by Miche Genest
One of my foraging and chef friends in Whitehorse goes over to Haines, Alaska a few times every year to enjoy the sea and the salt air and do some wild harvesting. She might come back with bags of lambs quarters, she might score a clutch of chanterelle mushrooms or a kilo of spot prawns.
The other day, just back from one of her excursions, she texted me, “Want some fresh eulachon for supper?” She was lucky enough to have been there for the weekend of May 5th, when the eulachon were running. I texted back, “Wow! I’m really not sure. Do I?”
The reason for my hesitation was I’d heard that eulachon oil, a delicacy to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest from California to BC to Alaska, can be really strong for the uninitiated. I’d also heard that the fish are so oily that when dried, they can reportedly be lit to burn like a candle. I’d smelled the eulachon being processed beside the Chilkat River last spring. The aroma was powerful. But I’d never tasted the oil, or the fish.
In many parts of the formerly eulachon-rich Pacific Northwest, this small, smelt-like staple of the Indigenous diet has disappeared. Happily, the run is still strong in Haines. My friend said that the Chilkoot River ran black in places, there were so many fish. She tried catching them in a collapsible camping colander, but they were too quick, so she just plunged her hand in and grabbed them, two or three at a time, stuffed them into a pot on shore, slammed the lid on and waded back into the river to grab some more — bouquets of eulachon, the gift of spring.
Back in Whitehorse, after our text exchange, my friend came over with a baby cooler. In it were a baggie-full of eulachon and two good handfuls of devil’s club sprouts. (The only time I’ve ever tasted those sprouts is when she has brought them back for my husband and me. ) She just happened to be in the forest at the right time; one day later and the sprouts would’ve been too big, the prickles starting to harden.
That night we feasted on these two presents from Alaska, kindness of my friend. On her advice, we lightly smoked the eulachon whole, then coated them, still whole, in flour. My husband had just returned from a hike with beautiful ripe juniper berries; I crushed those and added them to the flour, which was local; the last of my supply of triticale flour from Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley.
We fried the fish quickly in butter, and the devil’s club sprouts in butter and garlic. We ate both sprouts and eulachon with our fingers. We peeled the backbone, organs attached, from the fish, split the head to remove the brains and crunched the crispy skulls in our teeth. The flesh was sweet, mild, and silky, not oily at all. The devil’s club sprouts tasted, as my friend’s partner often says, like pure life. Strong, conifer-like, bracing, almost medicinal.
I said to my husband, “We have to really pay attention because we’re not going to taste these flavours again until next spring.” The bonus of eating seasonally, and locally, is that you can savour these experiences for the special treat that they are.