The Pacific Northwest region is an area with a rich bounty of natural foods. And among the coastal communities that stretch from southern Oregon up into British Columbia, the abundance of fresh, delicious seafood can be found in myriad locations.
Every seaside town has crab shacks and fish ‘n’ chip shops, and fishermen’s wharves where you can buy the freshest of the day’s catch. And the larger port cities of Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Victoria feature dockside markets and upscale restaurants, offering the finest of seafood gastronomy.
The area is a unique and eclectic fusion of native and immigrant cultures, cuisines and climate. And with so many influences, it can be a bit of challenge to actually define the flavor of Pacific Northwest cuisine.
Traditional and contemporary, with a blend of influences from home and abroad, a common thread that runs through the food fabric of the area is this: it’s fresh and simple, and features the rich abundance of the region.
Let’s have a look at how some of these influences have created today’s flavors of the northwest, and then we’ll sample some of its wonderful tastes with a few favorite recipes.
Natural Northwest Bounty
The cooking style of the Pacific Northwest is both traditional and modern, and it also carries a substantial Asian flavor. Salmon, Dungeness crab, spot prawns and a variety of clams are very much identified with the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest, and it also draws heavily on the strong First Nations presence in the region.
Indigenous peoples have long enjoyed the abundance of foods provided by the ocean and seashore, hunting and gathering along the varied geography of the area, with inlets, fjords and archipelagos cut into steep rock, and long stretches of sandy beaches that give way to both marshy dunes and the coastal mountains.
Vast quantities of seaweed, fish and shellfish were available everywhere, and whales were hunted in some areas.
The most important food source by far was the Pacific salmon runs, which arrived in annual migrations and provided ample supplies of fresh and dried food year round.
The native people gathered additional nutrition from the ocean in the form of seaweeds and sea vegetables, particularly red laver, giant kelp, and flowering marine eelgrass. Some of these greens were eaten raw, while others were dried and packed into cakes to be reconstituted with slow cooking methods.
European colonial interests began sending expeditions to explore the west coast, beginning in the early 1500s when Spanish seafarers reached the Isthmus of Panama. This was followed throughout the 16th and 17th centuries by more Spanish exploration up the coast, as well as English expeditions. By the mid 1700s, Russian fur trappers and explores were establishing settlements in Alaska.
By 1870, the first American transcontinental railway reached the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco, and by 1885 a similar transcontinental rail line linked eastern Canada to the Pacific at Port Moody, an outlying area of Vancouver.
Another great one for your book shelf is The Paley’s Place Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Pacific Northwest
Chinese immigrant workers were vital in the construction of these rail lines, and today both San Francisco and Vancouver have the largest Chinatown districts on the West Coast, bringing with them the influence of Asian flavors and cooking styles such as stir fry.
The rail lines opened the area to immigration by more European settlers, and coastal communities were established based on the rich resources of logging and fishing. The Gold Rush era of the late 1800s brought an even broader ethnic diversity west, and many of these individuals remained even after the gold was gone, introducing even more distinctive flavors.
As these diverse cultures came into contact with each other, new ingredients and cooking methods were introduced as cooks adapted and adopted new methods.
It’s in this innovative style that the flavors of the Pacific Northwest can be best understood. A hybrid cuisine has emerged, blending traditional techniques with fresh local and seasonal ingredients.
The panache and cooking techniques of today’s dishes mirror not only native influences, but also the salting, pickling and drying of fish and the use of dill with salmon that comes from Norwegian settlements.
The Asian influence can be seen in the many sushi bars that take advantage of local seafood harvests and tempura based fish delicacies here, and seaside English fish ‘n’ chips shops offer an updated local twist with breaded razor clams, calamari and battered spot prawns on a stick. Vietnamese pho noodle soups often feature in-season crab, clams, prawns and salmon.
Pure Flavor: 125 Fresh All-American Recipes from the Pacific Northwest is a must have cookbook for any aspiring home chef’s cupboard.
Not surprisingly, salmon is the ingredient that first comes to mind in this region, and with good reason. Several varieties are available and may be prepared easily and quickly, offering rich flavor. They’re also an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are so important for heart health.
Some of the preparation methods featured in local fish markets and restaurants include smoking, candying, drying to make jerky, baking, poaching, planking, grilling, and using as a base for chowder and soups. Salmon salads are a summertime must.
Other popular coastal seafood options include:
- Dungeness crab
- Alaska king crab
The Intertidal Zone
With some wonderful beaches found in this region, a day spent harvesting on the seashore is a fun activity, and the intertidal edge areas are the places where the greatest number of species cross paths.
In the Northwest you can find: razor, littleneck, butter, geoduck and Manila clams, coastal Dungeness crab, goose barnacles, mussels, octopus, oysters, scallops, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, shrimp, prawns, softshell and hard-shell clams, squid, and a large selection of seaweeds. Learn how to clean, prepare, and cook clams and mussels here.
Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast is another great cookbook for your collection (can you have too many?)
If you plan to gather any yourself for consumption, always check for local harvesting restrictions or permit requirements. Know the area’s regulations and check for beach closures, health advisories and marine biotoxin (Red Tide) closures caused by natural algae blooms.
Recreational Fishing and Shellfishing
If you’re thinking of sport fishing or foraging for your own shellfish and seaweed, you may need a license from the appropriate government agencies:
- In British Columbia, go to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for saltwater fishing licenses. Collecting shellfish and seaweed for personal consumption doesn’t require a license.
- In Washington, a license is required for both fishing and shellfish/seaweed collecting. Visit Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife for permits.
- And in Oregon, go to the Department of Fish and Wildlife for a summary of which shellfish may be gathered, which require permits to collect, and for fishing licenses.
Lingcod, sole, halibut, Pacific herring, flounder, surfperch, croaker, rockfish, smelt and salmon are open to recreational and sport fishing along the coast. And of course, always check for regulations regarding catch limits, sizes and opening dates.
One last recommendation: Pike Place Market Recipes: 130 Delicious Ways to Bring Home Seattle’s Famous Market
Well, that concludes our brief seashore adventure along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Just in case you can’t make the trip out west in person, here are a few of our favorite recipes for you to sample for yourself, to fully enjoy the flavors of this distinctive cuisine firsthand.
Cedar Planked Grilled Salmon
It’s gotten so popular that even crockpot renditions of the technique have been developed. This is a simple variation, but feel free to make it more complex and/or change it up.
Coconut Popcorn Prawns with Dipping Sauce
One of our local fish markets serves the best fish ‘n’ chips in town, but these light and tasty prawns always seem to find their way down to the beach with us on a summer evening.
Need help with deveining shrimp? We’ve got an article about that.
Pam’s Fresh Crab Dip
My sister Pam has three commercial fishermen in her family, so fresh seafood is always present at family gatherings. And this delicious, rich dip always has a crowd around it! Serve with flat breads, crackers or sliced baguettes.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.