Food in Alaska has a certain magic to it. If it comes from nature — like blueberries, herring eggs, moose meat, or salmon — it’s connected to the vast, wild place. If it comes from elsewhere, as almost all store-bought food does, it has novelty and, often, mysterious origins. If it’s prepared following a method from a homeland thousands of miles away, it’s full of longing and nostalgia. Alaska Natives who haven’t traveled to their rural home village for a long time talk about how eating wild foods, like seal oil sent by relatives, carries a comforting reminder of who they are.
When you visit, if you pay attention, you might understand what I mean, how a mouthful of something delicious eaten in a place so wild can feel like a miracle. Maybe it’ll hit you when you bite into a pillowy, hot doughnut, standing in an abandoned house-turned-restaurant in Adak, or crunch a Funyun while lying on your belly in the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or, if you’re lucky, when someone opens a jar of smoked salmon before dinnertime and puts out a spread with saltines, cream cheese, and chives from their garden.
There is no influence more important to Alaska’s food culture than subsistence, the Indigenous tradition of living off the land, which makes environmental stewardship, food harvest, and sharing the central conduits for passing culture and knowledge from one generation to another. That attitude toward food has a halo effect, as many Alaskans see sharing and stewardship as linked to community survival. It might also be why, if you live here, you aren’t surprised when a neighbor comes over with a filet of sockeye or a plate of lumpia. That’s how you do it — you share and take care of your neighbor, because you never know when the tables might turn.
When you eat wild food in Alaska, know that the state’s wild foods and the traditions and industries built upon their rhythms are increasingly challenged by climate change. King and red salmon fisheries outside of Bristol Bay have faced historically paltry returns in recent years. Bering Sea crab stocks are down. One of the state’s largest caribou herds is steadily shrinking. Even the time when berries ripen has shifted. Though Alaskans have adapted in many ways to these changes, the experience of eating wild foods has become all the more precious to us.
If you’re a visitor to this state, you may not get a chance to eat our wild harvest like maktak or even salmonberries, but you can still find delicious local food tucked into urban strip malls. Alaska is known for its scallops, its oysters, and black cod, as well as its hyper-sweet crucifers, root vegetables, and strawberries, which concentrate sugars more than other places because of the temperature fluctuations from day to night.
Be on the watch for international cuisine. Over the last 20 years, a demographic shift in the state has intensified some long-standing influences and brought others — especially from the Filipino, Korean, Mexican, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander diasporas. This has inspired all kinds of uniquely Alaskan fusions — from wild game adobo to caribou sausage musubi to poke bowls with raw salmon and kimchi.
As in many places, there are customs in Alaska when it comes to food. If you travel to a rural place, where groceries are expensive and produce is scarce, bring a case of oranges or a mesh bag of avocados for your host. When someone offers you food — a can of salmon or home-cured sausage — understand that you are being given an important gift and treat it as such. And, if someone invites you to eat at their table, always say yes. — Julia O’Malley