BON APPÉTIT — The assorted fish are spread out on the cutting board like a deck of cards.
Uhu, kumu, opakapaka, shutome, onaga and sashimi-grade, bigeye ahi…French chef George Mavrothalassitis, who goes by Mavro, calls each by their Hawaiian name, and prepares to demonstrate how to bring out the best in each.
“There are no bad fish,” he says. “Every variety is good if it’s fresh. The important thing is never to freeze it, and never to overcook it. The value is in its preparation.”
The consensus among the chefs I interview in Honolulu is that simplicity rules. The less done to the fish, the better the flavor. The fun starts in getting some fish of your own.
You can charter a sportfishing excursion and hook your own marlin, ono, or mahi mahi. Or, if your sea legs are as wobbly as mine, you can experience the Honolulu Fish Auction, one of the few fish auctions between New England and Tokyo (another is in Gloucester, Massachusetts).
It’s easy to get to: Drive toward Honolulu International airport, detour toward the warehouse district, and go to Pier 38. Moored at the docks, next to the cavernous building with sheet-metal sides, are fishing vessels that have just unloaded their catch. Their harvest includes varieties from huge, orange, saucer-headed opah (moonfish) and blunt-nosed mahi mahi, to 200-pound ahi and 300-pound marlin, which can net some serious change for fisherman.
Chances are you won’t be waltzing in to buy a 200-pound ahi for your backyard barbecue, but seeing the vast warehouse floor space filled with fresh fish is an education in itself.
The process begins the night before when the boats dock and unload their catch overnight. By dawn, all the fish are inspected, weighed and labeled. Each fish has a notch taken from its flesh near the tail, giving bidders a preview of each fish’s quality. From the notch, the bidders can discern how firm the fish is and how much fat content is present, providing a gauge for how flavorful the flesh will be. They even evaluate whether the fish has any bruising from being handled improperly.
Just don’t make the same mistake I did—showing up in the wet, refrigerated room wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt, cargo shorts and boat shoes. Not only will you shiver, you’ll stand out among the fish brokers in rubber boots, hoodies, and jackets. When I walk in, the dozen or so brokers are hunched over the rows and rows of fish, bidding on each until the warehouse is empty.
Up to 50 tons of fish are auctioned each day. From there, the fish are loaded onto overnight flights to the U.S. mainland, Canada, Japan, and Europe. Others are processed into dressed fish and filets. Local purveyors snag a large portion of the catch, and take them to restaurants and markets on Oahu and neighboring islands.
“Hawaiians eat three times as much fish as the rest of the United States,” says Brooks Takenaka, Honolulu Fish Auction manager. “And we eat a lot of it raw, too.”
If you’re not fortunate enough to be in Hawaii, you can still profit from the following tried-and-true techniques for creating memorable seafood dishes using imported Hawaiian fish at your local market or other varieties. As the local Hawaiian chefs demonstrate, the simplest preparations can produce the fullest flavors.
Goatfish is a prized delicacy in Hawaii, and can be caught near reefs and sand patches in depths from five to 100 meters. They are fairly common in Oahu’s famous snorkeling area, Hanauma Bay. Called “kumu” in Hawaii, they are bright pink and can grow to about 15 inches in length.
“Goatfish is the first recipe I ever prepared in Hawaii,” says Mavro, the proprietor and culinary force behind Honolulu’s Chef Mavro French restaurant, winner of a James Beard award. Mavro was raised in Marseilles but has lived in Hawaii for 26 years. He likes to serve his kumu en papillote.
He starts by scoring the goatfish and placing it on a bed of caramelized onion. Then he uses Hawaiian sea salt and puts it on top of parchment paper. Next, Mavro tops the fish with shiitake mushrooms, Thai basil, ogo nage broth, and white wine. He then folds over the paper to form a bag, adhering it with egg yolk. After some time in the skillet (which prompts the paper bag to puff up but not pop), Mavro finishes it in the oven. He cooks it a few more minutes, but only until the flesh is still a little pink near the bone. After that, it’s dueling forks to separate the succulent meat from the bone, and even the tasty skin is eaten.
“The result is an incredibly flaky, juicy, and buttery fish, with a texture different than any other,” Mavro says.
Monchong (sickle pomfret)
This firm, moderate-flavored fish has white flesh with pink tones. Sold at the Honolulu Fish Auction, its primary consumers are local restaurants and select U.S. mainland destinations. They are caught in deep waters, more than 900 feet. Monchong has fork-shaped fins and large scales, a high oil content, and long shelf life. Most fish sold are larger than 12 pounds.
For chef Matt Young, working at the Hula Grill at Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach is a pretty good gig, not just because it has the best view on one of the world’s most famous beaches, but because of the kitchen’s access to world-class seafood.
To prepare his special macadamia-nut-encrusted monchong, Young takes whole macadamia nuts and a small amount of oil, and processes them into a butter. Next, he folds in more chopped macadamia nuts, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and lemon. The monchong is then topped with the crust and baked. The macadamia-nut crust caramelizes, making the dish very fragrant. It is served with a blend of jasmine and wild rice, Aloun Farms haricot verts, and lemongrass beurre blanc.
Opakapaka (pink snapper)
Hawaiian servers speak in reverent tones when informing guests that fresh opakapaka is on the menu. Also known as the Hawaiian pink snapper, opakapaka’s delicate flavor is a favorite among islanders. The light-brown fish is found at depths between 180 and 600 feet and is harvested with hook-and-line gear. It can range from one to 18 pounds.
To prepare opakapaka Chinese style, Mavro first scores the fish skin, but not too deep. He then sprinkles a little soy sauce on top of it and places the fish on a bed of caramelized onions. Next, he places some shiitake mushrooms on top. He sprinkles white grapeseed oil over everything, and puts it in the steamer. Meanwhile, Mavro pulls out a skillet to crisp cilantro, green onion, and ginger with a sprinkle of olive oil, and then places the combination on top of the finished fish. The dish is served with a side of basmati rice.
“My twist at the end is to deconstruct the Chinese recipe, which calls for putting everything on top,” he says. “I want people to enjoy the simple crispness of the herbs and ginger.”
Bigeye ahi tuna
There are different varieties of ahi, from the prized bigeye and yellowfin, to albacore and skipjack. In Hawaii, the bigeye is the most valued, and is recognized by its plump body and larger head and eyes. Its meat has a reddish color and has a higher fat content than yellowfin, hence a richer flavor. Bigeye ahi can weigh 200 pounds and are caught by longline fishing boats.
At Nico’s Pier 38, Lyon-born chef Nicolas Chaize’s philosophy is that the less done to the fish, the better—especially for a mild-flavored fish such as ahi: “Stay as simple as possible, don’t overcook it and let the fish have its own taste and texture. Just don’t mess too much with it.”
Nico’s seared bigeye ahi is his restaurant’s most popular dish. He rubs a filet with dry seaweed, sesame seeds, and furikake, and then gives it a very quick sear, leaving most of the fish raw.
Poke (pronounced “POH-keh”), the Hawaiian version of ceviche, is served raw and is extremely popular with locals and Asian visitors, and ahi is a favorite main ingredient. Again, the preparation couldn’t be more simple: After cutting the ahi into cubes, Mavro adds ogo (a seaweed harvested on Molokai), sesame oil, green onion, olive oil, and a bit of Hawaiian chile pepper with the seeds and membrane removed. Mix it up in a bowl and voila! Perfect poke with a nice bite.
Anyone who’s ever snorkeled Hawaii’s waters will recall seeing parrotfish among the coral, which appear to be rainbow-colored, tie-dyed relics from Jerry Garcia’s tribe. True to their name, they have mouths resembling parrot beaks. They’re usually under 12 inches and 12 pounds.
Instead of the colorful male, it’s the reddish-brown female that has all the flavor. Mavro bakes them in their skin with just a little bit of Hawaiian salt and olive oil—just like a salmon in the oven.
“The fish stays moist so you can just slide the meat off the bone,” Mavro says. “If the flesh is a little pink at the bone, it’s fine, otherwise it’s overcooked. The best way to eat uhu is with olive oil, lemon and salt…no pepper. It’s cheap too.”
Nairagi (striped marlin)
Nairagi has a slender bill and stripes on its sides. Regarded as the most popular of all marlin species for eating, its firm, mild-flavored flesh varies from light pink to orange-red, the latter most favored for sashimi. They generally vary in size from 40 to 100 pounds, but can be as large as 130 pounds. Hawaii’s nairagi are caught by longline boats, but some are captured closer to shore by trolling boats.
For his striped-marlin carpaccio, Chaize slices a bright-orange filet thin and arranges it on a plate. Next, he dresses the fish with Maui onion, capers, olive oil, lime, Hawaiian salt, and organic greens to make a light, tasty carpaccio. It’s a simple and elegant appetizer.
Hawaiian butterfish (black cod)
Butterfish is actually a sablefish rather than a cod, with black skin and high oil content. The average size is two feet in length, 10 pounds in weight. It is exceptionally popular in Japan and Hawaii, with a very rich taste and medium texture.
To make traditional Hawaiian lau laus, the Highway Inn’s chef Mike Kealoha takes salted butterfish and pork and wraps them together in taro leaves. Then they are steamed for several hours. “The butterfish rounds out the flavor and the pork fat makes the taro nice and soft,” he says.
Kealoha is well grounded in traditional Hawaiian cooking. He was raised on Kualoha ranch near Mokoliʻi, also known as Chinaman’s Hat, on Oahu’s eastern shore. He credits his 100-percent native-Hawaiian mother and extended family with teaching him to appreciate the wealth of ingredients around him on Hawaii. “We hunted wild boar, we fished, and my uncle worked on a fishing boat,” he says.
Entering the Honolulu Fish Auction, your gaze tends immediately to go to the pallets of opah, stacked like monstrous, bright-orange Frisbees with huge eyes. According to Chaize, only about a third of the fish is usable. The rest is all head. Opah range in size from 60 to more than 200 pounds, and are caught by longlining. This rich, flaky, white fish is always popular in Hawaii’s restaurants.
At Hula Grill on Waikiki, Young makes his glazed opah with a North African-inspired glaze consisting of chile peppers, cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, cilantro, and lemon. It is served with a cucumber raita and a spiced white-bean salad. The crust on the fish helps maintain its natural moisture, and the smoky and citrusy notes of the crust work well with opah’s slightly fatty and bold flavor.
The hogo has a face only a mother could love. Homely to a fault, this rockfish lurks at depths of 20 feet or more and camouflages itself near reefs. It can grow to 20 inches or more and weigh up to five pounds. Local fishermen capture it with a spear or a pole and line.
Chef Andrew Le loves using smaller fish and leftovers at his very popular, family-run restaurant, The Pig and the Lady. He finds creative pleasure in surprising guests with tantalizing tastes from unexpected sources.
“Fish filets are awesome, but they’re predictable,” he says. “I often use byproducts and throwaways that I use in making stock, such as the fish’s head and collar, and I’ll grill ahi ribs and deep-fry the fins. Whatever we find goes on the menu that day.”
That goes for his hogo-head braise.
“It’s an ugly fish,” Le says, laughing. “The uglier the better. The flesh is firm, chewy and incredibly lean. The head is really bony. It’s big with lots of cartilage, which gets gelatinous when braised and gives it a nice body.”
He prepares it by slow cooking it with tomatoes, charred vegetables, anchovies, thyme, and chicken fat. It’s served with fennel and garlic toast.
Also called the “table boss,” awa is a rare hogfish that can grow in lengths of more than three feet and weigh 40 pounds or more. They are caught by pole and line, nets, or spear near the shore, or in bays and inlets.
Le says awa is generally steamed or deep-fried. Le prepares it Vietnamese style with a house fish sauce, vinaigrette, pickles, smashed chile peppers, herbs, jasmine rice, and sweet-and-sour tamarind soup.