When Laureli Ivanoff wants a snack, the Inupiaq writer reaches for a bowl of salmon spread. The simple dip of flaked salmon, mayonnaise and “whatever you have in the fridge” hits the spot, whether she’s out hunting with her family or just looking to use up the leftovers from a baked salmon dinner. “It’s just a really easy, efficient, delicious way to enjoy salmon,” she says.
It’s also a perfect dish for sharing. Ivanoff, who has spent her career focusing on the lives of rural Alaskans and Native Alaskans, even set out bowls of it for guests to eat as they arrived at her wedding. “You just put it out with crackers,” she says. “I don’t really know many people who do not enjoy salmon spread.”
That’s true not only where Ivanoff lives—in the 700-resident town of Unalakleet, Alaska, located where the mouth of the Unalakleet River meets the Bering Sea—but also across much of the state. Salmon spread, similar to tuna salad but with an added smokiness, has managed to achieve a certain level of ubiquity, despite the many different communities and food cultures within Alaska. Some grocery stores will make the snack in-house, and many Alaskans also have their own family recipe.
“If you’re going to find a food that sits right at the center of how people eat here, salmon made into a spread is eaten pretty much like across the state in all regions,” says Julia O’Malley, an Anchorage-based journalist, cook and author of The Whale and The Cupcake, a book about Alaska’s foodways. “Smoked salmon spread is the most common thing.”
Of course, there would be no salmon spread without salmon itself. The fish is an Alaskan food staple, one that has been tied to Alaska Native cultures for at least 11,800 years, according to Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game. It plays an especially pivotal role because of its accessibility as a wild protein. As of 2017, a resident of a rural community in Southeast Alaska consumed an average of 75 pounds of salmon annually, while the U.S. national average for annual seafood consumption was less than 15 pounds per person, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As an “annexed” place distant from the rest of the contiguous United States, as well as other potential trading partners, Alaska’s most important cuisine is wild food, O’Malley says. While residents of Anchorage get most of their food from the grocery store these days, other Alaskans in more remote areas continue to rely heavily on wild proteins, such as moose and seal. This is especially true for Alaska Natives, who base their food culture on the resources that become available with the seasons, according to Ivanoff.
“Fish is one of our staple foods, along with seals and the plants and berries that we harvest,” she says. For Ivanoff, every summer is salmon fishing season. In a good year, she and her extended family are able to catch 15 or 20 king salmon, also known as Chinook salmon, to share among themselves. “I’ve never purchased salmon in my life, and I eat fish every week,” she says.
Even when it’s not fishing season, when the salmon is “the freshest you can get,” Ivanoff is eating the frozen and canned salmon her family has put away from the harvest. It’s a cultural practice, it’s economical, and it tastes better than imported food, she says.
Most households where Ivanoff lives, she says, harvest food like caribou, moose, blueberries and cranberries from the area and preserve them for use year-round—another way Alaskans have adapted to their remote location. Scholars call this practice “provisioning.”
“It’s this idea that people are always stocking up and squirreling away,” O’Malley explains.
In recent generations, preserved goods played an important part of life, even in more accessible parts of Alaska. O’Malley’s parents didn’t have access to fresh vegetables in the winter, and as she was growing up, her family sometimes relied on canned fruits and vegetables. When people in other parts of the country were biting into an apple or peeling an orange, O’Malley was opening a can of fruit cocktail or mandarin oranges.
Today, populated and accessible areas of the state can secure relatively stable flows of fresh produce, but demand for preserved foods hasn’t receded completely.
“That quality of needing to rely on shelf-stable foods, it becomes part of the culture,” O’Malley says. “So even when fresh foods are available, people might still want to eat shelf-stable foods.”
Perhaps nothing captures Alaska’s love for both salmon and preserved foods better than salmon spread served on pilot bread, or dense crackers similar to hardtack biscuits. Alaskans have been eating some form of hardtack since the area’s colonization in the late 19th century. It became especially important to Alaska Natives and those in rural areas, and it has now achieved a status as a “soul food” for some, O’Malley says.
While salmon spread has roots in these longstanding food traditions, it also wouldn’t be possible without more modern additions. Ivanoff points out that her grandmother likely wouldn’t have eaten salmon spread, as she didn’t have access to foods like cream cheese, which is often used as a binder.
Still, the recipe has been around long enough for many to develop their own unique twist on it. Ivanoff, for her part, mixes her salmon with any combination of mayonnaise, cream cheese, pickles, onions, salt and pepper. O’Malley is more partial to cream cheese and sour cream as a base.
Kirsten Dixon is the owner and chef at Tutka Bay Lodge, tucked into the entrance of an ancient glacial fjord in Kachemak Bay, an hourlong flight southwest of Anchorage. She focuses on cooking Alaskan seafood—halibut, cod, rockfish, shrimp and crab are served almost daily at the lodge in dishes like her halibut with rhubarb and ginger and Kachemak Bay seafood chowder. When it comes to salmon spread, she honors the classic dish while also elevating it with complex flavors.
“Looking at old traditional recipes and reinventing them into a lighter, fresher way is important to us,” says Dixon, who has been in the adventure lodge business with her husband for 40 years. Her daughter has also become a chef in the lodge’s kitchen.
Dixon’s preferred recipe starts with flaking kippered, or hot-smoked, salmon into a bowl. Next, she stirs in sour cream and lemon zest. “The lemon brightens up everything, and then the sour cream is just fresh and soft,” she says. “It’s not heavy, like cream cheese is.”
The secret ingredient, for Dixon, is a sprinkle of cardamom, which she says adds a nutmeg-like flavor into the mix. “We picked it up because of the Scandinavian heritage of using that spice [for seafood], and we just love it,” she says.
Of course, however salmon spread is made, its real power lies in how it becomes part of the narrative of a family or a place.
“That’s the important part,” Dixon says. “It’s not whether you use Old Bay spice or whether you use lemon juice, it’s how it makes people feel.”
Kirsten Dixon's Smoked Salmon Cardamom Spread
After 30 years, we still love this recipe. Salmon, cardamom and sour cream are complementary flavors. We like to fill our gruyère cheese puffs with this spread, accompanied by pickled red onion and herbs.
- 1 pound kippered (hot-smoked) salmon
- ¾ cup sour cream
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 lemon
Chop half of the kippered salmon in the bowl of a food processor. Add the sour cream, cardamom and pepper. Grate the zest of lemon into the salmon mixture as well. Process the salmon mixture until it is pureed. Transfer the puree to a large bowl. Coarsely chop the remaining salmon and add it to the puree. Mix well, cover and refrigerate until serving time. (Other flavorings, such as fresh chopped basil, cayenne pepper or sun-dried tomatoes, can be substituted for the cardamom.) Serve a dollop of the spread on your favorite crackers or bread.
Makes 1½ pounds (24 1-ounce servings)