The year the sukkai stopped running, a short story
It has nearly been eleven years and a month since my twenty-first birthday. I still recall this year’s birthday dinner. It was a can of sardines swimming in yellow olive oil, with a couple spears of sweet pickled celery, on a slice of bread that basked in better days perhaps half a week ago. I had baked myself a cake, too, of course.
My father always told me I was a daughter of the oceans. In all of the countless times when he retold of my first encounter with the Keelung Sea, a frigid body of dark waters ripped raw by the fangs of rocks the color of tar, not once did waves of fascination fail to break forward from the depth of his eyes. His story – my story – has no wisp of creativity, no fray of embellishment, because such is the man he is, and the way he remembers.
Stubby as they were, your two sturdy legs were unstoppable. Neither your mother, who had just stolen an instant to look up from scrambling to find a dry towel for your brother, nor I could have caught you in time to keep you from charging into the waves that slapped one on top of another at the beach. You screamed with laughter, and neither the coldness nor the mighty push of the sea could convince you of your smallness. As I drove us home, I asked “So, did you have fun at the sea today?”. But you didn’t answer, because only four months later would you speak your first word.
Perhaps every time he tells and re-tells this scene the ocean within me swells with life and grows more audible. Perhaps it’s the sea in me which calls out, begging my father to tell the story again. But none of that matters now.
The late summer after my twenty-first birthday, the sukkai didn’t make it back home. Then the next year, and the year after that. The rivers no longer clapped as the sukkai’s green heads poked through the clear water surface and their scarlet bodies tore through the current making their way up stream. Soon, the grizzlies and the eagles disappeared, too. Maybe they went deep into the mountains, because the sea had deserted them. I don’t blame them.
In my cupboard I have one last can of sardines. Maybe I’ll save it for next year’s birthday, I thought to myself.
Sometimes I ask rhetorically ask myself, do we really need to lose something in order to appreciate it? While this might be the perfect segue (pronounced seg-way) to Callum Roberts’ Ocean Of Life, which every person residing on Planet Earth should admit into their repertoire, I find that Callum’s already done such a brilliant job I don’t need to muddle his message with poor paraphrasing.
You, my friend, are yet to be off the hook (pun most shamelessly intended). Have you ever had a piece of overcooked salmon? Unless you live in the Canadian Prairies where spaghetti and meatballs are considered ethnic foods, you have most likely had at some point in your life had a fillet of salmon. If you liked it, it was probably because it came from a fat, farmed fish in the Atlantic that had so much fat dispersed throughout its flesh that the blatant over-cookery of it could be overlooked. But did it say “Wild Salmon” on the menu? That was probably bullshit, but I didn’t say that – Forbes did. And…if you didn’t like it, it probably had its skin stripped and was half-steamed-half-seared to IKEA carpet dryness in an indecisively hot pan then slathered with some brown sauce with which they also douse chicken. Salmon teriyaki, I think it’s called.
Many will tell you that you simply can’t tell if a piece of “Wild Pacific Salmon” is actually wild unless you barge into the kitchen and seize the sous-chef at chef knife’ point (which you would first have to shuck from his big scarred hands). Well, they’re wrong and you’re lazy for not doing your research. But I can help. Read on.
I grew up on the North Pacific in Maple Ridge, British Columbia where every year the return of the wild sockeye salmon sends the local community into a frenzy of excitement and anticipation. A ten-minute drive from my house takes me down to the dock where frantically flapping salmon are unloaded literally “fresh off the boat”. That’s where I got my salmon, then I’d bring them home and butcher them on my lawn. Long story short, I can tell the difference between wild and farmed with one eye closed. Here’s how you can too:
- Wild sockeye salmon have almost no marbling. Anything you see with beautiful streaks of white succulent fat running through it is farmed. Wild animals need to hunt hard for a meal so they get more exercise.
- Wild sockeye salmon are not salmon-colored. Their flesh is bright red with a tinge of orange due to their crustacean-centric diet, like flamingos.
- Wild sockeye salmon fillets are very thin, at most an inch in the thickest part. Pacific salmon are small, and max out at 12 pounds. Farmed salmon are almost exclusively the larger Atlantic varieties because consumers like to see that thick meaty fillet.
Maybe after reading this you’d think you’d rather stick to the rich, buttery farmed variety. I have no objections – taste wise they do have their merits.
However, if you do happen to come across a fresh fillet of wild sockeye salmon, please DO NOT ASSUME IT CAN BE COOKED LIKE FARMED SALMON. Sockeye are beautiful, delicate creatures and will reach IKEA carpet dryness before you can pour yourself a glass of sauvignon blanc if you don’t know what you’re doing. But treat it with respect, and you will be rewarded with meltingly tender flesh that embraces your tongue like a kiss from the sea.
Here are two ridiculously easy ways to prepare it, one hot, one cold. Try both.
74° Slow Baked Salmon with Basil Pesto and Herb Oil – serves 2-3 as a main
- 1/2 fillet of sockeye, scaled and pin-boned, taken from the front half
- 1/3 c fresh basil pesto, preferably home made
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt, to taste
- Preheat the oven (your college toaster oven does a brilliant job) to 165°F or 74°C.
- Cut the salmon into 2 to 3 servings using a very sharp knife. Pat dry and lightly season with sea salt. Place the fish, skin side down on a baking tray.
- In a bowl, stir together the olive oil and pesto and spread it onto the salmon.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes, serve warm with crusty bread to mop up the intensely flavourful oil.
65° Speed Cured Salmon with Mustard Dill Kewpie and Pickled Golden Beets – serves 4-6 as an appetizer
- 1/2 fillet of sockeye, scaled and pin-boned, from the tail end
- sea salt
- 3 tbsp mayonnaise, like Kewpie
- 1 c chopped dill
- 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp grainy mustard
- pickled golden beet slices to serve, optional
- black truffle kelp caviar to serve, completely optional
- crushed coriander seed, to serve, also optional
- more dill, for garnish
- Preheat your (college toaster) oven to 150°F or 65°C.
- Place the salmon on a baking tray lined with parchment and season the flesh side, leaving it facing up.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, then chill completely, about 4 hours.
- Before serving, stir together the dill, mayonnaise, olive oil, and mustard.
- To serve, slice the salmon into 4-6 portions using a very sharp knife so you get a clean edge. Arrange the portions on salad plates and garnish with a dollop of the mustard dill mayo, pickled beet, caviar, and dill. Finish with a few rounds of crushed coriander seed.