Let’s start with a confession. My name is Max, and I love smoked salmon.
Growing up, it was the fancy fish that showed up at Christmas. As an adult, if I had ever smoked salmon and met at a casino buffet (it always is the buffet), I would stack that dish high, unabashedly, driven by my desire to get my money’s worth. A local coffee shop does a smoked salmon bagel, complete with creamy jalapeno cheese, which has been a request of mine for years. But despite my love of smoked fish, I’m afraid our relationship is becoming toxic.
While farmed Atlantic salmon has been popular in Australian restaurants and dining tables for years, the industry in Tasmania — where the majority of salmon farming takes place in the country — has recently faced criticism for its environmental impact, including the use of antibiotics and explosive sealants.
The Sustainable Seafood Guide, which helps consumers make ethical seafood choices, gives salmon farmed in Tasmania a red or “say no” rating; While Richard Flanagan Toxic, released in 2021, made many arguments against the industry clear. But I can read all the literature I like—in the end, it falls to me, as a consumer, to change my behavior.
But just telling people Not To eat something is ineffective, and even more so now, when the way we eat and what we eat has become so fraught. The limitations, for me at least, turn into a temptation, so I’m on the hunt for viable alternatives to Atlantic salmon.
One possible solution: smoked trout, “a much better product” according to Stephen Hodges, a seasoned seafood chef and co-author of The Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook. You could argue there is a degree of commercial bias, as Hodges has launched a range of cold and hot smoked products using freshwater rainbow trout from Victoria (aka Victorian Highland trout).
The metric for measuring the sustainability of a fish species is the fish-feed ratios: well-rated species have a ratio of 1:1, where the amount of fish farmed is the same as the amount of wild fish harvested for their feed. With trout, “a kilo is in, a kilo is out,” Hodges says.
Rainbow trout, which also includes “ocean trout,” has a yellow or “eat less” rating in the Sustainable Seafood Guide—an improvement on farmed Atlantic salmon. The guide says the amount of fish caught for trout feed has “declined over recent years,” but still exceeds the amount of rainbow trout produced. So while Hodges trout might have the same silky mouthfeel and flavor of smoked salmon, it doesn’t quite excuse me.
The debate over lab-grown food and cellular culture is complex, but it’s worth noting that California startup Wildtype is developing a salmon alternative using processes that grow fish cells in stainless steel tanks. Their products aren’t available on the Australian market yet, but closer to home and less sci-fi, UpRoot Food claims to have introduced Australia’s first vegan alternative to smoked salmon, with the ingredient list consisting mostly of carrots (91%) plus sunflower oil and apple cider vinegar. and kelp.
Fish substitutes made from soy protein, pea protein and konjac have been available in East and Southeast Asian markets for many years. Shannon Martinez of Melbourne’s famous vegan restaurant Smith & Daughters has tried many ways to make fish without fish, but when it comes to creating a smoked salmon alternative, smoked melon is her go-to in taste and texture.
The watermelon is slow-roasted at 120°C for several hours, resulting in a tray “full of caramelized watermelon juice, because all the liquid comes out of it,” and a watermelon that “completely transforms” into something firm and more flesh-like, Martinez says. “You cut it into big slabs, roast it, smoke it, and then slice it very thin,” she says. But at the end of the day, “it’s still a fucking watermelon.”
To counteract the fruit’s sugars, she finishes the watermelon in a brine of kombu and vegetable fish sauce for zest. Then he adds a little omega-3 oil to replicate the salmon’s plumpness on the palate. Smoked salmon is especially popular at Christmas at Smith & Deli; Also in the watermelon tiradito at Lona Misa is the vegetarian restaurant at Hotel Ovolo in South Yarra where Martinez oversees the menu.
However, Martinez does have a commercial kitchen and commercial flair for creating a fine product—but home cooks don’t. Alice Zaslavsky, author of In Praise of Veg, recalls trying the watermelon method to get her regular spot on ABC Breakfast TV. “A lot of fuss,” she says, laughing. “It took three days. I felt like it was an ordeal… Cooking should be fun, and juice should be worth squeezing.”
So, like UpRoot’s alternative salmon product, carrots are Zaslavsky’s weapon of choice. Zaslavsky bakes it at a low temperature until soft, but not falling apart, then uses a sharp peeler to shave off long slices. They’re marinated in soy sauce, maybe a little smoked salt, or olive oil, or—as you prefer—avocado oil “because that’s nice and rich and salmon and avocado are good friends.”
For sweetness, she adds a touch of honey, though it can be substituted with maple syrup for the vegan. “Smoked salmon” finds well in bread, layered with cream cheese, Spanish onion, and dill—serve it that way, “and people will be very satisfied,” says Zaslavsky.
So, while alternatives abound, is my resolve strong enough to quit Atlantic salmon altogether? Despite the effort at work, I’d spin Martinez’s and Zaslavski’s recipes if I had an extra weekend to fill in.
Smoked salmon is a slight environmental improvement over salmon, and it can sometimes find its way into my shopping cart, especially around Christmas time. However, I can’t shake my personal distrust of lab-grown salmon alternatives.
In the end, I’m just human. So, if you find me at my local coffee shop nibbling on smoked salmon bread, please, forgive me for my sins.