As the autumn air grows clear and crisp, Dolly Varden – close relatives of brook trout – are ascending streams on annual spawning runs. Salted and grilled over charcoal, there is no finer way to celebrate the coming of fall.
The small, icy-cold, brilliantly crystalline stream that flows less than 100 meters from our home has suddenly become positively choked with char. Only a week ago, the pools were bereft of anything but a smattering of fingerling salmon parr and equally diminutive juvenile Dolly Varden. The scene changed overnight when we woke to see the mountains rimming Chignik Lake gleaming with the season’s first snow. As the day warmed and the snow melted, the village stream filled to its brim with fresh snowmelt as clear and bracing as an Alaska September morning. Apparently that’s the signal Chignik Lake’s char were awaiting. When I checked that evening, each of the lower pools was packed with one of our favorite fish – Dolly Varden char. To be sure, there were no trophies among them, although a couple appeared to be pushing 16 inches. That’s fine. Eight to 12 inch fish (20 to 30 cm) are the perfect size for one of our very favorite foods – fresh char salted and grilled over charcoal.
I first encountered this simple but elegant fare while living in Japan. At festivals, fairs and inns in mountain villages, ayu (a trout-like fish highly regarded in Japan and South Korea) and iwana (white-spotted char very similar to Dolly Varden, Arctic Char and Brook Trout) are salted, skewered on bamboo sticks and roasted over hot coals till their skin turns a crisp golden-brown. With very small char, the bones are soft; it is common practice to eat the entire fish from tail to head.
Char Shioyaki (Salted Grilled Char)
- 8-to-16-inch char, gutted and gilled but with head left intact. (Brook Trout, Dolly Varden or Arctic Char)
- Sea Salt (We have found coarse gray sea salt, Sel Gris, to be best for complimenting salmon, trout and char.)
- Wooden skewers, soaked in water to prevent them from burning (Bamboo is traditional, but skewers fashioned from hardwoods such as alder, peach, apple, hickory and similar woods also work well.)
- Prepare a charcoal grill or campfire. (Alternatively, fish can be broiled on a baking sheet on the top rack of the oven.)
- Thoroughly clean stomach cavity and gills from fish. Do not scale. Leave head intact. Rinse in cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
- Using a very sharp knife, make shallow oblique cuts spaced about 1″ apart through the skin. Avoid cutting too deeply.
- Run sharpened skewer into fish’s mouth and through the body, making sure fish is securely skewered.
- Liberally salt the fish inside and outside.
- Placed directly on a very hot grill. To prevent skin from sticking to grill, do not move fish. Turn only once, gently loosening with a spatula if necessary. Roast till skin, tail and fins are crisp and golden brown, eyes are white and opaque, and meat is splitting where slashed. Alternatively, fish can be roasted on roasting stick over hot coals.
Serve with cider, a favorite bourbon, sake, or Pinot Gris.