The life of a salmon can be broken down into simple stages: egg to alevin, alevin to fry, fry to parr, parr to adult, adult to spawn. In less technical terms, a salmon hatches, gets healthy in freshwater, makes its way to the ocean, and lives a long prosperous life until it spawns and dies. A full circle of life.
Circle of life becomes more of a New York subway map. Salmon, specifically wild Alaskan salmon, go on more of a journey than those in the Pacific Northwest realize.
A lot of Alaskan salmon is in fact caught off the west coast and then exported to several different Asian and Southeast Asian countries, as processing and freezing the fish is cheaper there. Salmon, in particular, is a certain type of fish that is better deboned by hand because of the fish’s many pin bones. The manual labor that it takes for salmon to be cleaned and processed is much more strenuous than other types of sh. That exact cost of labor is more affordable overseas, even including the transportation costs.
A lot of frozen Alaskan salmon has undergone enough of a transformation overseas that it actually has to be imported back into the country, treated as a foreign commodity. Shipping companies all over the country often deal with importing Alaskan salmon as if its country of origin is not the US. In turn, people are very often buying “local” salmon that did a bit of traveling before making its way into their kitchens.
The life of a person cannot always be broken down into simple stages. As for my mom, she could have grown up in the Philippines and stayed, chosen not to get married, or spent her life traveling the world.
She could meet my dad in Saudi Arabia while working as a nurse during the Gulf War, get married, move to America, and start anew. America wasn’t always the goal, but seemed to always be on her mind. The American steamship line that my father worked for was bought out by a massive shipping company that he didn’t want to be a part of. In turn, he found an opportunity for a small shipping company that was about to open an office in one of the fastest developing ports in the country—Seattle. In a cosmic twist of events, the universe came together to put my parents in Seattle, a place that revels in the cheap benefits of fish-processing overseas. Say what?
Salmon is not commonly a part of the Filipino diet. As seafood lovers, they are more accustomed to south-eastern fish, naturally. My mom grew up on fish like bañgus, known as milk fish in English, and has perfected making tilapia a satisfying experience to many
Americans’ surprise. Since my mom had a taste for seafood, as did my father being from Southern India, my mother brought home salmon for the first time. The quick cuisine-assimilation began.
When I was growing up, what we were having for dinner was always a mystery. Either my mom was cooking, my dad was cooking, or we were going out. The first time my mom prepared salmon, I thought nothing of it. Steamed rice was cooking, and the kitchen smelled like garlic. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Unlike white fish, salmon is not prepared in a major variety of ways. But that didn’t stop my mom and her Filipino magic. First, she covered the basics, as most would when preparing salmon in a traditional sense. Pepper, salt, and a lifetime of lemon. Next came the garlic. A simple garlic spread is added to the fish in addition to some freshly crushed garlic. Her choice of herbs was a combination of her intuitive taste and quite simply what she had available, like fresh cut dill. Adding the herbs and a handful of tomatoes and capers, the fish was almost ready to bake. For the final touch, to keep it close to home, not only did she douse the fish in olive oil, but also threw a splash of soy sauce over the sh. Served over steamed white rice.
This take on salmon looked like a familiar Filipino dish to me. I had my protein, my rice, and my soy sauce; the soy sauce was just enough to melt into my white rice. Having her prepare this for the first time was nothing bizarre to me, but must have been such an experimental experience for her. The salmon, cooked to perfection, slowly melted in my mouth while the rice neutralized the saltiness from the soy sauce and complimented the sweetness from the tomatoes. This was a culinary experience that I would not realize I was fully analyzing until years later. As a kid, I couldn’t appreciate all these things working together. It was just mom’s cooking.
For years, my mom made this salmon for my dad and me. Ordering salmon out was never the same, ironically making salmon so hard for me to eat while living in salmon central. Her recipe turns out to be more of a guideline, as she has never really written measurements or steps down. This recipe is a little different every time, depending on what she has in the kitchen, and what other food she might have been inspired by. This dish is made with a lot of love and a hell of a history. And garlic.
Sarah is based in Seattle. She has a degree in English literature and Art History, and contributes to arts and fashion magazine Vanguard Seattle, as well as to Providence College’s literary journal, The Alembic. Sarah now works in Customs Brokerage for a global freight forwarding company.