Saturday, January 17, 2015

Dining In-A Culinary Tour of America: Alakanuk, Alaska

The City: Alakanuk, Alaska

Alakanuk, pronounced "Ah-luck-ah-nuck", is a Yup'ik word that means "wrong way"/"mistake village". It is located on the far western tip of the Alaskan coast, at the mouth of the Yukon River. As of the 2012 census, there were approximately 709 people living in this city. The population is about 95% Native American, and 2.1% Anglo American. Alakanuk averages 60 inches of snow each year. The average income is $11,632 and according to the 2010 census, 33.8% of the population lives below the poverty line.

The majority of the Native Americans living in Alakanuk belong to the Yup'ik tribe. Yup'ik translates to "real people". They originally hail from eastern Russia, and there is still a tribe living in Siberia who are related to these people. They are also related to the Eskimo and Inuit peoples. The placement of the city was such that they were largely untouched by the influx of white settlers and explorers in the 1800's, but eventually there was a salmon cannery that opened in the mid 1940's and the city grew in population and amenities, though one might wonder if the cost was worth it. As with many other places in the United States, Native children were sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak their language. It went a long way towards assimilating the children into the greater Anglo-majority.

Alakanuk is located in the subarctic zone, and the diet of the people who live there consists largely of seafood and wild game. Alaska has a short growing season and depending on where you are, poor soil quality, which makes growing vegetables difficult. Because of this, the people who lived there would have developed a diet consisting mostly of animal-based products.

The Meal:

 Since salmon is so big in Alaska, I wanted to focus on that. Most of the pictures I looked at and the research I did showed that plain fire-smoked salmon was the most common preparation. I also noticed that most of the fillets had checkered cuts in them, probably to help cook it faster. They use large knives that are rounded on both ends, and I don't have one of those, so I just used a boning knife and cut down to the skin, but not through. I do think this helped get the seasoning into every bite. The rub I used was one tablespoon(packed) of light brown sugar, half a tablespoon of kosher salt, and about 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper. I rubbed this into the salmon after making the cuts, and made sure I got it into the cuts as well. When this was done I put it in a plastic bag and refrigerated it all day. A lot of moisture was drawn out during the course of the day, but it also was infused with the seasoning.

I have never made smoked salmon before, but I love to eat it. In Seattle, we usually prepare it using hot smoke methods, which creates a unique texture. If you've ever seen lox before, popular on the East Coast, then you know what cold smoked salmon looks like. The texture is vastly different; it almost looks raw to me, compared to hot smoked salmon. 

I was excited to try making my own smoked salmon, especially with the added challenge of not owning a smoker. Fortunately, I had access to wood chips(alder), so I borrowed some of those and rigged up my own homemade "smoker". Usually you soak the wood chips so they will smoulder and smoke, and not really flame up, but do you know how difficult it is to light wet wood chips? It's pretty much impossible, as I learned tonight. I added fresh chips to light those in the hopes of covering them with the soaked chips, but I could not get those to light either. My sister and I went through about a whole book of matches trying it, and had no luck. I had to come up with plan B if I wanted to do this right. As Tim Gunn from Project Runway always says, "Make it work," and so I did. I turned on the broiler and put the pan of chips under it, but ultimately I placed it further down on the rack and closed the oven door for a couple minutes(with the broiler still on). They were smoking by that time so I hurriedly placed the small rack and the salmon on top of it and covered the whole contraption in foil and placed it back in the oven, which I turned down to 400 degrees. I left it covered the entire time which was about a half hour for the .6 pound fillet I had.
 During this time I made the fry bread to accompany the salmon. Fry bread is a well known Native American dish in the Southwestern United States and I was surprised to hear that it was a dish served in Alaska as well. The recipe I used was a bit different from the other fry bread, which tends to look like a large, puffy tortilla. The ingredients were super simple, just flour, baking powder, salt, and water. It was thicker than a pancake batter, but still gloppy enough to generally hold its shape. They had the consistency of a pancake mixed with a biscuit that has been fried. The recipe called for frying it in shortening but I used canola oil instead because I don't cook with shortening whenever I can avoid it. The flavor was a little bland, it could have used more salt, but the texture was oddly addictive and I found myself eating more of it than I had intended.

When the half hour was up, I took the pan out of the oven and opened it out on my porch since I was not sure how much smoke would have built up in there. I didn't want to flood my apartment with it or risk setting off any fire alarms. There was a fair amount and I would recommend opening it outside if the option is available to you if you ever try this. I also cannot recommend enough the use of a disposable aluminum pan for this, it makes the clean up so much easier. You can see the small rack I used to place the salmon directly over the chips, but not touching them. The foil kept the smoke trapped inside so it had no choice but to infuse into the salmon. The salmon had the texture I was used to in a smoked salmon, the sort of hard outside but the soft inside. I read in one of the recipes that to achieve this effect, you leave the salmon sitting out at room temperature for a while before smoking it to let the surface dry off a little. I did this and I think it definitely helped. 

I did have one mishap tonight, besides the near smoke fail, and that was my potatoes. I bought some lovely new potatoes and cut them up and put them in the steamer basket in my pan and started to steam them...and it was about half way into this process that I realized I had forgotten to add water to the bottom of the pan and the potatoes and the pan had scorched. Fun! Fortunately my sister had a microwave baked potato she wasn't going to use and let me have it instead. Green beans, though probably not strictly authentic to true Alakanuk experience, rounded out the meal.

I only ate half of the salmon tonight and am very curious what the other half will taste like cold tomorrow. I think smoked salmon is truly at its finest when it is eaten cold. The flavor was really good, slightly sweet but not too sweet. Not salty, but not bland either. The pepper just kicked it up a bit too. It really did not need anything else for flavoring. The smoke flavor was light, but I do think it was there and not just my imagination. Again, when it's cold, the flavors may meld together even more and the flavor might be even better.

I am not sure that I would prepare salmon like this very often, since smoked salmon is so readily available, but I am really glad I tried it out. It was fun, it was an adventure and it wasn't as hard as it could have been. This was a great way to kick off this project. I had fun and I hope you enjoyed reading about it!

Recipe links: Because these were not my original recipes, I will share the links so that the people who created them get the credit they deserve.

Indoor Smoked Salmon

Alakanuk/Yup'ik links: Because proper historians cite their sources, I will share the links to my research, outside of Wikipedia links, which are considered general and easy to look up on your own if you so desire.
City picture


Growing Season

Census Info

Salmon Canning Information-This leads to a pdf you have to download to open and read.

Local Source-This is interesting, it's from the Seattle Times, about a man who lived in Alakanuk for 30 years.


  1. Sounds a little complicated but yummy!. Enjoyed reading about the history of the city and people, too. Looking forward to your next adventure!

  2. Like the lessons so far, keep them coming!