World of fine dining discovers 'white kings'

Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- White-fleshed king salmon are native to certain rivers of Southeast Alaska and Canada -- the Taku, the Chilkat, the Quesnel.

Even there, they are a minority, though in one British Columbia river, the Harrison, almost all the kings are white, says Ed Jones, a sportfish biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game based in Southeast.

Commercial trollers pick them up by chance. The main location is in Icy Strait, in northern Southeast Alaska, said Sandro Lane, owner of Taku Fisheries in Juneau.

While most salmon pick up their red pigment from carotene in the food they eat, white kings are genetically rigged with an extra enzyme to process that carotene rather than collect it in the flesh, Jones said. Much remains a mystery about the fish, he said, including why their flesh is so mouthwatering.

''Everybody here knows about the white kings and wants them,'' Jones said. ''But it used to be that commercial fishermen couldn't even sell them down south.''

''They were given to the plant workers,'' said Barbara Belknap, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

That's all changed now, with a twirl of the trend-maker's wand.

Last September, the New York Times described white kings as ''the catch of the moment.'' A novelty fish at first, the so-called ''ivory kings'' caught on in premium restaurants because of their mild, silky, buttery flavor.

Like a wine writer, the Times food writer described it as ''clearly salmon, but with flavors reminiscent of perch and Chilean sea bass.'' The fish was retailing for $20 a pound, the newspaper reported.

''It's a specialty niche that people have been able to make into a glamorous fish,'' Belknap said.

The limited supply mostly goes to restaurants. Jack Amon of the Marx Brothers Restaurant in Anchorage said he snaps them up whenever they are available. John Jackson of New Sagaya Market said they are very rarely available in retail as well.

''The best thing I can say about white kings is that most of them never leave Alaska,'' said Lane, the Juneau fish processor. ''The knowledgeable consumer here can find them. If I have a choice of what fish to eat, I'll take the white king any day.''

There is no way to know if a king salmon has white flesh until it is cleaned.

Sport anglers occasionally pick up a white feeder king while trolling in Kachemak Bay or lower Cook Inlet. Feeder kings can be caught in those waters year-round, though in summer most kings caught are headed for spawning rivers in the Inlet.

There have been a few reports of Cook Inlet kings that had mutated to produce white flesh, said state biologist Jones.

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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