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Hawaiian Fish

Ever munch on a monchong or gobble up an opakapaka? A whole new world of seafood is headed our way.

April 07, 1999|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ono. Opah. Onaga. Opakapaka. Moi. Monchong. Hebi.

If Mako Segawa-Gonzales has his way, these names will soon be as familiar to us as halibut and salmon. Mako, as he is known professionally, is conducting a campaign to introduce Southland diners to the pleasures of Hawaiian fish.

Mako was born on the island of Hawaii to a Mexican American mother and a third-generation Hawaiian Japanese father. He went to high school in Tucson, Ariz., where he started his food-service career washing dishes but soon became one of the line cooks at an old-fashioned Continental restaurant specializing in beef Wellington and steak Diane.

Eventually, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and returned to Hawaii to work for Roy Yamaguchi. For almost three years, he was sous chef at the famous Roy's in Maui. It was at Roy's in Kauai, which he opened, that he developed his own style.

In 1997, when the Maui Beach Cafe opened, Mako brought his own brand of fusion cooking, which has some European and Asian influence but is based on Hawaiian regional cooking, known in the foodie world as HRC. And HRC is rife with Hawaiian fish.

To enjoy HRC, you have to embrace Hawaiian fish and the fish of the South Seas with their beautiful percussive names--some Japanese, some Hawaiian and at least one, opah, from West Africa.

When Maui Beach Cafe opened, Mako put a lot of Hawaiian fish on the menu, but he found people didn't order them. So he rewrote the menu to include Chilean sea bass, salmon and other familiar fish.

"Using such well-known fish would introduce customers to our cooking style and flavor systems," he says. "Then, the idea is to nudge them into trying the Hawaiian fish." Every day he offers a fresh island fish special. So far, his method seems to be working, because Hawaiian fish sales have risen consistently.

Hawaiian fish can be divided into several categories.

*Tunas: These include tombo (Thunnus alalunga) and two species of ahi--big eye ahi (T. obesus) and yellowfin ahi (T. albacares). The ahis are already fairly well known here on the mainland as a versatile fish that can be broiled, baked, sauteed, grilled, seared or served raw as sashimi. The translucent red flesh cooks to a creamy white--if you want to cook it all the way through; with ahi, many people consider rare the ideal.

Tombo is also well known to us, but rarely as a fresh fish--it's albacore, the only fish that can be canned as white-meat tuna in the United States. Fresh, the pretty pink flesh is drier and less fatty than other tunas--and less expensive. Fresh tombo is gaining in popularity. It makes good mild sashimi and sushi, and otherwise is prepared like other tunas. For home cooking, Mako suggests marinating tombo in mirin (rice wine) and soy sauce and grilling it. When cooked, the meat becomes firm and white and seems only a distant relative of the canned stuff.

*Billfish: These tuna relatives include swordfish (Xiphias gladius), which needs no introduction, and hebi, or shortbill spearfish (Tetrapturus angustirostris), which does. Hebi has dense, firm pink meat that stands up well to grilling and broiling. Unlike Atlantic swordfish, which has been over-fished, Pacific swordfish is still somewhat plentiful. The firm, meaty, mild flesh is white to pink; when grilled, broiled or smoked, it turns an appealing white.

Other popular Hawaiian billfish include kajiki or blue marlin (Makaira mazara) and nairagi or striped marlin (Tetrapturus audax), which are firm, meaty fish, very popular for grilling and in raw preparations in Hawaii. Marlin are scarce and cannot be shipped to the mainland, but look for them in Hawaii.

*Open-ocean fish: These include the well-known mahi-mahi or dolphin fish (Coryphaena hippurus), the most popular fish in Hawaii (and one of the most popular in California restaurants), and opah or moonfish (Lampris guttatus), perhaps the most curious-looking of the Hawaiian fish.

Opah is large--it can reach seven feet in length, and four feet is common--with a very deep body; if you ignore the tail, it's practically disk-shaped from the side. Meanwhile, it's quite narrow, rarely more than a foot wide if looked at head on, and it's distinctively colored: bluish on top and red below, with white spots all over. The very firm, large-grained, oily flesh, usually pinkish in color, has given it the monicker of Hawaiian salmon. Old-time Hawaiian fishermen considered it "the good-luck fish."

Ono, also known as wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri), is a sturdy, somewhat dry tuna relative with flaky, sweet white meat. Ono can be substituted in recipes for mahi-mahi.

Monchong or big-scale pomfret (Taractichthys steindachneri) has firm, smooth, moist white to pinkish flesh, which holds up nicely with sauces. Serve it grilled or sauteed or baked with a light sauce.

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