For some, a lūʻau is not a lūʻau without lomi lomi salmon (salmon cubes, diced tomatoes and onion.)
But Hawaiʻi’s waters don’t teem with salmon; so, how did this become a lūʻau staple get into the compartment of our lūʻau plates?
The answer may be found in the export records of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC,) whose regional headquarters was in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1800s.
Back near the turn of the last century, the most valuable commercial fisheries in the world, excepting only the oyster and herring fisheries, were those supported by salmon. (Cobb)
Of these the most important, by far, were the salmon fisheries of the Pacific coast of North America (California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, including also British Columbia.)
Salmon was a mainstay of life of the Northwest Coast Indians. Fresh or preserved salmon, in turn, became a staple food for HBC posts west of the Rocky Mountains.
With the HBC opening of their offices in Honolulu in 1829, the company’s focus turned to marketing two of its home-region’s primary resources, salmon and timber.
By 1830, the HBC was preserving salmon on the Columbia River and at Fort Langley on the Fraser River as well, mainly to feed Company personnel, but with some 200 to 300 barrels of Columbia River salmon exported that year, presumably all to Hawai’i.
Preserved salmon found a ready market on O’ahu, particularly among native Hawaiians.
Just when that notable dish, lomi lomi salmon, first made its appearance is unknown, but if it was in fashion by the 1830s, the HBC can take credit for being the main provider of its principal ingredient.
During the 1830s, HBC sold several hundred barrels of salmon a year in Honolulu. The 1840s saw a major increase in sales; in 1846, 1,530 barrels were shipped to Hawaiʻi and HBC tried to increase salmon exports to 2,000 barrels annually.
The peak year was in 1849, with 2,610 barrels exported to Honolulu.
The Company itself did not fish for salmon, but instead entered into a symbiotic relationship with the Northwest Indians, whereby the latter with their long expertise were the fishermen.
Company records do not give a precise description of the method of salmon preservation, although it is clear they were pickled, the earliest commercial method used on the Pacific Coast. Writing in 1910, Cobb described the method as follows:
“In dressing salmon for pickling the heads are removed, the fish split along the belly, the cut ending with a downward curve at the tail.”
“The viscera and two thirds of the backbone are removed, and the blood gurry, and black stomach membrane scraped away. The fish are then scrubbed and washed in cold water.“
“They are next placed in pickling butts with about 15 pounds of salt for every 100 pounds of fish. The fish remain here for about one week, when they are removed, rubbed clean with a scrub brush and repacked in market barrels, one sack of salt being used for every three barrels of 200 pounds each.”
Of the five species of North Pacific salmon, sockeye salmon was preferred for export, in conformity with Hawaiian tastes. Native Hawaiians also expressed a preference for Fraser River, rather than Columbia River salmon.
The Company exchanged trade goods for their salmon.
Sugar, molasses, coffee and salt were Island products regularly sent to provision the HBC posts. Hawaiian salt was used in preserving the salmon destined for Hawaiian consumption.
The source of the salt shipped by HBC to the Northwest Coast could have come from the Moanalua salt lake on Oʻahu, whose salt was considered the best for salting provisions and as a table salt in Honolulu.
The Honolulu office of HBC during the 1850s began to feel increasing competition of salmon imports from the Russian American Company at Sitka and of American imports from Puget Sound.
The 1853 smallpox epidemic that decimated the Hawaiian population caused a great falling off of salmon sales.
The Hudson’s Bay Company decided to close its Honolulu operations in 1859, and eventually closed a couple years later.
However, the islands’ love of lomi lomi salmon continues today.