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Pacific Northwest Cuisine

The best chefs in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States—principally the states of Washington and Oregon (though the northern panhandle of Idaho may also qualify)—stress the use of fresh local ingredients. Vegetables, fruits, and berries from the region’s vast agricultural areas, its great wealth of distinctive seafood, and its vital wines, all play a part in the cuisine. The region is also an active part of the food culture of the Pacific Rim and looks to Asia for many culinary influences.

Salmon is the ingredient that comes to mind most readily, and with good reason; the several varieties of local salmon are relatively easy to prepare and have good reputations as healthy protein sources. Many restaurants plank roast salmon in the tradition of several of the coastal Native American tribes of the region. The cook seasons the salmon and bakes it on a board of fragrant cedar or alder wood. Another simple option would be to sauté or bake the salmon with a Japanese soy-based or teriyaki sauce. A third option would be to top the salmon with a sauce of local huckleberries or chanterelle mushrooms. Dungeness crab, Alaska king crab, scallops, mussels, and clams are only a few of the other seafood choices. The region has a large oyster cultivation industry and hence uses oysters in many ways: barbecued, baked, fried or raw on the shell.

Both Washington and Oregon are major producers of fruit; Washington ranks first among American states in apple production, accounting for fully half the nation’s supply. Pears and stone fruits like peaches, apricots and cherries are also available in abundance. When fresh these fruits become mainstays of pies, cakes, and desserts; fruit preserves, jellies, nectars and reductions of all kinds are distinctive in the region. The fruits also find their way into savory foods: pork chops with apricot; salmon sautéed with apples and apple cider; cherry-glazed chicken; swordfish with peach salsa; salads, like the Waldorf, that feature sliced apples or other fruits.

The abundance of rain in the forests of Oregon and Washington State make them ideal environments for the growth of wild mushrooms. Morels, chanterelles, matsutakes, boletus and hedgehog mushrooms are the basis for most commercial harvesting; shitakes and other varieties are also commercial grown. Export demand from Europe and Japan is strong for many varieties, but when local chefs can obtain fresh wild mushrooms, they invariably incorporate them into their cooking.

The Pacific Northwest region has a reputation for rain, but in actuality has a number of climates and micro-climates, many of which have proved ideal for wine production. Walla Walla, an inland area in Washington State, is well known for its sweet onions, descendents of Italian onion varieties brought to the region during the nineteenth century. The Pacific Northwest region has a decided tendency to champion organic and sustainable production of all types of foods, vegetables and herbs, and hence has an excellent infrastructure to process, ship and market these foods to local restaurants.

If one were to create a stereotypical menu that used the full bounty of the region it would undoubtedly include fresh seafood or organically raised meat, organic herbs and vegetables, local fruits or berries, and choice wild mushrooms. The preparation method would stress simplicity and clear flavor notes, with no one ingredient dominating the others, and with the possible use of select Asian flavorings and cooking techniques. As such, Pacific Northwest cuisine falls into the mainstream of contemporary American cuisine.