In the Raw
To the untrained eye, it’s a slab of tasteless raw meat ready to meet its maker, a fiery grill or a buttered sauté pan. But to the discerning eye, it’s a thing of true beauty—a fish fresh out of the ocean that needs only a precise cut, a spike of seasoning and a creative touch of presentation to turn it into a delectable dish that highlights nature’s bounty with a hint of salty sweetness of Hawaiian ocean water into each bite.
From the Kona Coast to Kohala on around to Hilo, menus enliven with raw fruits of the sea that glisten, tempt, tease and beguile in their au naturel state. “People are more open to trying raw fish than they used to be,” shares Executive Chef Sandy Tuason of CanoeHouse at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows. “There’s better understanding that raw fish can be served in a variety of ways, incorporating diverse flavors and ethnic influences and paired with interesting accompanying dishes.”
Look no further than the starters on CanoeHouse’s summer menu and you’ll get the point. For a light and tasty appetizer, try the Island Poisson Cru, which is a coconut and Tahitian lime marinated day boat fish served with local Mala'ai Garden yacon and organic kale chips. The fish marinates only briefly so the lime juice doesn’t actually have time to “cook” the inside of the fish. And at the resort’s Ocean Bar and Grill there’s a fresh catch “Poke of the Day.”
A local comfort food, poke (pronounced "po-keh") is a versatile island menu staple from high-end restaurants to humble neighborhood “plate lunch” establishments to busy fish markets. Hawaiian for “to slice or cut,” poke commonly consists of bite-sized pieces of raw, fresh fish mixed with flavorful seasonings.
raw fish is a mainstay on many menus around the world.
A quick check of the history books makes clear that raw fish is nothing new, that mankind has been consuming it (and other raw forms of meat) for millions of years. Today, the practice is widely associated with Asian cuisine, sushi in particular, which is credited to Hanaya Yohei, a Japanese man in the 19th century who saw raw fish as the perfect meal-on-the-go, a satisfying treat that could be consumed virtually anywhere one needed sustenance quickly and without hassle. He streamlined the usual (laborious) process of fermenting raw fish and rice, simplified it by pressing the raw fish and vinegar-infused rice together with bamboo molds. Voilá! “Sushi” officially entered the vernacular.
think of eating raw fish as food fit for royalty.
It took about a hundred years for Hanaya’s antecedent to Ray Kroc’s fast food genius to reach the West (arguably one of the first instances of sushi’s introduction to mainstream Western cuisine was during a visit of Japanese Prince Akihito to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the II in 1953), but, catch on, it did. While sushi has indeed become a fast food, the finer points of raw fish have only recently evolved at the hands of forward-thinking chefs—not surprisingly, chefs on the Big Island, where fresh fish is plentiful.
Chef Charles Charbonneau of Hilton Waikoloa Village’s Kamuela Provision Company admits nothing is more of a culinary high-fiver than super fresh raw fish. “Bigeye ‘ahi (tuna) has a permanent place on the menu; however, now that we’re into spring/summer, I like to take advantage of the Kona Kampachi and ono (wahoo) surplus.”
Kona Kampachi may actually take the honors of Most Favored Fish. But to some, like Executive Chef George Gomes Jr. at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s The Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar, it goes beyond that. Chef Gomes enjoys working with Kampachi as much as any raw fish because “it’s part of our culture and how we were raised.”
To anyone still skittish with the raw fish concept, Chef Tuason recommends, “Try it! You only live once! It’s creative and inspiring, the perfect island cuisine.”
keep it simple.
Chef Gomes strives for simplicity so as to keep the flavor profile in tact and to enhance the natural taste. “Ponzu sauce, soy vinaigrettes and splashed with hot oil or lightly torched to bring out the fattiness of the fish.” And yet, he’s aware some prefer the razzle dazzle approach. “For more elaborate preparations, the fish is smoked in kiawe (mesquite) wood and presented covered. Servers unveil this at the table as smoke willows out for some aroma therapy,” he explains.
Summer at The Manta & Pavillion Wine Bar means incorporating seasonal raw fish (Kaua‘i shrimp is a favorite) into delicious local summer raw veggie salads. Or another of Chef Gomes’ summer go-tos, the Tiger-Eye ‘Ahi Sushi Tempura with spicy mustard sauce and baby tomatoes, will become one of your favorite preparations of the local fish.
don’t overthink or over-finesse raw fish.
You get into trouble when you allow your analytical mind to strong-arm your pleasure principle. Executive Chef James Babian at Four Seasons Hualalai Resort says, “For people trying raw fish for the first time, a big part of it is more getting used to the texture than the flavor. I suggest not over-chewing, take just a few bites and get it down. The more oily the fish the stronger the flavor: mackerel, salmon or aku (skipjack) might be something to aspire to after tuna, which is more texture than flavor.”
But aspire you should, especially when it comes to the new tableside poke service at Pahu i‘a Restaurant. Says Chef Babian,“ Our version of poke is flavored with white soy (to maintain that beautiful deep red color of ‘ahi), ogo (locally raised seaweed), Hawaiian salt, sesame oil, kukui nuts and sweet Maui onions.”
be adventurous in pairing wines and other spirits—and don’t be afraid to DIY!
Chef Babian is succinct when it comes to his recommendation for appropriate drink selections to accompany raw fish dishes. In short, explore, don’t be afraid to get a little “out there.” But for perimeters, he believes the type of drink should accentuate the fish’s preparation. “If I am having sushi with soy and wasabi, I would prefer a nice chilled sake or beer to stand up to the bold and salty flavors. If I am having an ‘Ahi Carpaccio with arugula salad, extra virgin olive oil, and lemon, I'll choose wine—a Sauvignon Blanc or Vermentino.”
Restaurants from south to north on the Kohala Coast
Puhu i‘a is located at The Four Seasons Resort Hualālai (808) 325-8000. Kamuela Provision Company is located at the Hilton Waikoloa Village (808) 886-1234. The CanoeHouse is located at The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows (808) 881-7911. The Manta & Pavillion Wine Bar is located at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (808) 882-5810.
Hale i‘a (Da Fish Market), the local fishmonger, directly across from the gas station in Kawaihae or Suisan Fish Company. Their retail store is conveniently located right next to the dock where the fish boats come in with fresh catches 85 Lihiwai Street in Hilo.