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How to Cook Fish Like an Alaskan Fisherman

Raw salmon on baking sheet covered in herbs.
James Ransom

Did you know that Alaska has 34,000 miles of coastline? Did you know that sustainable fishing laws were actually written into Alaska’s constitution in 1959? That all Alaskan fishing boats have to be built in America (see: sustainability)? That it’s bad luck to change the name of a boat?

My chance to travel to this amazing state came via an invitation from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). My goal was to learn all about their sustainable fishing industry as well as the plentiful seafood that comes from their waters. From the moment my plane landed in Anchorage, I started most conversations with the same question, “So, how do you cook your fish?”

Every local I spoke with had an opinion on the matter. Because in Alaska, everyone at some point puts a rod into the water and fishes. Some for commercial purposes, some for their own food, and some just for fun and relaxation. And once you start talking about fish and fishing with anyone here, it becomes imminently clear how intertwined the industry is with the culture and day-to-day rhythms of our 49th state. The cooking of fish, then, is a big conversation starter. The overriding theme was KISS, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” (Well, nobody called me stupid; Alaskans are by and large extraordinarily polite.) The advice I got mostly revolved around preserving the clean, pure flavors of the fish and seafood, being restrained with other ingredients, and never overcooking it.

Our first night in Alaska, we have a taxi driver named Shauna. A recreational fisher, she describes fresh king crab as “sweet heaven,” scallops as “candy fish,” and fresh Alaskan cod as a priority purchase when it’s in season March through May, and August through October. She talks about grilling salmon over a campfire while growing up. I say something about the luxury of having this kind of pristine seafood in your virtual backyard, and how lucky Alaskans are. She agrees and adds, “I’ve always felt bad for you guys.”

I meet Jarl Gustafson at the dock in Homer, Alaska where he’s repairing his boat. Jarl fishes commercially, mostly for halibut and spot shrimp (a bigger prawn with two spots on the back of its tail), selling them to distributors. At home, he sautés those shrimp with garlic, butter, and lemon, and then surprises me by saying he likes to add them to his salads sometimes. Yum. As for fish, it’s pretty straightforward: Bake at 350°F with olive oil, salt and pepper, and “whatever else is in the cupboard.” He’s the first person of many to mention Johnny’s Seasoning to me, which is a packaged seasoning from Tacoma, Washington, apparently one of the go-to mixes of Alaskan home cooks.

In the same way that I like to ask what cut of meat my butcher likes, I want to know which fish the fishermen cook most often for themselves. (Fun fact: Hanger steaks and skirt steaks were less popular for a long time because no one knew about them, largely because the butchers kept them for themselves.) Jarl mentions rockfish, which he says is “Alaskans’ favorite fish,” and he’s far from the only one to extol its virtues: tender, flaky, delicious, and economical.

How To Cook Salmon

Homer Spit is home to popular bar The Salty Dawg Saloon. Inside, professional fishermen Brian Toste and Douglas Kayser are drinking White Russians and happy to talk recipes. They speak over each other in the way that old friends do: They have a lot to say about salmon on the grill. First, their favorite type of salmon (of the five Alaskan varieties to choose from) is King salmon, which is “the most forgiving,” with Spring Chinook being one the most prized varieties of the King species. They have nice things to say about Sockeye, Coho, Keta and Pink salmon, as well. Then, the preparations:

Option 1: Simply smoked in a smoker with alder-smoke wood pellets, salt, pepper, and maybe Johnny’s Seasoning. Wrap in foil, but leave foil slightly open at the top to allow the smoky flavor to get in.

Option 2: Mix together a blend of 2 parts vinaigrette and 1 part mayo, smear that over the top and bake or grill.

Option 3: Apply a thin glaze of mayonnaise, place sliced onions on top (“not whole slices; two rings per slice”), Johnny’s seasoning, wrap in foil, then onto the smoker or grill.

Option 4: Season salmon steaks with salt and pepper (Doug: “plus flour”; Brian: “no flour”), then fry in butter.

We talk about salmon for a long time. There’s a lot to say about salmon in Alaska. “Their life goal is the food chain,” Brian says. The respect with which every person in Alaska talks about fish and fishing is close to reverent, and it hasn’t taken more than a day to feel very invested in this world.

We’ve registered for Nonresident 3-Day Sport Fish Licenses, so the next morning we head out from our amazing home base, Tutka Bay Lodge, on a chartered fishing boat. Jeremy Woodrow from ASMI tells us that a little bit of beer can soothe seasickness, and who are we to disagree with a local? We all find ourselves sipping cans of Alaskan Brewing Company beer at 7:30 a.m. as we cruise into the waters.

We’re allowed to catch two fish each, and the best part is that we’ll get to eat some of our haul that night and the rest will be shipped to us at home. With the help of charter fishermen Brian Ritchie and Wildfrid Roedl, I catch two halibut. And of course, we talk recipes. They’re also familiar with Johnny’s seasoning, they also know about the mayo and dressing slather—but their favorite way to prepare their favorite fish, rockfish, is in tacos. Sprinkled with traditional taco seasonings, topped with the typical accessories: avocado, tomatoes, and the like.

I know exactly what I’m making with my catch, as soon as I get home to New York.

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