We heat up a couple quarts of water in a large pot, add an onion and a salmon head and boil until the soup turns white. In my family, we drink this for medicine. This is Hoonah elder Mamie Williams’ recipe for salmon head broth, commonly used in Tlingit culture to combat and prevent the flu. Many Hoonah residents use this recipe to prevent flu and to lessen their flu symptoms.
Salmon head soup is a good food during the cold and flu season because of the large amounts of vitamins A, C, D, E and omega threes. Omegas are important for fighting colds and flu and also the Vitamin D. But note that not all salmon are the same. Wild salmon have significantly more vitamin D than farmed salmon. And the salmon varieties all have different nutritional values.
Despite colonization, salmon head soup has continued to be a staple in Alaskan Native diets. Fish head soup is part of my identity. I’ve heard different versions of our T’akdeintaan story so forgive me if I get it wrong. We have a story of a kittiwake (sea pigeon) that saved us and the people in the village. One year, winter lasted long and spring didn’t come soon enough and people were hungry. People were going to starve. A young girl had a pet kittiwake and she decided to set it free. Instead of just leaving, the kittiwake brought back fish for the girl and she made soup with it. The bird did this every day until spring came and saved everyone. That’s why I am here today, because of that generous little bird and fish soup.
In Southeast Alaska communities, salmon head soup is an important part of our gift economy. In addition to Alaska Native families, many people with Scandinavian and Filipino heritage enjoy this food tradition. For Wrangell residents Vincent and Lynn Balansag “Fish head soup is a comfort food for us Filipinos. It is a casual food we enjoy with family and friends, around the table, one foot on the chair in shorts and tank tops, usually made and eaten the day after a Fiesta, the light and refreshing taste washing away hangovers and leveling out heavy food eaten the day before.”
In Southeast Alaska, we brew our fish broth medicines and share it with friends and family. Fishermen gift fish heads to elders or others who can’t get out. We gift heads to people we know who are susceptible to illness during the flu season and gift fish heads to family and friends. A gift of salmon heads is a symbol that you’re loved.
“My grandpa Frank Young was Haida and a fisherman and local Wrangell barber born in Masset, B.C.,” said Twyla Ingle Olson, who was born and raised in Wrangell. “When I was 5, I traded my grandpa all of my Halloween candy for a garbage bag full of salmon heads. He later gave the candy back to my mother. He always had a pot of salmon heads boiling on the stove.”
In a salmon head gifting economy, fishermen give elders salmon heads and in turn elders teach the art of making salmon head broth and soups and chowders from the fish heads.
“My Gramma was Sarah Pearl (Paratrovich) Wigg,” said Laura Gile. “My gramma used to make fish head soup. I remember there was seaweed, salmon eggs and she would eat it over rice with the broth poured on the top. I also remember her saying the eyes were a delicacy.”
Some people simmer fish broth for four to five hours to use in noodle soup or other recipes or save it to drink for medicine later. Many of my Native and Filipino friends eat the whole salmon head and some of my non-Native friends don’t. I once tried to make salmon head soup at a non-Native friend’s house but she got upset because she thought it stunk up her house. She was also disgusted by the fish heads I saved in the freezer. So, preparing salmon head soup can be problematic for some.
“My dad made fish head soup,” Wrangellite Heidi Armstrong said. “He’d brown onions and celery, add water and fish heads. The heads would boil till cooked and then just before serving he’d add a can or two of canned milk. Serve with black seaweed. We could add salt and pepper as needed. Also, we’d bake fish heads as well. Cut the fish head in half and bake. Oh, yum.”
As I sip the salmon head broth, I’m reminded not everyone can stomach eating fish eyeballs or the smell of fish soup simmering on the stove. As a kid, I was grossed out when people popped the fish eyeballs in their mouths. I don’t mind them now, but they aren’t my favorite part. My favorite parts are the salmon cheeks. My grandpa, Elmer Mork, says that salmon chowder is one of his favorite foods.
When it comes to eating a fish head, the Balansag said “Filipinos utilize almost every part of the animal when it comes to cooking. We don’t like throwing away a part of something we bought if we can still make something out of it. Growing up in the Philippines when money is hard to come by, it goes against the grain for Filipinos to waste food.”
The Balansags also said “Fish head soup usually goes together with fried fish. The whole fish is cleaned, the head cut lengthwise and set aside for fish head soup, and the body cut and salted for frying. This way, we utilize almost all of the fish and minimize waste.”
“I made my first batch last summer with fresh herbs I grew,” said Mya DeLong, a local Wrangell florist and fisherman on the FV Trendsetter. “My garden was heavily producing herbs at the time. Made a Ramen with the broth. Delicious. I separated the pieces around the collar and made sure to eat the eyeballs too.”
Tele Aadsen and Joel Brady-Power, my fisherman friends, have gifted us these king salmon heads. From two heads we make both broth and soup because two heads can make a lot of broth. We’ll freeze half of the broth for use later. We’ll split the other half because we’re giving part of the broth away. First, we make ginger fish-head soup using coconut cream, ginger, garlic, shallots, spinach, kale and mushrooms. And we make another soup with garlic, onions, potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, green onions and lots of bacon. I season them with salt and pepper. We try to use accompanying ingredients in the soup that have lots of nutrients known to fight the cold and flu.
What concerns me most about making salmon head soup for medicine and well-being is the lack of salmon. Climate change and overfishing has something to do with it. The lack of access to our subsistence salmon is affecting how we conveying knowledge to the next generation. The acts of gifting salmon and teaching through story and recipes, are an important part of our traditional education. Indigenous knowledge is embedded in our clan story about the girl who saved a village with fish soup, instructing us to eat fish head soup to boost our immune system. Let’s not lose this knowledge. Let’s keep our fish head soup stories and memories going. We are connected to everything here, even salmon heads, so we need a healthy ecosystem: herring, salmon, the ocean, the rivers. Let’s stay healthy and share with others. Salmon head soup is good medicine. Eat your salmon head soup and don’t forget to eat the eyeballs.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott, who is a Wrangell writer and artist. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.
Salmon Head Soup
Recipe Courtesy of Vincent Balansag and Lynn Torres Balansag
1 Roma tomato cut into fours
½ red onion sliced
1 stalk lemongrass folded in fours and bundled
1/4 red bell pepper
About 3 cups water
1 salmon head cut lengthwise
Greens (baby spinach or baby bok choy)
Salt or Johnny’s Seasoning Salt to taste
Boil tomatoes, red onions, lemongrass and the red bell pepper in about 3 cups of water for 5 minutes. Add the salmon head and season with salt or Johnny’s Seasoning Salt and continue boiling for another five. Add the green onions and greens right before turning off heat. Serve immediately with piping hot rice.