Smoked Fish to Salt Fish

I didn’t grow up on Salt Fish. I was born and raised on the Pacific Northwest coast of British Columbia in a group of small towns near the Alaska Panhandle. I ate Smoked Fish.

Technically, it was smoked salmon and I didn’t realize how special it was when I was young. Both of my parents were schoolteachers, first in a little village called Aiyansh, then Kitimat and Terrace, and finally Prince Rupert. The Nisga’a, the Haida, and the Haisla peoples populate these areas (view map here) and they were always willing to share their smoked salmon with my family. I was told that it was because my parents taught their children, but I think it was also because they taught in the villages. My first experiences with this wonderful food was eating little pieces of it out of a plastic sandwich baggie that my father handed to me.

“Try it.” He said.

“What is it?”

“Never mind what it is, just eat it.”

This is the way a lot of conversations went when they were about food. I ate it and it was the strangest thing I had tasted up to that point. When you have a palate of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour, it is difficult to wrap your head around the taste of smoke. It reminded me of campfires, so I decided that I liked it.

Smoked fish became a treat I enjoyed and learned that it was a tradition of the place I called home. Every year I learned in school about how people smoked fish as a way to preserve it and they always brought some for the children to try…wrapped in plastic.

When I was on the cusp of adolescence I learned that smoked salmon didn’t come out of a scrunched up, greasy bag but in wooden boxes that filled the shelves of souvenir shops. They also cost about twenty dollars for a hundred grams and the boxes were made of cedar with Haida designs carved in them in red and black. I was confused at first, thinking people were paying that much for a beautiful box that also came with fish and couldn’t understand that the fish was also expensive and considered a luxury.

They were bentwood boxes; a traditional art form by the indigenous peoples of bending a piece of cedar into the four walls of a box, then carved with traditional images. It was the same kind of fish that was handed to me for free in a plastic bag. A childhood joy of mine was a tourist commodity, wrapped in a commercialized version of a traditional art.

I also had crab, mussels, halibut, and other kinds of fish or seafood while I was growing up but I didn’t see these other delicacies being treated with the same commercialism as smoked salmon.

The further I moved away from the coast, the more expensive it became, and the more extravagant the packaging. It came to the point where I could not afford to eat it except on special occasions, and eventually, I stopped eating it altogether.

I moved to Newfoundland in the summer of 2010 without ever having eaten salt fish. The only time I had even heard of it was a story my high school history teacher told me about how salt fish had travelled West, but there were no instructions on how to prepare it. The people in the area didn’t know they had to boil it to release the salt so it didn’t become popular where we lived. This led me to believe it was disgusting. I didn’t have any interest in salt cod, figuring that it was a food that I could live without trying.

I ended up unknowingly trying it when my husband and I went out for breakfast our first month here. He ordered these little golden brown fish cakes smaller than the palm of my hand, smelling of potato and deliciousness.

“Try it,” he said, echoing my father’s words from many years ago.

“What’s in it?”

“Never mind what’s in it, just eat it.”

Moving further away from one coast made me lose my taste for fish; moving closer to another brought it back. The salt cod in a thick patty shape was the perfect amount of flavor. I remembered how the smokiness added a strong flavor to the salmon and noticed that the saltiness worked well with the subtle flavor of cod instead of competing with it. I think that if cod were smoked it would overwhelm the flavor of the fish so that all you could taste was campfire. Salt fish struck me as being more pliable to other flavors. From Pacific to Atlantic, from smoked to salted, I had crossed the country and built the taste of home on the flavor of fish.

© Tanya Nielsen (,  2016


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