What's That Fish On My Plate?

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

The abundant bounty of the oceans doesn't strictly define Hawaii cuisine, yet it surely is one of its strongest and most influential characteristics.

Times have long passed when one could only choose local mahimahi or snapper in restaurants where the menu was otherwise filled with imported and frozen sole, lobster or salmon. Innovative and creative chefs across the islands are passionate about serving food that is grown on local soil and caught fresh in Hawaiian waters. They are inspired by the ethnic variety springing forth from the wealth of different cultures living together on the islands. Subtle flavors of the East meet bold taste sensations of the West.

However, different languages are also meeting, and especially when it comes to seafood, the names are often confusing if not intimidating. Don't be surprised if even your friendly waiter isn't quite sure about that fish on your plate.

While it's impossible to list all the edible local fish, here's a small glossary of sorts, just to help you out.

First of all, you'll often find fish prepared in the following ways:

Sashimi : thinly sliced raw, high-grade fish, served with spicy wasabi (Japanese horseradish) mixed with soysauce.

Poke: raw fish cut in bite-size chunks and marinated the Hawaiian way. How is that? Try it with seaweed, sesame oil, chili pepper, ground candlenut, and chopped onion. It's ono (sweet-tasting, delicious).

Ceviche: raw fish "cooked" in lime or lemon juice. Coconut milk is often added with other seasonings.

As for the fishes themselves:

The Tender Snapper Family counts as its most revered siblings: Opakapaka, Onaga, Gindai (Ukikiki), Ehu (Ula'ula), Uku, and Lehi.

With succulent, white, flaky flesh, snapper will always be a favorite. Onaga has the highest fat content and makes a superb sashimi. Watch out for "market price" on the menu. Snapper, increasingly scarce, has grown extremely expensive.

The Fat Tunas revel in delicious oiliness, warmth, and tenderness. With dusk-pink to claret-red flesh they create stunning color contrasts when served "wok-charred" or as sashimi.

Some favorite ones are Ahi (Yellowfin tuna or Big-eye tuna), Aku, (Skipjack tuna), and Tombo Ahi (Albacore), responsible for the "white meat tuna" label on those handy cans!

There is a group of loners, Idiosyncratic Individuals: Watch out for sweet, flaky Mahimahi (Dolphinfish), and not related to dolphins at all, Ono (Wahoo), available year round, great for sashimi, and honored member of the mackerels, Monchong, disk-shaped, popular sweet pomfret, and Opah (Moonfish), which any chef would recommend.

The Lean Billfish Competitors who never make the tournament because they are too small ( and therefore delicious) are, among others, Striped Marlin (A'u), great for poke, Broadbill swordfish (A'u ku, Shutome), a dense-textured fatty fish, Shortbill spearfish (Hebi, and Sailfish.

As for the Less Familiar Locals, try Moi, a threadfin reef fish and fish of the ali'i (chiefs), now farm-raised on Oahu, or Opelu, a mackerel scad, small, fatty and "onolicious". Moano, Kumu, and Weke are all members of the great goatfish, reefy, yet worth the unknown adventure. Last and not least, praise to Nohu, a reef fish with the taste and texture of a fine, rich lobster!

Give it a try, step into the unknown, taste the truth of Hawaii's ocean. You'll be happily surprised!

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