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When It Comes to Chowder, Is the West Coast the Best Coast?

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Until a few months ago I thought that there were only two types of chowder on this earth: New England clam chowder and Manhattan clam chowder. (Okay, there’s corn chowder, too, but it’s definitely lower in the chowder hierarchy.) New England is the creamy, thick version, while Manhattan is lighter and tomato-tinged. Both are considered incomplete without a scattering of oyster crackers on top.

But all my chowder preconceptions were shattered a month ago when I moved across the country to Seattle. In addition to gray skies (the rumors are true!), oodles of craft beer, and the original Starbucks, there was one thing that caught my eye in the Emerald City: chowder. Lots of it.

New England Clam Chowder with Old Bay Oyster Crackers

New England Clam Chowder with Old Bay Oyster Crackers by thirschfeld

New Manhattan Clam Chowder

New Manhattan Clam Chowder by Emma Laperruque

I saw chowder at Pike Place Market, the famous outdoor food hall/craft market where they throw the fish, served from a restaurant with a line 80 tourists long. I saw chowder on the menu at various lakeside restaurants and cozy neighborhood cafés, often served in bread bowls as big as my head. I even saw chowder on the ferries that run between Seattle and its surrounding islands. (Talk about a great commute!)

But when I actually stopped think about it, why wouldn’t there be chowder in the Pacific Northwest? It’s a dish associated with coastal areas with access to fresh seafood, and Seattle, with its embarrassment of waterways, is just that.

But West Coast clams, as I discovered, are very different than their Eastern brethren. Some sources describe them as more delicate and buttery than burlier, juicier East Coast clams. To compensate for their milder flavors, some chowders in Oregon and Washington incorporate bacon to add savoriness.

Others skip them altogether. “Clams from the West Coast are less meaty and they can be stringy,” said Duke Moscrip, founder of award-winning local chowder chain Duke’s Seafood and Chowder. “East coast clams have a fragrance that is unique and they’re much meatier. They’re almost perfumed.” For these reasons, Duke’s uses bivalves imported from New England in their award-winning clam chowder.

Head to Seattle for the Dreamiest Long Weekend
Head to Seattle for the Dreamiest Long Weekend

It’s not all about flavor, though; cost also comes into play. “Clams from the West Coast are so much smaller, it isn't economical to buy them because the labor cost is horrendous,” said Duke.

Though Duke’s sources their clams from New England, they offer some locally-inspired options. Their North By Northwest Seafood Chowder features salmon, halibut, and cod sourced from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. It’s a cioppino-style soup; brothy and tomato-based, with very little cream. In fact, it’s not too different than Manhattan-style clam chowder—minus the clams.

Like Duke’s, Seattle standby Pike Place Chowder uses East Coast clams in their signature chowder. “We don’t put a strong focus on using regional ingredients because it would really restrict what we serve,” said Marketing Director Charlotte Cook. Instead, they focus on just making their clam chowder the best it can be. Though they have 8 varieties of chowder on their menu, Cook said that roughly 90% of their business comes from the classic: New England Clam Chowder.

Pike Place Chowder does, however, offer a few soups that use flavors and seafood from the Pacific Northwest. The two most notable are Smoked Salmon Chowder, which uses local salmon and Oregon bay shrimp, and the Crab and Oyster. (Pike Place founder calls the former “lox and bagels without the bagel,” which I am absolutely on board with.)

At the end of my chowder exploration, I had determined two things:

  • One: Seattle makes a mean New England clam chowder. Possibly the best I’ve ever had. (Blasphemy, I know. You can bean me with lobster rolls and Boston cream pie later.)
  • Two: Their local twists on the classic—that is, chowders with Pacific Northwest flavors and ingredients—might be even better.
Finally, the Pacific Northwest has a chowder to call their own.
Finally, the Pacific Northwest has a chowder to call their own. Photo by Bobbi Lin

In the spirit of eating locally and embracing my new home, I decided to make my own version of smoked salmon chowder. I added leeks, reduced the cream content so that I could eat it more frequently without the bellyache, and used hot smoked salmon that my boyfriend’s mom smoked in her backyard in Alaska. Potatoes added heft and thickened the soup, and capers gave some much-needed zip to cut through the richness of the cream cheese.

The end result didn’t remind me of a lox bagel-sans-bagel as much as it reminded me of perfect clam chowder: smoky, rich, and satisfying. Just the thing I would crave on a wind-whipped Maine coast, or just in my apartment during a rainy Seattle evening.

I highly suggest making a pot of this chowder on weekend afternoons while there’s still a hint of chill in the air. It’s also a great excuse to invite some friends over—who doesn’t like a chowder party? If possible, make it the day before because chowder always tastes best on Day 2, when the flavors have had time to get friendly with each other. Necessary garnishes: hot sauce and lemon. Optional but highly encouraged: sourdough bread bowls.

Northwest Smoked Salmon Chowder

Northwest Smoked Salmon Chowder

Catherine Lamb Catherine Lamb
Serves 6 to 8
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 large leeks, sliced, soaked in water to remove the grit
  • 2 stalks celery, diced fine
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 cups potatoes, chopped, preferably Idaho or Russet (450g)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 15-oz can chopped tomatoes, drained
  • 3 cups fish stock (chicken or veg stock works, too)
  • 3 tablespoons capers, plus 1 tablespoon of brine
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, cut into cubes
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce (I used Texas Pete's)
  • 1 cup hot smoked salmon, shredded
  • 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, diced for garnish
  • lemon wedges, for garnish
  • Sourdough bread bowls for serving, or slices of sourdough bread for dipping
Go to Recipe

Got opinions on chowder? Let us know in the comments!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Soup, Salmon, Seafood, Travel