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"Catch of the Day" in Honolulu
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

Ever wonder why the price varies for “catch of the day” fish on restaurant menus?  I have, especially in Hawaii, where a great variety of fine local fish is served.  So I get up dark and early to visit the colorful Honolulu Fish Auction, which is open to the public six days a week.

One of only four such auctions in the US, it sells over 20 million pounds of fish a year from a refrigerated warehouse on the harbor.  At 5 AM the place is hopping.  Out at the loading bay in sultry morning warmth, men in gumboots pull large fish carcasses off trucks that come straight from the long-liner boats.  One worker cuts off most of the tails and snouts.  Another weighs each fish and affixes tags listing the weight and the boat that caught it.  The largest species, such as marlin, run to hundreds of pounds.

The fish are laid out on rubberized pallets, half buried in shaved ice and wheeled indoors to be lined up in rows for the buyers to inspect.  Plump, silvery yellowfin tuna lie fin by jowl next to flat, round red-fringed moonfish, blunt-nosed mahi mahi and pink-skinned opakapaka, a large snapper.

          A worker with a filleting knife cuts a notch near each tail.  Then dozens of buyers, mainly of Native Hawaiian or Asian descent, parade along the rows, scooping out samples of flesh from these cuts.  Feeling and sniffing for texture and quality, they make notes and use cell phones to consult their head offices at companies like Tropic Fish and Diamond Head Seafoods.  These middlemen purchase for large restaurants, resort hotels and supermarket chains in Hawaii, and fly 40% of the catch to the US mainland.

Finally the bidding begins.  The auctioneer and buyers move down the rows in a tight cluster as bids are shouted out.  Prices shoot up fast, ten cents at a time.  As each sale closes, the auctioneer scribbles the price on a slip of paper and the buyer tosses down the color-coded tag of his or her company.  The fish is loaded onto the buyer’s truck and again iced down.  The action is fast and efficient.  As rows of pallets vanish, later consignments of fish arrive and the bidding continues.

Outside, it is beginning to get light.  A burly Samoan man and wife heave a huge marlin, cut in half, into their pickup.  A few individuals come and pay cash for a single fish, like this one, which will grace a weekend wedding feast.  And I meet manager Brooks Takenaka, a wiry guy with a degree in marine biology who9 has worked here more than 20 years.  “We expect to sell 75,000 to 80,000 pounds today,” he says.  But prices are low, with tuna, the prime species, going for $2 to $3 per pound.  “It basically reflects demand,” which can change quickly.

An elderly Native Hawaiian named Luke agrees.  He has his own fish market and comes to the auction three mornings a week to buy around ten fish at a time.  “You come back in December and the wholesale price of tuna will be $12,” Luke tells me.  That’s because Hawaii’s large Japanese population serves lots of sashimi (raw yellowfin or bigeye tuna) over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

To see the next step between fishing boat and dinner plate, I visit the kitchen of popular Duke’s Canoe Club restaurant at the Outrigger Waikiki hotel.  The morning’s purchase from the Fish Auction has arrived, and prep cook Ben Sulvita is trimming and slicing a slab of beautiful red tuna into seven to eight ounce steaks to broil.  Duke’s has built its reputation largely on serving the fresh local catch, says chef Keith Kong.  “We cook it simply, to highlight the flavor of the fish.”  Mahi mahi and opakapaka are often crusted with a special bread crumb mix and sautéed.  Customers also come back year after year for the moonfish.  “We do a Duke’s baked style, with a garlic, lemon and sweet basil glaze, and serve it with tomato basil relish.  It’s got beautiful colors, wonderful flavors, and the glaze keeps the fish moist.”

My wife and I reserve a table at Duke’s that night.  We start with crimson slices of sashimi that melt in our mouths.  For the entrée, I order broiled opakapaka.  It is firm textured, succulent and deliciously sweet.  My wife tries the moonfish with a lightly spiced “firecracker” glaze. It is oilier, with a darker flesh and richer taste.  We are amazed at the fine, subtle flavors.  And it is all thanks to the extraordinary freshness that comes from serving fish only hours after the boat ties up in port.

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Email: (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)


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