15 December 2017

Kiviaq - auks fermented in sealskins


Here are excerpts from a report in the BBC's Food Blog in 2010:
The delicacy is created by first preparing a seal skin: all the meat is removed and only a thick layer of fat remains. The skin is then sewn into a bag shape, which is stuffed with 300-500 little auk birds. Once full and airtight, the skin is sewn up and seal fat is smeared over all over the join, which acts as a repellent to flies. The seal skin is then left under a pile of rocks to ferment for a minimum of three months to a maximum of 18 months.

As winter arrives and hunting for other game becomes difficult due to the darkness and unsafe ice, Ikuo and his family look forward to digging out the kiviaq and sharing it with their family and friends. They always eat it outside as the smell is so overpowering that it would linger inside the house for weeks. The seal fat helps to both preserve and tenderise the bird meat so it can be eaten raw and whole, bones and all. It was quite a sight to see the family holding bird’s legs in their teeth and stripping off the feathers before chowing down on large parts of the bird.
And here's a video of the auks being cleaned for consumption -


The knee-jerk reaction is that the Inuit are comsuming "rotten" meat, but that is certainly an oversimplification.

When kiviaq is prepared, the meat of the seal was removed, leaving only a fatty bag; then the BBC description describes the sealskin as "airtight," and the Wikipedia entry says "as much air as possible is removed from the seal skin, which is then sewn up and sealed with grease, with a large rock placed on top to keep the air content low."

So what the Inuit are doing is storing the bird carcasses in what effectively becomes an anaerobic environment, and the birds would then undergo fermentation.  The other variable must be the subarctic climate of Greenland.  At Food Lorists I found a comment that the kiviaq is buried in permafrost before being compressed by the rock, so perhaps the low ambient temperatures modify or inhibit the bacterial flora in some way to minimize the risk of the production of botulinum toxin.

This is most interesting way to prepare food.  It's probably the end result of several millennia of trial and error (the latter leaving behind a smattering of dead Inuit).  If someone reading this blog can explicate more on the food chemistry (or find relevant links in this regard, I - and other readers - would be most appreciative).

Top photo and video via Oddity Central and Neatorama

Reposted from 2012 to accompany the adjacent post about lutefisk.

19 comments:

  1. Seems like a lot of the arctic countries have similar traditions of preserving fish and animals for really long lengths of time. The Swedes have that "rotten" canned fish dish they eat, and I remember seeing something similar about gag inducing shark meat in Iceland.

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  2. Our Inuit friends make another delicacy (which I can't remember the name of right now) by burying fish heads and scraps mixed with blubber in what amounts to a stone-lined pit in the ground. They uncover it months later, by which time it has essentially fermented to the point where it resembles thick, chunky yoghurt or quark cheese. I couldn't bring myself to eat any (chicken-hearted qabluna!), but I've been told it tastes like mildly-fishy tofu. I told them I'd take their word for that!

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  3. I don't have a link, but the BBC did a tv series called The Human Planet, and on one of the episodes they show a family making and later eating kiviaq. It's the third episode, but the whole series is excellent.

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  4. I saw this made on a food or travel show -- perhaps No Reservations, though I can't recall. Fermentation is certainly as good a preservative as brining, drying, smoking, or canning... but good God I wouldn't want to taste this stuff...

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  5. They also ferment seal flippers for consumption. Part of the trick is not getting botulism... low amounts will make the face and hands go numb, anymore and the person becomes paralyzed, then dead. Many traditions about these food preparations are indeed the trial and error of past inuit.

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    1. As is also true for all of humanity. We all have a couple hundred thousand years of observation, and trial and error to draw upon.

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  6. Thank you for noting the correct term "Inuit" and not the archaic term "Eskimo"!

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    1. That's not as straightforward as you might think. My northern friends from eastern Canada prefer Inuit, whereas peers and fellow artists from Alaska prefer the term Eskimo. Different strokes, I guess!

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    2. From Wikipedia -

      "In Alaska, the term Eskimo is commonly used, because it includes both Yupik and Inupiat, while Inuit is not accepted as a collective term or even specifically used for Inupiat. No universal term other than Eskimo, inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people, exists for the Inuit and Yupik peoples.[1] In Canada and Greenland, the term Eskimo has fallen out of favour, as it is sometimes considered pejorative and has been replaced by the term Inuit."

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  7. Eskimo is the term once given to Inuit by European explorers and is now rarely used in Canada. It is derived from an Algonquin term meaning "raw meat eaters", and many people find the term offensive. The term is still frequently used in the United States in reference to Inuit in Alaska.

    www.fncfcs.com/resources/glossary

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    1. Do they still sell Eskimo Pies in the US? Or do people just giggle about name as we do about Golden Gaytimes here in Oz?

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  8. I studied under Bill Mollison, and this is a fine work.

    http://www.permies.com/t/3032/cooking-food-preservation-food-choices/Ferment-Human-Nutrition-Bill-Mollison

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    1. Thank you, anonymous person. I couldn't find that one in our library, but I did find one entitled "The permaculture book of ferment and human nutrition," which I've requested.

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  9. Mmmmm Reposted Auk. For those with an interest in unusual foods from history, I can recommend The Decadent Cookbook by Durian Gray and Medlar Lucan. S/H copies avail on Amazon for $1.79 or £0.01.

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    1. The guy (gal?) is actually called Durian? Talking about nomen est omen :P

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    2. *Looks up medlar* Waaaaait, I'm starting to suspect I'm being whooshed here. D'oh!

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  10. I think the microbiological process is essentially the same as with lutefisk, and salami and jamon serrano. And not far from sauerkraut etc. And indeed cheese. What you're trying to do is tilt the microbial community in favour of lactic acid bacteria LABs and make it uncomfortable for coliforms and clostridia like Clostridium botulinum (botox is the most poisonous thing we know). LABs are tolerant of acid environments (must be they leak lactic acid), so if you can lower the pH, you can give them a start. Coliforms hate salt, whereas LABs are more tolerant so lashing in some of that helps. Clostridium are strict anaerobes, so you don't want to exclude oxygen entirely, hence shallow burial. LABs naturally live on grasses (hence the success of silage) and the preservation pits are often lines with grass as a starter. Sandor Katz (book = Art of Fermentation) is an enthusiast and you'll catch him on youtube etc. If you're interested in DOING rather than reading start with sauerkraut: you won't kill yourself. Fermentation is often a good example of ecological succession: one community starts the process, changes the conditions whc allows the next chaps to get a start. There is a best-before time to stop the roll-over and eat! Hope helps: shameless plug http://blobthescientist.blogspot.ie/search?q=lactic

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    1. Thank you, Bob. And links to your blog are always welcome here.

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  11. And we thought we had the Pro-Biotic market cornered in these recent years!

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