Food and Drink

In her Chugiak kitchen, Kunniak Hopson makes seasoning blends to spice up everything from maktak to moose fry

It all started back in 2007, when Kunniak Hopson’s favorite seasoning blend, McCormick’s Salt ‘n Spice, was discontinued.

She grew up with her grandparents in Utqiaġvik, eating maktak — frozen whale blubber and skin — seasoned with the McCormick’s blend. So when it was pulled from shelves, she made her own “copy-catted” version, with a twist.

“I sent the spices to my sister and she started sharing them with her family, her friends, and it started from there,” said Hopson, who now lives in Chugiak.

Today, she has 40 blends in her Kunniak’s Spices catalog — including ghost pepper, hickory-smoked, black lava salt and cloudberry sugar varieties — and a Facebook group, created in 2016, with over 5,000 members who regularly post recipes featuring her flavors.

On the Facebook page, customers show how they pair her spices with a wide range of traditional foods, from boiled whale with Aapa’s Blend to aluutagaaq, or caribou gravy with rice, topped with suppa hot spice.

In an average week, she sends out 40 to 50 orders, some to the Lower 48 and others to countries like Australia, Canada and Norway. But the majority are to Alaskans.

Business typically picks up in winter around hunting season, Hopson said.

It’s been a full-time gig for Hopson the past two years. Before that, she was working at her mother and father-in-law’s business, a Chugiak convenience store.

“I started from scratch. Everything was a learning experience ... everything I did was on my own,” Hopson said.

Hopson’s primary way of interacting with customers is through her Facebook page, where there are typically more than a dozen daily posts of people’s meals seasoned with her spices.

“Vegetables and stuff doesn’t come very often in the small villages,” Hopson said. “I think with all the spices that I have, it gives more flavor to them.”

Hopson works out of her home kitchen with occasional help from her husband and her five daughters, ages 15 to 25. She hasn’t expanded her operation since she started.

If business continues to grow, Hopson may hire help and move to a different location, she says. But for now, she’s comfortable with the pace of how things are going.

Lucy Anashugak of Utqiaġvik has been buying Kunniak’s Spices since she started selling them. (Hopson is married to her cousin, she said.)

Anashugak uses her spices and blends “on everything” and makes an order in bulk every three to six months.

She typically goes for Aaka’s Blend in her aluutagaaq. Sometimes, she’ll top off fruit salad with Kunniak’s cloudberry sugar.

“I have all of the blends,” Anashugak said. “It depends on what I cook. ... Me and my kids love her spices.”

Sometimes, customers message Hopson with requests for certain spices. She recently made her own taco seasoning.

“They all consist of what I mainly use. It’s just different stuff added into (the blends) to make it different,” she said.

It’s hard for Hopson to pick a favorite spice: She said it changes with the season, but she has a soft spot for Aaka’s Blend — the first she made for her business.

“This is really something that I wanted to do for myself and my family,” Hopson said.

Samantha Davenport

Samantha Davenport is a former ADN reporter.