This salmon is the wagyu beef of the seafood world

Kate Krader
Bloomberg News

When it comes to luxury fish, tuna rules. It’s the star of almost every extravagant sushi meal and the world’s most expensive fish.

Salmon is America’s workhorse fish. Among the reasons for its popularity: It’s healthy, packed with omega 3-fatty acids and vitamin D, and versatile, served raw, smoked, or cooked, as the protein boost to infinite salad bowls. Americans eat around 918 million salmon annually; in 2017, revenues were $688 million for the wild-caught fish and $67.7 million for Atlantic farmed.

Now a high-end farmed salmon is here to challenge fancy free-range tuna.

For 25 years New Zealand King Salmon Co. has been breeding Ora King salmon from stock first imported from California in the 1990s. The result is an especially fatty fish with strikingly marbled meat and a sumptuous melt-in-your-mouth texture, like wagyu beef of the ocean. Chefs compare it to the luxuriousness of raw fatty tuna. The cost is at least twice the price of commodity Atlantic farmed salmon. It’s available in specialty food stores where it costs $30 a pound, or about $4 less than wild king salmon.

Ora King salmon is gaining popularity with notable chefs around the country.

Playing in to the breed’s richness and clean taste is the pristine water it’s raised in. Ora King eggs are hatched in the South Island’s Takaka Valley in Golden Bay, refreshed with water from Te Waikoropupu Springs, some of the clearest in the world; an average of 14,000 liters of fresh water bubble to the surface every second. The fish mature in sea farm pens in Marlborough Sounds, where there’s a 98% ratio of water to fish. The roominess (some farms pack up to 50,000 fish in two acres of water) cuts down on waste, sea lice, parasites, and the need for chemicals and antibiotics that have given aquaculture a bad name – and its products an inferior flavor.

Ora King has scored a “best choice” from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, becoming the first farmed salmon to do so. The company emphasizes the diet of wild king salmon instead of pellets and visually monitors the feeding to avoid waste; they also don’t use pesticides common in less sustainable aquaculture practices. When an Ora King reaches around 9 pounds, it’s harvested and graded for marbling and color, among other criteria.

The fish, which represents less than 1% of the world’s salmon supply, is gaining popularity with notable chefs around the country. Tim Hollingsworth of the L.A. restaurant Otium calls it “prestigious” because of the high fat content; he uses the belly for sashimi and raw bar specials, and roasts or grills cuts from the loin for an entree.

“Food raised in the wild is more exciting, and the flavor and texture of wild salmon are unmatched by anything produced in a controlled setting,” says TAK Room’s chef de cuisine Jarrod Huth.