Jillian Moreno is cutting maktak — whale skin and blubber — with an ulu, a curved knife like a handheld half-moon. The maktak has been in the freezer since the end of the spring whaling season, and after sitting out for a few minutes it has barely thawed. The blade passes with the gentle resistance of teeth through an ice cream sandwich. There’s an ice cream note to its appearance, too — black skin and pink fat as clearly delineated as the chocolate and strawberry in a tub of Neapolitan.
Moreno slices the maktak into strips the width of her pinky finger and sprinkles them with salt. “This is how I first had it when I was a kid,” she says, offering me a piece. The skin, smooth and elastic, smells of the sea — the chill, kelp-steeped breeze of the Arctic coast of Alaska. The blubber melts against the tongue like otoro, the fatty belly of bluefin.
“And this is how a lot of people like it these days,” she says, reaching for a plastic tub of kimchi. She spoons some into a bowl, adds the maktak and stirs. I try a red-glossed strip, caught against a sliver of cabbage. The kimchi is fresh, the cabbage crisp as a cymbal crash against the melting whale. Sesame oil and spice slice through the fat. It’s my first time trying this combination, but being half Filipino I recognize the equilibrium of salt, fat, acid and heat — like fried pork belly dipped in spiced vinegar, sisig tossed with chiles and calamansi juice.
“I liked it automatically,” Moreno says of the first time she tried maktak with kimchi about 15 years ago. “Maktak is delicious, kimchi is delicious, and it just works.”
Moreno’s cross-cultural home — she’s Iñupiaq, her husband is Filipino — isn’t the only place you’ll find maktak and kimchi in Utqiagvik (called Barrow from about 1901 to 2016). On many tables in America’s northernmost city, the combination has become as standard as sushi and wasabi. There are tubs of kimchi in many Utqiagvik families’ refrigerators and chest freezers, and gallon pails of it regularly arrive from the city to the more remote villages of the North Slope (the surrounding borough) by air freight. Most of this kimchi comes from Sam and Lee’s Restaurant, the oldest Asian restaurant in town, but supermarkets have responded to the demand by stocking imported brands, and some home cooks have learned to make their own.
Maktak and kimchi is one of the many of hybridizations of niqipiaq (Native foods) that Iñupiat people harvest from the sea and tundra that surround Utqiagvik, a community where a subsistence lifestyle persists despite the supermarkets that now supply barged-in beef, watermelons and Pop Tarts. The dish is an edible synecdoche for the town, a proudly Iñupiaq place that accepts people and influences from elsewhere with open arms.
If you wish to make maktak and kimchi, you must first kill a whale. The Iñupiat are among the only people in the world who have the legal right to do so. Though commercial whaling is now banned in much of the world (with Japan, Iceland and Norway notable exceptions), the Iñupiat subsistence hunt is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act through a co-management program with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
In Alaska, subsistence is a legal term defined by federal law as “the customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild, renewable resources” for applications including food, shelter, clothing, and tools. It does not have the connotation of bare-minimum survival that one might read in the dictionary definition, especially for Alaska Natives who now apply this word to the practices that they and their ancestors used to build and support complex, thriving societies.
For a few years in the 1970s, it seemed the Iñupiat would lose their right to their most important subsistence practice. In 1977, the International Whaling Commission banned the subsistence hunt out of concern for declining numbers of bowhead whales. The AEWC formed in response and lobbied the IWC to consider their communities’ needs, arguing that they had observed the whale population to be at least twice as large as the census estimated. The IWC allowed a small quota and added acoustic monitoring tools to their census efforts, which revealed that the AEWC was correct — scientists were miscounting whales as they dropped below the ice out of sight of the census station. Today, the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management conducts a regular census of the bowhead whale population, using methods co-developed with the AEWC, to help NOAA and the AEWC set subsistence harvest levels through the IWC. The current strike limit for bowhead whales, set in 2018, is 67 per year.
But against the thousands of years that the Iñupiat and their ancestors have timed to the metronome of the whales’ migration, this interruption barely registers. It is effectively an unbroken tradition, sacred and ancient, if augmented now by modern tools like forklifts and snow machines.
In the fall and spring, as bowhead whales swim to and from their summer feeding grounds in the Beaufort Sea, hunters wait for them on the lace collar of ice that frills Utqiagvik’s beaches in all seasons but high summer. Iñupiat hunters harvest belugas too, among many other marine and terrestrial animals, but none is as important to the patterns of Utqiagvik life as the agviq (bowhead).
Every successful hunt is an impromptu holiday. After the hunters have taken care of the grueling work of killing and bringing home the whale, more crew members join to help break down the animal. They clamber around the carcass with blades mounted on ax handles, their hands growing slippery and stiff in the blood and cold.
Nearly every part of the whale has a purpose. The blood is collected in bags for mikigaq, a tangy ferment dotted with chunks of meat and fat; the membrane of the liver is saved for a drum skin. The maktak makes up a large portion of the harvest, sliced off the sides in thick, curling slabs like rolls of sod. The flippers and tail are also prime cuts. Some crews pack the maktak in the bottom of an ice cellar, then pile the wine-dark meat on top so that the flavor of the blood permeates the fat.
Whale meat is illegal to sell in most of the United States, but Iñupiat people and other Alaska Natives may sell it within Native towns for Native consumption (with the exception of Cook Inlet beluga, which no one may sell). For the most part, though, maktak is given away freely, and anyone lucky enough to receive this gift may legally consume it.
By the end of every season, the crews give away the bulk of their catch. They divvy up the whales into shares: One might include a generous chunk of maktak, some meat from the body and a piece of tail, plus a cup of boiled fruit cocktail and a fresh-baked roll. Often some of the maktak is boiled, at which point it is called uunaalik. Some shares are distributed soon after the hunt, with the rest set aside for season-end celebrations like Nalukataq in June.
For decades, the town’s churches took care of distributing the shares and hosted communal meals in celebration of the harvest. Christianity, especially Presbyterianism, became intertwined with many of Utqiagvik’s traditions after a period of assimilationist missionary presence beginning in the 1890s. Sunday attendance has since dropped off, but the churches still serve as community centers, and some host prayer services for the whalers, despite greater recognition of the cultural paternalism that early missionaries brought to the community.
The pandemic prompted the town to adopt a drive-thru format. Last Thanksgiving, a long line of cars tracked through the snow in Simmons Field downtown to receive their shares from the 16 whales killed that season, piled in sacks on frost-covered plastic tables. Every family in town can receive a share, Iñupiat or otherwise, with larger portions for those who assisted the crews in some way during the season.
The share days coincide with an uptick in kimchi sales at Sam and Lee’s Restaurant, the source of almost all of the kimchi that is consumed with maktak in and around Utqiagvik. “It sells out so fast when people get their servings,” Moreno says. “You have to call ahead if you want it.”
Sam and Lee’s is a Chinese restaurant at the center of Utqiagvik, where three of its main roads converge. A street sign hung on the barn-red siding reads “Sam N Lee’s Pl.”, a token of appreciation from the community.
A plastic table bars the entrance to the dining room, closed due to the pandemic. (I visited last July, but as of July 2022 dine-in remains closed.) Owner Louise Kim stands behind it to take orders. Behind her are framed photographs of her four children, some in graduation caps, some in sports uniforms. “Only kimchi is not good for your stomach,” she says when I ask for it, and insists on giving me cabbage soup and rice for free. Then she notices that I’m only wearing a denim jacket in the 40-degree summer weather. “Come to my house and I’ll give you some warm clothes,” she presses.
I politely decline the latter offer, but a few days later I’m sitting in Sam and Lee’s dining room as Louise and her husband Hyung Kim cover a table with plate after plate of food. Louise brings me more cabbage soup and rice; Hyung goes into the kitchen to make Mongolian beef scattered with chiles. Then they surprise me with a platter of kimchi and uunaalik they received in the last share. “It’s inevitable,” says Cynthia, their 23-year-old daughter, when I protest. “They’re not going to stop feeding you.”
Sam and Lee’s has been feeding Utqiagvik Mongolian beef, kung pao chicken, and other American Chinese standards for more than 50 years. Like many small-town Chinese restaurants of its generation, it also serves steaks, burgers, and diner-style breakfast plates of eggs and hash browns. You can get pizza here too, and $40 king crab platters. The only Korean calling card on the menu is kimchi, listed under the salad section, though the restaurant has been Korean-owned for as long as anyone can remember.
Before the Kims took it over, the restaurant was owned by one of Louise’s cousins, Chong Park. Park’s mother owned another restaurant in Anchorage, where Hyung worked after immigrating to the United States “because of some mishaps in Korea,” Cynthia says. On a trip to Hawaii in the late 1970s, the two men met and hit it off so well that Park decided to give Hyung a job at his restaurant. “They also set up kind of an arranged marriage for my mom and dad,” Cynthia adds.
Hyung moved to Utqiagvik, then called Barrow, in 1979 to wash dishes at the restaurant. He spoke little English but had no trouble making friends. It helped that he always had food to share, and he was happy to try anything offered to him. He quickly took to Iñupiaq foods such as maktak and credits himself for first combining it with kimchi. “Kimchi has the best taste,” he says, explaining that the acidity and spice cloak the slightly fishy scent of the whale. It’s the same principle behind Korean dishes like hoe-muchim, a raw fish and vegetable salad coated with gochujang and sesame oil. “I told people to try it, and now everybody eats it,” he says.
But if Hyung invented the combination, Louise is likely the one who popularized it. She moved to Alaska in the early 1980s, having met and married Hyung on one of his visits to Korea. They bought the restaurant after her cousin started a new job in Anchorage. Prior to the move, she spent most of her life in a small village in South Korea that she describes as a bucolic place in the mountains, with clean water, fresh vegetables, and neighbors as close as family. “Every time you make some special food, you deliver it to everyone in the village,” she says. “In a small village, you help each other.” She wanted to do the same in her new home.
In her first years in Alaska, she would show up at every wedding, funeral or birth in town with a stack of containers of food. One would always contain kimchi — not the tart, fermented mugeun-kimchi she makes for herself, but a fresh version she calibrated to local tastes. “I made it mild, not too spicy, a little sweet, a little sour with vinegar, a little sesame oil,” she says. She recommended trying the kimchi with maktak, standard fare at Iñupiat family gatherings. Over time, families came to associate the dish with some of the most significant meals of their lives.
Louise still takes food to funerals — “Everybody knows, somebody died, Sam and Lee’s coming with food for them,” she says — but for celebrations, locals order kimchi themselves. It has become a common craving among pregnant women. Devotees take caches of kimchi with them when they travel, whether they’re going on vacation to Hawaii or popping down to Anchorage. A two-week trip might call for a gallon order. “Anchorage is a big city, so there’s a lot of Korean food there,” Louise says, “but nobody’s making kimchi like Sam and Lee’s kimchi.”
Not everyone in Utqiagvik approves of the kimchi craze. Miranda Rexford-Brown, Ruling Elder of the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church, remembers the IWC ban and how close her community came to losing their right to hunt. She believes whale should be eaten with moderation and respect, befitting the work that goes into harvesting it — without any adulterants.
“My son, he’s 25 years old,” she tells me after I visit the church, the oldest one in town, a white-and-green building with its name painted on a bowhead whale scapula outside. “He said he visited a family here, his friends, and they had kimchi from Sam and Lee’s Restaurant at the same time they were eating the frozen maktak. I said, ‘That’s not the way to eat it! I don’t like that, take that away from me!’”
But Jerica Niayuq Leavitt, assistant professor of Iñupiaq Studies at Ilisagvik College in Utqiagvik — the only tribally controlled college in Alaska — says it’s possible to prepare niqipiaq in modern ways while still honoring tradition. For the past five years, she’s taught a class called Traditional and Contemporary Native Foods Preparation at the college that encourages students to do so. “When you have your Native food, there’s a different type of satisfaction,” she says. “It feeds your stomach, but it also feeds your soul.”
Local hunters, fishers and foragers provide raw material for the class, including whale, fish, wildfowl, and edible plants like berries and beach greens. After Ilisagvik went remote due to the pandemic two years ago, the class worked from boxes of ingredients — like Blue Apron for niqipiaq — that Leavitt packages and delivers to students’ homes. The new model means she can now include students living in distant towns like Anchorage and Nome, who receive their ingredient boxes by air freight. The college has resumed in-person classes, but students still have the option of distance learning.
Students prepare a traditional and a modern recipe for every ingredient. With tuttu (caribou), they’ve made aluuttagaaq, a rich traditional stew, as well as jerky spiced with hot red chile. When Jillian Moreno took the class, she used her piece of tuttu to make udon soup. “Trying new things with niqipiaq is exciting,” Leavitt says. “It’s like combining both of our worlds together.”
Kimchi is just one of the accompaniments Iñupiat families have come to enjoy with whale in recent years. Several home cooks make a kind of salad with maktak or uunaalik that involves jalapenos, pickles, onion, and pepperoni — checking the same salt, acid, and heat boxes as Sam and Lee’s kimchi. Stir-fried uunaalik with vegetables is also popular, as is pickled maktak with carrots and peppers. Many swear by sprinkling maktak and uunaalik with Kunniak’s Spices, a line of seasoning blends made by local entrepreneur Kunniak Hopson, instead of the more traditional salt.
Whatever it’s paired with, for the people of Utqiagvik, maktak is more than food. “Whaling isn’t just a one-day thing, and then you suddenly have a block of maktak,” Leavitt says. “It’s a whole-year process, from our hunters preparing to go whaling, to them actually being out there with the whale, to the whaling crews working hard to cut the different edible parts. … It’s coming together with family, it’s bringing the community together, serving the people.”
The Kims and their kimchi, part of Utqiagvik for more than 40 years, have been welcomed into that community. “Barrow is really magic. People love each other,” Louise says. “My hometown is so far away, so these are my people, my village, my family.”
Jennifer Fergesen is a writer, editor, and author of The Global Carinderia, an exploration of the Filipino diaspora through food.
Ash Adams is a photojournalist and photo editor based in Alaska, California, and New York.
Copy edited by Paola Banchero