Many cultures have delicacies that seem strange to foreign eyes, but Kiviak, a seasonal treat in Greenland, may just take the cake when it comes to strange foods. The Inuit people of Greenland have been making Kiviak for generations, but to the unaccustomed, it seems truly bizarre. The dish is prepared by taking several hundred auks, a bird similar to seagulls, and stuffing them whole into the disemboweled and greased body of a seal. The seal is then sealed with a thick layer of grease and buried underneath of a heavy stone. Several months later, usually around Christmas time, the seal body is dug up and the birds are eaten whole, bones and all. The taste is similar to a very strong cheese and shares the same pungent odor. It certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, and with the heart being the choice piece of meat from the duck, it certainly is a very different type of culinary custom.
While Kiviak seems like a very strange meal to foreigners, in the context of the Inuit diet and environment, it makes total sense. The Inuit people of Greenland live in one of the harshest environments on the planet, an environment that is perpetually dark for the half year. Once the sun sets in the late fall, it doesn’t rise again until the end of the winter. Agricultural is next to impossible in the region forcing the Inuit people to look for additional sources for essential nutrients and minerals which are typically found in fresh fruits and vegetables. By consuming the vital organs and proteins of the animals they hunt, most typically seals, they are able to acquire the essential nutrients and vitamins needed to survive. Kiviak is loaded with not only protein, but by consuming all of the auks’ internal organs, the Inuit people are able to provide what their bodies need during the eternal night of winter.
It seems strange that Kiviak is even edible, considering the meat isn’t cured and treated, which usually results in rotten meat. The secret to Kiviak process can be found in fermentation and the seal fat used to seal the carcass. Auks are an unusual bird; their bodies lend themselves wonderfully to the fermentation process. The seal fat creates an airtight environment within the seals body, and using stones to bury the Kiviak also ensures that there is no air in the carcass, which prevents flies from laying their eggs in the Kiviak. While the Kiviak is buried, the unique body chemistry of the auks starts to ferment in the airtight environment and creates a safe-to-eat meat that is free of rot and harmful bacteria. However, in 2013, several people died from botulism from eating Kiviak. The fatal Kiviak had been prepared improperly; eider birds had been used in place of auks. While eider and auks are very similar, the body of chemistry of eiders does not lend itself to the fermentation process. As a result, the birds did not ferment properly and the meat became toxic.
While Kiviak may seem bizarre, it truly is a testament to ingenuity and cleverness of people. Even in the harshest of environments, people manage to eke out a living and find ways to provide nourishment for themselves and their families. By preparing this strange delicacy, the isolated people of Greenland have managed to create a nutrient dense food in the dead of winter in an environment where no plants want to grow.