There was never a more glorious fish than the Pacific salmon, crimson and silver, full of rich flavor and almost supernatural health benefits.
To taste wild salmon is to know why it's been dubbed the King of Fish. For centuries these survivors of the Ice Age were revered by the Native Americans of the Northwest, who paid homage to them in their rituals and legends. For them, salmon was life, in body and in spirit.
We know only too well what can happen to too much of a good thing. While post-World War II America was obsessed with buying salmon-colored cars and appliances, salmon -- the fish -- had become an endangered food source. In Washington, Oregon, and California, its breeding grounds all but disappeared. Then the enterprising Norwegians stepped in. In the late 1960s they introduced the concept of farmed salmon, and the idea caught on. Now salmon was abundant, but it didn't taste quite the same and, as we're learning, it wasn't quite as healthy to eat. But just as salmon swim downstream to feed in the open ocean before swimming upstream to spawn, trends can reverse themselves. Thanks to good fish management that's been praised by environmental groups, wild Pacific salmon from Alaska is both plentiful and sustainable.
Seafood Watch, a program of California's Monterey Bay Aquarium in conjunction with the National Audubon Society and Environmental Defense, has put Alaskan wild salmon on its "green" (best choices) list. On the other hand, it has put farmed salmon, be it from northern Europe, Canada, Chile, or the U.S., on its "red" (avoid) list. Although the Food and Drug Administration has never declared farmed salmon to be unhealthy, others have. According to a recent study by environmental scientists at Indiana University and other research centers, farmed salmon have been found to have significantly higher levels of PCBs, dioxins, and pesticides than wild Alaskan salmon. Farmed salmon is also commonly artificially colored: Because salmon in the wild get their color from eating certain planktons, not commercial fish food, farmed salmon are naturally gray, not pink. Generally, dyes are put in their feed to make them turn the familiar salmon color.
Then there's the environmental controversy. Salmon farms have been found to pollute surrounding waters. Farmed salmon are raised to adulthood in floating, overcrowded pens, from which they've been known to escape. When farmed salmon interbreed with their wild relatives, it can spread disease and weaken the wild-salmon gene pool.
By law, Alaska does not allow fish farming. Most Alaskan wild salmon is spawned in hatcheries and then set free in the open ocean in order to mature. Salmon caught off the Yukon are often river-spawned. As is the case with free-range chickens and vine-ripened tomatoes, wild salmon does cost more than farmed -- more than double, in fact.
Wild Alaskan salmon, which is at the height of its season in June, costs between $9 and $15 a pound. Is it worth it? Consider the health benefits alone: Studies have shown that wild salmon is especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that our bodies need for proper brain, immune, and cardiovascular function. Some health professionals recommend eating oily fish such as wild salmon twice a week.
Now you can. Whether it's the salmon's mysterious ability to course its way through miles of ocean water to find its way home, or to perform gravity-defying leaps over waterfalls and dams as it journeys upriver, Pacific salmon have always had to overcome difficult odds. They've done it again.
Text by John Stark; recipes by Ying Chang Compestine