Indigenous Methods Of Fish Preparation

by Paul Kirtley

Salmon held in framework of sticks over a fire for roasting

Salmon roasting over a fire on a Frontier Bushcraft course. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Many people who enjoy bushcraft and camping have also enjoyed fish cooked over a campfire. There are many clever - yet often quite simple - methods of suspending a fish over a fire in a way which ensures it is cooked to perfection. One such method has become well known in bushcraft circles in the UK. This is the technique commonly known as ponassing. Indeed, we teach this method during our Elementary Wilderness Bushcraft Course. Working particularly well on salmon and other similar salmonids such as trout or char, this technique involves removing the head, bones and tail, leaving one complete fillet, which is then suspended over the fire using a stick framework. Despite its prominence, I don't get the impression many people practicing or teaching this technique in the UK are particularly aware of where it comes from - geographically or culturally. Moreover, it's worth reflecting on the importance of fish in these cultures.

North West Pacific Coast

I've written about the importance of fish and fishing in indigenous cultures in previous articles such as Gaining A Native Perspective: Visiting The Dokis.
Cutting up a larger walleye/pickerel

Norm Dokis cutting up a walleye during a Frontier Bushcraft French River Expedition. Photo: Ray Goodwin

While fish have been an important source of nutrition to many peoples and an important component of their culture, nowhere is this more the case than for the First Nations of the Pacific North West Coast of North America. From northern California north to Alaska, indigenous cultures were centred around - and dependent upon - what could be harvested from the sea. This was noted by western culture from the time of first contact. On his third voyage of discovery, Captain James Cook spent a month anchored in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island. John Webber was the official artist and he depicted life in the longhouses of the indigenous peoples. Note the racks of fish hanging to dry in the image below.
S. Smith, after John Webber. “A View of the Habitations in Nootka Sound” in James Cook (1728-1779). A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean . . .performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore . . .1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780. Page 4. London: W. Strahan, 1784.

S. Smith, after John Webber. “A View of the Habitations in Nootka Sound” in James Cook (1728-1779). A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean . . .performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore . . .1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780. Page 4. London: W. Strahan, 1784.

Anthropologist Michael Kew describes North West Coast native fishing know-how as "an incredibly varied and highly refined assemblage of tools, techniques and knowledge, the culmination of thousands of years of evolutionary development. These tools and techniques were not imported ready made, nor did they suddenly spring into being. They developed slowly and painstakingly as more effective variations were invented or introduced and applied to achieve more rewarding ends. The final result adds up to one of the most elaborate and productive fishing technologies achieved by any non-industrial society." Fish and fishing were not just at the heart of material culture for North West Coast peoples, fish and fishing were also at the heart of their spiritual lives. Material and spiritual were inextricable. It is within these cultures that the technique of roasting a salmon over the fire in the way now familiar to many British students of bushcraft originates. It's one of but many methods of cooking fish and it can still be seen today, most publicly at events such as the annual Mill-Luck Salmon Celebration or the Coast Salish Canoe Races, for example.
Backbone and ribs of salmon being removed by hand

Removing the bones and spine of a salmon before roasting on a Frontier Bushcraft Elementary Wilderness Bushcraft course. Photo: Duane Yates.

The Contemporary Importance of Salmon

Salmon continue to be important - materially, culturally and in terms of biodiversity. These fish are important to coastal peoples as well as inland communities who live on the rivers which form the migratory routes of these amazing fish. Peter Johnsen's project The Great Salmon Tour aims to "create a new vision where we protect biodiversity and freshwater habitat not only as moral obligation, but as a way to preserve our own cultural heritage and well-being." Johnsen explains further, "Salmonids' spiritual, nutritional, and recreational importance to people and communities along all 360 degrees of the northern hemisphere makes this one of the most valuable fish groups for humans. The importance of these fish cannot be overstated; the critical danger of extinction and/or severely reduced populations due to high environmental stress that many of these species and populations are in goes unnoticed." So far The Great Salmon Tour has visited five communities dependent upon salmonids and in doing so has observed more than nine different species of the fish. Johnsen explains that each place and each species have its own story to tell. A central objective of this project is to present these stories through text and film. Below we have chosen two films which we think you will find particularly interesting (and relevant to your interest in bushcraft): I think it behoves us to understand the deep cultural significance of salmonids along with their continued importance as a source of subsistence. Next time you split a stick and slide a nicely-filleted salmon into it, before placing it over the fire think about where this technique came from and how much some people still rely upon the body of knowledge from which it came.
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Paul Kirtley is owner and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog as well as for various publications including The Bushcraft Journal and Bushcraft & Survival Skills Magazine.

 

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Leena

Hi Paul,

Thanks for putting up those videos…they were very powerful for me. My forefathers come from coastal village, south India. Generations have been farmers, fishermen etc. Many of this techniques are very taken for granted..passed on by word of mouth and down generations. The fisher people tell us of how the read the wind, the season of time…how they know fish comes in… some times its the sea gulls or the birds hovering in the sky…how the bigger catch is for the community a boon…and how tithing…and care of seniors and vulnerable is built into the community sustenance…also the spirit of the fish..or veneration to creator/creation….theres humility and being tuned into nature and its rhythms to survive and sustain…although we have moved on …we must find ways to stay in tune with nature to make most of it, yet not lose our modern or ancient skills!

Most interesting was how the fish was prepared…it felt like a cello was being played…how relaxed and smooth…back home..the fish would be smoked over the home fires….we used to have what is called a firewood kitchen…the traditional one…and in the chimney, layers of shelves would be stacked…shelves made of palm tree bark or base of broad leaf dried out…the fish would be salted and then smoked and dried…to provide for the winter and leaner months…these were also delicacies brought out when one got married or at other functions…( joys of having spent many holidays with grandparents:)

I was touched at seeing something so similar at a world so far away… Study of cultural practices do show how disconnected we get as we get modern…it is vital to retain the wisdom and skills we have gained over time…and apply with relevance to our modern times.

Thanks for a good article.

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Dean Williams

Thanks for the great article Paul, always interesting to establish the origins of techniques that we now take for granted. Keep up your excellent work.

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks Dean.

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Paul

Cultural interesting and yummy too!

What’s for lunch?

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Steve Bayley

I really enjoyed watching those videos Paul. You can see from the ease with which the fish is being handled that this isn’t the first time that guy has filleted salmon 😀 Practice makes perfect indeed. Interesting to see that different parts of the fish are treated differently and what a neat trick to ‘louvre’ the fish for drying or smoking. It made me laugh to hear the fish described as rather a small one too. Ponnassing is my favourite way of cooking & eating salmon by far, it’s the combination of smoke and perfect golden crispy flesh that gets me every time.

I’ve just come back from foraging in my local Sainsbury and I’d bought some salmon for supper before I’d seen this, I might have to light the BBQ rather than just poaching the fish Thai style with chilli, veg, noodles & coconut milk which was my original plan (an easy one-pot camping meal by the way, especially if you can get hold of powdered coconut milk and can dehydrate your own veggies).

Thanks to Leena for commenting too, what a thought provoking and evocative post Leena.

Now if Paul can just arrange to stock Windermere with salmon before next weeks Expedition Canoeing Course we’ll be well set indeed!

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Steve,

I’m glad you enjoyed the videos.

The ease of long practice is certainly evident.

Agreed – the louvre is very neat.

Still working on the salmon… 😉

Warm regards,

Paul

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Leena

Ta! 🙂

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dave b

great vids. these are some of the dudes off ‘Yukon Men’. A show on the discovery channel. Its the dogs private parts! If anyone enjoyed this check out the shows. Its truly awesome viewing. Subsistence living with a modern twist.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave, glad you liked them and thanks for the heads-up on Yukon Men. Cheers,
Paul

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James Harris

Hopefully I’ll be able to catch a few fish when I do my survival challenge in September, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve used this technique and I’m looking forward to doing it again.

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Paul Kirtley

Yes, that would be a great result. Fingers crossed…

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Isa

thats Stan Zuray and Pat Moore from Yukon Men. I recognised stan’s east coast accent straight away. haha Great show well worth watching!

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Isa

Its been my dream for some time to move to Alaska and live off the land…

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Dave Howard

Hi Paul, thanks for this post. I found it really interesting that the bony parts of the fish were processed separately. The filleting is nowhere near as easy as it looked on the video, and it was obviously something done for years to the point of performing it almost automatically. An excellent reminder of the difference between survival and popping to the supermarket !
All the best, Dave.

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Paul Kirtley

Indeed Dave – and the difference between a being a novice and a well-seasoned practitioner of a skill. Time and repetition get you up the curve. There is no real substitute.

Warm regards,

Paul

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