Hawaiian fish expand Americans' grill menu
It wasn't long ago that the words "tilapia" and "mahi-mahi" put twists into a diner's face. Not anymore. The exotic-sounding names of these fish have become household words since they were introduced over the last two decades to American restaurants and supermarkets.
Now the fish industry is aiming to add more strange-sounding names to Americans' menu selections, among them wahoo, ono, kajiki, monchong, nairagi, opah and hebi. Grill enthusiasts will be thrilled: All are suitable for cooking outdoors.
"Salmon, swordfish and tuna are the most popular fish to grill," says Devenee Schumacher, executive chef and general operations manager at Benkovitz Seafoods in the Strip District. While stellar in flavor -- depending on freshness and proper cooking -- this trinity can get a bit boring. And if overcooked -- a common mistake made by home cooks -- these fish taste as delightful as the canned version.
Fishmongers and professional chefs from coast to coast are hooking onto the latest trend -- Hawaiian fish -- to draw customers old and new, says Stephen W. Benyo, president of Pittsburgh Seafood Service in Monroeville. "Almost all of these (fish from Hawaii) are meaty enough for grilling, skin on or skin off. Flaking is one of the main reasons why certain other fish are difficult to grill, such as cod, haddock, flounder and sea bass."
Schmacher likes the new Hawaiians because they are a snap to grill, but customers sometimes are "afraid of them because they don't know what the heck they are," she says. "The restaurants want to make them sound exotic," but often that doesn't prompt someone to try a bite.
As a result, Benkovitz is one of several area markets offering fresh Hawaiian fish to retail consumers and doling out advice about how great they are for grilling. As for the names, well, ono/wahoo is a close relative of the king mackerel; opah (also called moonfish) has large-grain flesh that's rich and fatty, making it suitable for sashimi as well as for grilling; and hebi is a type of spearfish.
Some of these fish -- underutilized until now -- are caught by commercial long-line boats seeking tuna or other fish and are sold to meet rising restaurant demands for something unusual to make "the catch of the day" on the menu.
Schumacher likes to marinate or glaze Hawaiian fish steaks and fillets, or they can be chopped and formed into "burgers." Recently, she assembled big cakes of naraghi -- a type of marlin and the chef's favorite of the lot -- and grilled them with a ginger-soy sauce to serve on fresh-baked rolls. Other glazes and sauces she used, all made from scratch, included wasabi ginger teriyaki, citrus, and sriacha and green onions.
At lunch time during good weather, Benkovitz is grilling fish and seafood outdoors for patrons.
"If they want, they can pick out Hawaiian fish from the fresh case and I'll make it on the spot," says Schumacher, who graduated as valedictorian from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in 2001. The fish also can be purchased and cooked in the store's kitchen or taken home for cooking later.