Langdon Cook's Salmon Head Curry Recipe

Langdon Cook’s soup recipe ensures you none of your precious salmon goes to waste
By: Langdon Cook | Posted February 12, 2014
salmon head curry recipe langdon cook seattle magazine
Fisherman love Drano Lake where fat salmon take a break during their migration. Inset: cleaning a spring king on the banks of the Columbia River

I’m a big fan of nose-to-tail eating, and this is especially important with a fish as good as spring chinook, so take a look at this recipe for salmon head curry*. I haven’t cooked many fish head soups. Three recipes informed my final improvisation: Hank Shaw’s salmon head soup, Mama’s fish head soup and a recipe that ran in a column by Steve Barnes in Albany, New York’s Times Union. 

Those of little faith might get spooked during the proceedings, especially when the salmon heads are rolling around in there with the leeks and other stuff, going to pieces and spraying their bones about willy-nilly. But that’s what the strainer is for. All the crazy stuff going into that bubbling cauldron will eventually get strained out, leaving—yes—a subtle yet profound broth in its place.

Hank’s salmon head soup is in the Japanese tradition. We like that—but my kids are most enthusiastic about the many varieties of Chinese noodle soup, so I went down to Uwajimaya to see what ingredients I could dig up. Sure enough, it had the sketchy can of Szechuan prepared vegetables (some sort of radish, I think). I also got some udon noodles, our nod to the Japanese style. Here are the ingredients in full:

2-3 salmon heads, cut in half
2 Tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
1 3-inch thumb of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 leeks, tops discarded, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Thai red peppers, thinly sliced
Chinese cooking wine
2 Tablespoons fish sauce (optional)
rice vinegar (optional)
aji-mirin (optional)
1 can Szechuan prepared vegetable (optional)
1 can bamboo shoots
1/2 head napa cabbage, shredded
1 handful cilantro for garnish, stemmed, with stems reserved
1 package Asian noodles (e.g., udon, soba, ramen)

Despite the long list and the two strainings, this is actually a fairly easy soup to make, without the sort of pitfalls that can bedevil other soup recipes.

1. Over medium-high heat, brown fish heads and ginger in oil for a few minutes, turning at least once. Deglaze pot with a splash of wine and add chopped leeks, garlic and half of the green onions and red peppers. Sauté together for several minutes.

2. Deglaze pot again with another splash of wine, then add 8 cups of water and optional fish sauce. Bring to a light boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

3. Strain contents, picking and reserving as much salmon meat as possible. Return soup to simmer. Adjust for salt. Add half the remaining green onions and the cilantro stems. (Optional seasoning: Add a tablespoon each of Chinese wine, rice vinegar, aji-mirin; add a few heaping tablespoons of Szechuan prepared vegetables.) Simmer another 15–30 minutes.

4. Strain soup a second time and return to low heat to keep warm. Dole out reserved salmon meat into bowls, along with noodles, a handful of shredded cabbage, and spoonfuls of both Szechuan prepared vegetables (optional) and bamboo shoots. Ladle soup. Garnish with green onion, cilantro and Thai red pepper. Serves 4.

I also recommend the optional seasoning, though you’ll be tempering the fish flavor in the process. A second straining with green onions and cilantro stems (or similar aromatics) is de rigueur; this is where the umami effect really kicks into high gear. If you’ve eaten in a quality noodle house, you know what I’m talking about. How do they do it? I once wondered, savoring every last drop of broth in my bowl.

Now I know.
*This recipe orignally appeared on Cook's blog, Fat of the Land.