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What Is Kiviak?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

Kiviak is a dish of fermented seagull-like birds prepared by Inuit people in Northern Greenland. The practice, which evolved over several centuries as an indigenous Inuit custom, involves stuffing seagull-like birds inside a seal skin for a long fermentation process underground. After several months, the carcass is opened and the birds are stripped of skin and feathers before the vitamin-rich meat, organs and even bones are consumed raw.

Since Inuit culture is based around the Artic climate, where the soil cannot grow vegetables and grains, the diet there requires that most necessary nutrients come from meat. This results in eating a lot of fish, seal and other animals, which provide plentiful protein and hopefully enough vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates needed for survival. Since kiviak takes about two-thirds of a year to properly ferment, the dish is prepared in the spring so it can be dug up when needed for food in the middle of the winter, often as a special treat for the holidays.

Inuit people living in Northern Greenland dine on kiviak.
Inuit people living in Northern Greenland dine on kiviak.

The birds used by Inuits to prepare kiviak are called auks. This type of bird resembles a seagull, only smaller, and is readily found flocking to scavenge scraps. They are then plucked from the sky with a noose on a pole, or just shot. When several hundred birds are amassed, a greased seal skin that has been saved from a recent meal is wrapped around the pile of birds and then sewn shut into a pouch for fermentation.

Kiviak is stored underground for about seven months. It is placed under a large rock with the seam facing upward. This allows the gases to escape through the crack. On top of the stone goes smaller rocks and snow. During this time, the birds slowly rot, becoming a fermented soup of meat and bone. At this point they are ready to eat.

The fermented birds are regularly eaten with or without the skin. After pulling off the wings and removing the feathers, the rest of the bird is customarily consumed raw — the meat, bones, head and even the nutrient-rich inner organs. The flavor is reportedly similar to a pungently stinky cheese.

Discussion Comments


@Phaedrus- You have to remember that the Inuits live in extremely cold conditions all year long. We couldn't make a dish like kiviak in a more temperate area like the United States. The usual bacteria and other food pathogens don't grow well in subfreezing conditions. Kiviak is probably safe to eat, because it hasn't been stored above 40 degrees at any point in time.

The fermenting thing bothers me a little, truth be told. I wonder if it develops any alcohol-like properties along the way.

I don't want to be culturally insensitive, but kiviak sounds like the worst meal in the world. I can't even imagine what sort of bacteria and parasites might be lurking in that buried seal skin. I've heard of fish being packed in salt and lye for months until they ferment, but apparently they're still safe to eat. I don't know if I could say the same for kiviak. I suppose if generation after generation of people grow up eating the stuff, they probably develop a taste for it. The rest of us would probably not want to take a single bite.
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    • Inuit people living in Northern Greenland dine on kiviak.
      By: mady70
      Inuit people living in Northern Greenland dine on kiviak.