Salmon has been an important part of indigenous diets and culture for thousands of years. The fish was plentiful in the rivers and oceans where many tribes lived, making it a readily available source of nutrition. Salmon was not just eaten for sustenance – it held cultural and spiritual significance for many indigenous groups. In this article, we’ll explore the history of salmon in indigenous cuisines, traditional cooking methods used, and some key recipes that are still prepared today.
Salmon in Indigenous Culture
For indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest like the Coast Salish and First Nations tribes, salmon was revered as a gift from nature. Tribes situated along major salmon rivers like the Columbia and Fraser depended on the annual salmon runs for their livelihood. Salmon provided up to half of the food intake for certain tribes. The fish was consumed fresh during fishing season in the spring and summer months. Large quantities of salmon were smoked and dried to create supplies that sustained tribes during the winter when fresh fish was scarce.
Beyond just being a food source, salmon held spiritual meaning in indigenous cultures. Many tribes had celebrations tied to the first seasonal salmon catch. The Coast Salish peoples had a First Salmon ceremony where the first fish caught was treated with respect and cooked over a fire pit lined with alder and maple leaves. The bones would be returned to the sea after the meal as a gesture of thanks to the salmon for offering itself to feed the tribe. For Northwestern tribes like the Haida and Tlingit, salmon was a symbol of wisdom.
The appreciation for salmon extends far inland to Great Lakes tribes like the Ojibwe who relied on spawning runs in rivers and streams feeding the lakes. Salmon inspired myths and stories in many indigenous oral traditions, highlighting its cultural significance.
Traditional Salmon Cooking Methods
Indigenous groups developed various techniques to cook salmon from generational knowledge passed down over centuries.
One of the most widespread cooking methods used across North America was wood smoking salmon. Salmon filets were lightly brined or seasoned and placed on racks suspended over a smoldering fire in a smokehouse structure. Alder, maple, and other hardwoods were commonly used to produce smoke that both cooked and flavored the fish while preserving it. Smoking concentrated flavors and prolonged the salmon’s shelf life. Tribes like the Lummi perfected the art of smoke-curing salmon filets seasoned with salt and dried over alder smoke for days.
Salmon steaks and fillets were cooked directly on wood planks placed over hot coals. Cedar was the preferred wood of Pacific Northwest tribes for its light, delicate smoke that flavored the fish. Planks were soaked before placing the fish on them to prevent burning. The wet planks would smolder and smoke while the salmon cooked. Plank grilling was done right at riverside during fishing outings for an easy, portable meal.
Roasting on a Stick
Whole fresh salmon could be impaled on sticks or skewers and roasted over an open fire. The fish was propped up next to the flames, turning regularly so it cooked evenly without burning. Root vegetables like potatoes were often threaded on the skewer alongside the salmon to cook over the fire. The Inuit of Alaska roasted salmon this way with foraged berries stuffed inside the cavity for added flavor.
Heated rocks dropped into a pot or basket filled with water created quick salmon steam boils. Red-hot stones were placed into woven baskets holding fish and vegetables or into wooden vessels with water. The items cooked rapidly when the rocks caused the water to boil quickly. After cooking, the remaining rocks could be removed and more ingredients added to cook again in the heated water. Besides steaming, the fish broth produced from this method was consumed.
For tribes living in forested areas, baking salmon in compacted earth pits was done. First, a fire was built directly in a pit dug in the ground and kept burning until rocks lining the pit walls were hot. The coals were then removed and salmon placed inside the heated pit. The pit was covered with vegetation like ferns or skunk cabbage leaves to protect the fish from getting covered in soil. Dirt was shoveled over the top and the salmon left to steam and bake underground using the residual heat. Salmon cooked this way has a wonderfully smoky, earthy flavor.
Drying and Smoking
Drying and smoking salmon over many days was the main preservation method for indigenous groups. After brining or seasoning, thin salmon fillets were hung from racks in smokehouses for slow curing. Drying concentrated the flesh’s rich flavors as moisture evaporated from the heat and smoke. If oil was rendered from fish, it could be collected and used for cooking too. Smoked salmon kept for months and was an important winter food source. The dried fish was later rehydrated by boiling or soaking before being eaten.
Traditional Salmon Recipes
Cedar Plank Grilled Salmon
This straightforward plank grilling technique works for all salmon varieties from sockeye to coho. Soak wood planks in water for at least an hour. Season fish fillets with salt, pepper and any other desired herbs or spices. Place fillets skin-side down onto the soaked cedar plank. Set the plank directly over hot grill grates or campfire coals. Cook 10-15 minutes until fish is opaque and cooked through. The salmon will absorb light smoky flavor from the cedar.
Smoked Salmon Pemmican
Pemmican was an preserved food source invented by North American tribes consisting of dried meat, dried berries, and rendered fat. Make your own version with smoked salmon jerky and fruit. Use any firm salmon fillets and cut into very thin strips after brining to make the jerky. Smoke the strips following preferred wood smoking steps until fully dried. Grind dried smoked salmon into a powder consistency. Add in any dried fruit like cranberries, blueberries, or raisins and mix with rendered salmon oil to create a paste. Form paste into small bricks and wrap in leaves. Keeps for months stored in a cool place.
Cedar Roasted Whole Salmon
Roast salmon wrapped in aromatic cedar leaves over an open fire or grill. Remove scales and innards from a whole salmon. Make diagonal slice cuts along the sides of the fish. Layer cedar bough tips or leaves inside the salmon’s cavity. Tie cedar leaves around the outside of the fish to encase it completely. Roast over moderate heat, turning over every 5 minutes for even cooking until salmon is opaque throughout. Cedar leaves infuse wonderful subtle flavor.
Hearth Baked Salmon and Root Vegetables
This baked salmon dish can be cooked over a campfire or fireplace. Place hot rocks or coals into a cast iron Dutch oven pot. When the pot is hot, remove rocks. Place a salmon filet skin-side down in pot and arrange vegetables around fish – potatoes, carrots, onions work well. Cover pot and place back over heat source. Bake for 15-20 minutes until salmon flakes and vegetables are tender. Optionally cook dough balls consisting of water and flour on coals to make bannock bread as a side.
Salmon and Wild Rice Soup
Make salmon soup with vegetables and nutty wild rice. Sauté chopped onions and celery in oil over heat until soft. Add cubed potatoes and stock or water to cover. Bring to a boil and then add wild rice and salmon pieces. Season with salt, pepper and any desired dried herbs. Simmer 20-25 minutes until rice is cooked through. Top bowls of the hearty soup with pine nuts or toasted pumpkin seeds.
Modern Indigenous Salmon Dishes
While traditional cooking and preservation prevail, indigenous chefs are also creating innovative modern dishes that incorporate customary ingredients like salmon. Here are some contemporary recipes to try:
Fire Roasted Salmon Salad
Make a warm salad with grilled salmon, mixed greens, berries and a maple vinaigrette dressing. Toss arugula, spinach and strawberries with toasted hazelnuts and a dressing of maple syrup, olive oil, lemon juice and Dijon mustard. Top with slices of roasted salmon seasoned with thyme and black pepper.
Salmon and Bannock Tacos
Put a fun spin on fish tacos with Indian frybread called bannock replacing tortillas. Make bannock by mixing flour, baking powder, and salt with water or milk to form dough. Pan fry flattened dough in oil until golden. Fill bannock rounds with flaked smoked salmon seasoned with lime juice and chili powder for a fusion taco meal.
Salmon Burgers with Cranberry Sauce
For a unique burger, make patties using canned or cooked salmon, breadcrumbs, chopped onions, eggs, and seasonings. Form into patties and pan fry until golden brown. Serve on buns with cranberry sauce and salad greens instead of traditional burger toppings.
Salmon and Wild Rice Stuffed Peppers
Fill bell peppers with a flavorful mix of cooked wild rice, salmon, smoked paprika and herbs. Bake the stuffed peppers until tender. Top with pine nuts and feta cheese for Mediterranean flair.
Salmon remains vital in the cuisines and cultures of North America’s indigenous people despite changing times. Ancient and current cooking methods highlight salmon’s versatility as a nutritious food staple for tribes across regions. Beyond sustenance, salmon has deeper meaning tied to native traditions and spirituality. While traditional preparations using smoke, fire and wood prevail, modern recipes also incorporate ancestral ingredients like salmon and wild rice in new, creative ways.