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Kuivaliha is a style of dried meat popular in Finland and throughout Nordic Europe. The meat is prepared in thin strips, and either dried or smoked to obtain a tough, leathery texture. It generally resembles jerky in both looks and taste. Most of the time, kuivaliha is made with reindeer meat, though most any large animal can be used.
In Finnish, the word kuivaliha is best translated as “dried meat.” The actual practice of drying must usually be done in a rather precise fashion, however. Not just any dried meat qualifies for recognition as kuivaliha. Snacks with this designation are something of much national pride in Finland, and have an important place in traditional Finnish cuisine, particularly in the northern parts of the country.
Generally speaking, only certain parts of an animal can be used in kuivaliha preparation. Dense muscle is best, usually from the hindquarters and the top of each leg joint. Some tendons and connecting fibers can be used, but the muscle is usually as clean as possible. The end result is a snack that is incredibly lean, often with no fat at all.
Cooks cut the muscle into strips about 2 inches (5 cm) wide, which are then soaked in a brine for several days before being hung out to dry. The drying process usually takes around 6 weeks.
The Finnish people have been eating this sort of dried meat for centuries. In the far north, particularly in communities that sit at or above the Arctic Circle, reindeer meat was once the staple food source for most inhabitants. Hunters likely began drying the tough muscle in strips in order to maximize the kill and glean as many meat products as possible. The dish was also desirable because it would not spoil, and thus proved a way to preserve meat killed in one season to last into the next.
Traditional preparation requires the meat to be dried outdoors, hung on long wooden dowels facing the sun. They must be left unattended until completely dry, usually anywhere from two to three weeks. In most parts of Finland, springtime is the only season in which a cook can successfully dry meat outdoors. During the fall and winter, the air is so cold that the meat will often freeze before it can dry. Insects are likely to contaminate and consume the strips during the more temperate summer months.
More modern cooks have found ways of modifying original methods so that the snack can be prepared year-round. This can be as simple as an indoor glass-enclosed drying room, or as complex as a temperature-controlled pressure chamber. Some modern hunters also smoke their meat. This departs from traditional practice, but often lends a richer, more flavorful end product. No matter how prepared, though, the essence of the snack is its simplicity.
Ease of production has enabled many commercial manufacturers to begin producing the meat and selling it throughout Northern Europe. In order to reduce market confusion about the sourcing of these products, the European Union in 2010 created what is known as a “protected designation” for kuivaliha that comes from reindeer native to Northern Finland. This designation, “Lapin Poron kuivaliha,” can only be applied to certified Finnish reindeer meat, and serves as something of a seal of authenticity.