up A Storm, Homer, Alaska., and Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

Discovering Wild Plants

cranberry_b&w_drawing cranberry_bush image

Cranberry and Whitefish Agutuk

1 cup (240mL) shortening

2 to 2 1/2 cups (480 to 600 mL) sugar

few drops of water

desired amount of lowbush cranberries

2 cups (480 mL) boiled and shredded whitefish (sheefish)

Wash your hands and let them remain wet. Cream the sugar and the shortening. Add a few drops of water and mix well with hands until fluffy. Add desired amount of cranberries alternately with whitefish. Don’t worry about it being sour; the fish and sugar take away the bitterness. Serve as a dessert.

Cited From: Carol Hester, Uutuqtwa, Bristol Bay High School, Naknek Alaska., and Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans

Discovering Wild Plants

Sheefish or Inconnu:

The sheefish is a member of the whitefish family but is distinguishable from the more common whitefish by the strong extended lower jaw. The body profile is streamlined and the color is silvery with a darker coloration on the dorsal surface. It often displays a phosphorescent purple sheen when taken from the water. Males and females are similar, but females live longer and attain greater size. They reach 16 inches in length at age 2, and up to 30 inches in length and weights to 14 pounds by age 8. Sheefish from the Selawik-Kobuk area grow at a slower rate. They weigh about 10 pounds at age 10, but since they may live over 20 years, they may attain a very large size. Age at first spawning varies with the population, but males mature from ages 7 to 11. Some sheefish spawn every year, but every other year is probably the rule in most populations. Sheefish in the Selawik-Kobuk area may weigh up to 60 pounds, while in Interior Alaska they seldom exceed 25 pounds. Upstream migrations of sheefish from the wintering grounds begin during the period of ice breakup. The movements last from a few weeks in the Upper Yukon to over four months in the Lower Yukon River. Sheefish travel up to 1,000 miles upstream to spawn in the Alatna River. Sheefish do not feed in the later stages of the spawning migration but subsist on reserves of body fat. A 12-pound female may contain 100,000 eggs while a 50-pound female contains nearly 400,000 eggs. Sheefish have very stringent spawning ground requirements. The water must be from 4 to 8 feet deep with fast current over a bottom composed of differentially-sized gravel. Spawning occurs during late September and early October in water of 40� F or colder. Sheefish do not dig a redd or spawning nest, the slightly adhesive fertilized eggs fall to the stream bottom where they lodge in the gravel, and a rapid downstream migration occurs after spawning as they head to their wintering grounds and once again the fish begin feeding.

Fish of Alaska

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