“Oh Cod!” A Heady Adventure in Alaska
Wandering through the old Russian port of Sitka, Alaska, you can visit a beautiful old Orthodox cathedral, hear about a recent crime wave (it had to do with people leaving the keys in their cars then finding them abandoned on the dead end roads out of town), and stumble upon hoards of locals clustered around large bins in a dark ally.
And that last experience was the cause of the one time I’ve wished a trip was ending, not at its beginning.
Sitka, spanning two islands of the Alexander Archipelago, is one of the biggest black cod fishing ports on earth. It’s also a cruise embarkation point for small ships like the National Geographic Sea Bird.
So, on a sunny September day prior to boarding, this nosy wanderer was strolling along fishery row, giant structures designed to receive boatloads of sea creatures through one door and spit out processed fish, through another.
But at a side door, in the shadows, were people doing something undecipherable.
Moving closer, it was clear. They were harvesting.
These were workers, plucking out the succulent head meat from sparklingly fresh black cod carcasses, trimmings which would otherwise be wasted. With the company’s blessing, they got to take “the best part,” glistening pieces of the tenderest meat on the fish. Some Sitka denizens were a little fuzzy as to where Connecticut is located (“near New York”), and were stunned to learn that an Easterner was aware of this local treasure, believing that it is all shipped to Japan.
They’d have happily sent some tidbits home with me, had I been heading East instead of toward the glaciers.
In the Northeast, black cod can be found on occasion in the fish market or in seafood restaurants, but more commonly in two other venues: In Japanese restaurants prepared as black cod collar (aka head) broiled in miso, and as smoked sablefish in delis.
Its firm yet unctuous texture and flavor is similar to another, better known cold water treat, Chilean sea bass (formerly known as Patagonian bonefish) from the frigid south side of the world. Both have a high fat content, rendering them virtually impossible to overcook. But the latter is now endangered, whereas black cod from the North Pacific is considered one of the most responsible and sustainable fisheries. Another thing they have in common is that black cod is not related to any other cod, nor is Chilean sea bass connected to any other kind of bass.
Whatever it’s called, too bad a sample didn’t travel back to my Connecticut kitchen.
The fish head is “the best part” according to Chinese! It’s also great for making soup, especially if it’s very fresh. Just add a few slices of ginger and you get light but flavorful fish broth.