Will it be opakapaka or onaga for dinner tonight? How about opah or ono? And what’s the difference between ahi and aku?
Dine out in Hawaii and you’ll regularly find all of the above – each a delicious local fish species – on restaurant menus statewide. On many menus, you’ll find them promoted as “caught fresh in Hawaii waters,” with a few eateries even backing up the ocean-to-table bona fides of their menu by identifying the fishermen who brought in the day’s catch.
Maybe you’re already familiar with a handful of Hawaii fish species, many of them best-known by their Hawaiian names. Still, you’re definitely not alone if, new to the Islands, you spot the names of some of these fish on a menu and wonder, “What’s the difference between a monchong and a mahimahi? And also, what the heck are they?”
Hawaii residents love seafood. A 2013 University of Hawaii report determined Hawaii residents consume roughly 28.5 pounds of seafood per capita annually – 12.6 pounds more than the average U.S. citizen. And really, who can blame us with so much fresh local-caught seafood readily available to us, boundless multicultural and multigenerational seafood recipes beloved by home cooks, and progressive chefs always looking to craft fresh, tasty and contemporary takes on time-tested seafood recipes. Clearly, we’re kind of spoiled here in Hawaii seafood-wise. Our robust aquaculture industry even produces farm-raised abalone, Hawaiian lobster, shrimp, prawns, amaebi and oysters.
But back to those Hawaii-caught fish on your restaurant menu.
Scroll through the list we’ve put together below of 10 Hawaii fish you’re likely to see on local menus and some the best ways to enjoy them. Think of it as a pesce-based glossary ready to clear up questions that might pop up the next time you order or purchase fresh catch in Hawaii. Bookmark the list for those moments when someone wonders aloud about the difference between a wahoo and an ono. (Answer: they’re the same fish.) Or when you just need to, you know, know.
Let’s reel in our catch.
What is it? Bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna
Best way to enjoy it: With their high fat content, bigeye and yellowfin ahi are especially tasty grilled or broiled. Ahi’s mild flavor and firm texture also makes it ideal for all manner of poke recipes, from the traditional [cubed fresh raw ahi with sea salt, limu (seaweed) and chopped inamona (candlenut)] to the multiculturally creative (cold ginger ahi poke). Seek out high-grade bigeye ahi for the perfect platter of sashimi.
Must-eat: Ahi sashimi and ahi poke
What is it? Skipjack tuna
Best way to enjoy it: Think of aku as ahi with a deeper, more pronounced flavor. The high fat content of firm, deep-red aku is appreciated for sashimi and in poke recipes. You’ll also want to try grilled aku bone (filleted aku backbone trimmed to keep some of its flesh), fried aku belly and dried aku strips – all popular local comfort food favorites.
Must-eat: Pan-fried aku belly
What is it? Pink snapper
Best way to enjoy it: Steamed or poached whole, garnished post-cooking with garlic, ginger, green onions, shitake mushroom, cilantro and bok choy, then finished with a pour of hot peanut oil over it all to add sizzle and aromatics to the opakapaka’s skin and moist, delicate flesh.
Must-eat: Chinese-style steamed opakapaka with hot garlic and ginger oil
What is it? Longtail red/ruby snapper (Hawaiian name: ‘ula‘ula koa‘e)
Best way to enjoy it: See “opakapaka” above. While preparing hot oil for drizzling over onaga or opakapaka, consider adding any or all of the following – shoyu, mirin, sesame oil, chili pepper, fresh ginger and garlic, black bean paste – to your peanut oil while heating. Another great restaurant preparation: Dredging whole onaga in flour mixture and deep frying until crispy. The species’ Japanese name, onaga, is its most well-known.
Must-eat: Whole deep-fried onaga
What is it? Moonfish
Best way to enjoy it: See “opakapaka” and “onaga” above – steamed and drizzled with hot peanut oil or deep-fried whole. Though opah has long been a favorite of locals, a common line at many Hawaii restaurants with catch-of-the-day specials, according to culinary lore, used to be, “If cannot get onaga or opakapaka today, serve opah.” That’s largely history now as non-resident seafood fans also discover the joy of opah.
Must-eat: Grilled opah
What is it? Wahoo
Best way to enjoy it: You name it. Ono is so versatile and – as long as not overcooked – wonderfully moist, you’ll find it delicious grilled, broiled, sautéed, poached or blackened. A lesser-known fact: Ono fillets are especially delicious battered and deep fried for a serving of fish and chips. If you find a basket of ono fish and chips on a seafood menu in Hawaii, order it.
Must-eat: Deep-fried ono and chips
What is it? Bigeye scad
Best way to enjoy it: Pan-fried whole. The simpler the preparation the better – salted and peppered on both sides then fried with very little oil and very little turning so its skin crisps but doesn’t stick to the pan. Akule is best eaten with side bowls of hot rice and shoyu- or fish sauce-based dipping mixtures big on umami.
Must-eat: Pan-fried whole akule
What is it? Dolphin fish
Best way to enjoy it: Though famously associated with Hawaii cuisine, mahimahiactually caught in waters surrounding the Islands are of extremely limited availability. Ask your server if the menu’s mahimahi is from Hawaii waters, fresh caught and not imported. (Hint: A cheaper price often signals imported mahimahi.) With its very mild flavor profile, mahimahi is tastiest combined with strong-flavor preparations and recipes.
Must-eat: Grilled or pan-fried garlic lemon mahimahi
What is it? Big-scale pomfret (Hawaiian name: mukau)
Best way to enjoy it: Take your pick. High in oils, monchong is terrific for grilling, but when filleted is delicious sautéed, baked, broiled and even battered for tempura. With its mild flavor, monchong is especially tasty generously dusted with either simple or complex seasonings then grilled or sautéed until crusted or topped with sauces.
Must-eat: Steamed, grilled or pan-fried monchong fillets with black bean sauce
What is it? Greater amberjack; the variety cultivated in Hawaii is marketed as both “Hawaiian kanpachi” and “Kona kampachi. ” Kanpachi is the species’ Japanese name.
Best way to enjoy it: Raised in deep-sea enclosures off the island of Hawaii’s Kona Coast and fed a special organic diet, Hawaiian kanpachi is a premium fish many chefs prefer serving raw or in a crudo to best highlight its clean flavor and high fat content. That said, if you find a menu offering steamed, broiled or grilled Hawaiian kanpachi, indulge!
Must-eat: Kanpachi crudo
SEE “FRESH CATCH”: Watch Isaac Bancaco, executive chef of Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, discuss his upbringing in a family that sustainably fished and foraged Hawaii waters for sustenance. He explains the connection shared by modern sustainability practices and those of early Hawaiians who, with no outside food sources to rely on, took steps every day to assure their natural resources remained plentiful, renewable and available for future generations.
written by 2019 Hawaii Tourism Authority