Continuing our exploration of regional foods, let’s get to what Alaska has in spades: proteins that you don’t get in too many other places. We took this rare trip northward to explore as many meaty culinary delights as time, opportunity, and our stomachs would allow.
Red Meats: Deer, Caribou, Reindeer, Elk, & Moose
Those of us from the southeastern United States don’t get the chance to see many of the big four-legged critters. We have deer and lots of them, but we don’t have the much bigger ungulates. In most western states, you can find elk. In some northeastern states, you’ll see moose. Along the Pacific Coast, there are mule and black-tail deer.
Up north, however, they have all of them, plus more. We had the chance to eat deer, caribou/reindeer (they’re the same animal, but reindeer are the domesticated version), and moose. Unfortunately, elk never crossed our plates in Alaska, but it’s really hard to complain (especially since we did have elk tacos in South Dakota).
What do they taste like? Well, they are basically like other red meats, though with a wilder, gamier taste. Each has it’s own flavor variations, but all in all, if you like beef and lamb, you’ll probably enjoy any of these others. There are numerous stores that sell reindeer and caribou sausages and we also saw ground elk for not much more than the ground beef. Look around and you can probably find anything you want, though you’ll most likely have to stray from Safeway and Fred Meyer to find it.
There are 5 types of Pacific salmon that are found in Alaska (plus Steelhead Trout, another member of the salmon family). In order of preference, they are:
- Chinook or King Salmon
- Coho or Silver Salmon
- Sockeye or Red Salmon
- Chum or Dog Salmon
- Humpy or Pink Salmon
In the lower 48, we tend to take what’s available, which is typically Coho or Sockeye with some occasional King in the fish case. In fact, we’d never even heard of Dog Salmon and we knew of Pink Salmon only from what you see in cans. We really didn’t know that there’s a serious pecking order in the world of salmon and that Alaskans can be salmon snobs.
Here’s how we learned…our Juneau CouchSurfing hosts took us out salmon fishing on their boat. Unfortunately, the fish were on the fish finder here and there, but apparently they weren’t hungry. So about 2.5 hours into our 4 hour joyride around Auke Bay, after seeing several pods of whales bubble feeding and eagles soaring overhead, we finally got a bite. Scott reeled it in without much of a fight. That was when we learned about Alaskans and salmon.
Our host said, “Oh, it’s a humpy. We can’t keep it.” Wait? What? Why? “Well, you all can keep it, but we don’t eat humpies. Alaskans are picky about salmon.” After spending $40 on our two day licenses though, we were going home with something, so we filleted that little 4-pound Pink Salmon into a couple pounds of fillets that we turned into a little salmon salad as something easy to eat on our drive back to the lower 48.
I suppose it’s hard to blame them though. People we met in Fairbanks spend a weekend or two every year dip-netting hundreds of pounds of Red Salmon with their friends. When it’s that easy, why waste part of your quota on the least flavorful fish?
You probably know what salmon tastes like without us telling you. The great thing about Alaska, though, is that even if you don’t catch your own fish, it’s available for a song. We saw prices in the $6-8 per pound range regularly. Compare that with $12-18 per pound in the lower 48.
We were actually on the Kenai Peninsula during halibut season. That meant we were gifted with lots of halibut. The first night that we were at the Alaskan Angler RV Park in Ninilchik, we were walking Knox after setting up camp and got to talking to some neighbors. Within 10 minutes, they’d given us a couple pounds of halibut because they had far more than they could eat. Tough life, huh?
We were going to cook the halibut for lunch the next day, but before we could get the stove cranked up, another neighbor comes over and asks if we’ve eaten yet. Since we hadn’t, they handed us some fried halibut and corn-on-the-cob. Well, if you insist!
A few days later, we ended up in Soldotna, where our CouchSurfing host gave us halibut to cook for all of us that night and sent us on our way a few days later with another couple of pounds of halibut. This host actually told us that most Alaskans feel they should be very hospitable to visitors because transportation costs to visit Alaska are so high and when they travel to the lower 48, they are typically treated the same way.
For those that have never had halibut, it’s a dense, firm, light-flavored whitefish. It needs very little seasoning and is excellent pan-fried, broiled, or grilled.
While we were in Homer, AK, we found a cool little coffee shop that had great food and coffee, along with internet connections. To top it off, the proprietor was incredibly friendly.
On our third visit, we were all talking and he asks if we eat bear in Kentucky. We didn’t even realize there was much of a bear population in Kentucky. After a couple minutes, he tosses us a package of frozen meat labeled “BBS”. He told us it’s “black bear steaks, on the house. Enjoy!”
Well, alrighty then! More of that Alaskan hospitality. So we planned to cook up these bear steaks. When we opened the package, Scott noticed that it wasn’t steaks, it was ground. Okay, ground bear. Bear burgers! Then we realized it was actually Black Bear sausage. So we ended up with Black Bear Sausage Burgers topped with a basil and parsley chimichurri. It was absolutely delicious!
In sausage form, the bear tasted like most any other red meat sausage. In steak form, we’re told it’s similar to other red meats, though we can’t verify that.