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Robert Fong on food: Learning to speak salmon

Growing up in Hawaii, the only fish I ate came from local waters, most of them with Hawaiian or Japanese names that pleased the ear — mahimahi and manini, ono and onaga; opakapaka, opah and opelu; uhu, aku and ahi; and papio, tilapia and kumu.

Some I ate often; a few only on special occasions. Small ones were pan-fried whole. Larger ones were grilled, broiled, sun-dried, or smoked with kiawe wood. Fish like kumu were best steamed with ginger, shoyu and scallions. Pristine onaga, papio and ahi were sliced for sashimi.

My first taste of non-Hawaiian fish was lomi lomi salmon, made with diced Northwest salmon mixed with tomatoes, onions, green onions, red chili pepper flakes, and sea salt. Topped with crushed ice, it’s served with poi and lau lau. Salmon was considered precious, so a miniscule amount was used.

“How come so manini!” I complained silently every time I had it. Manini —a small reef fish — was slang for something that’s too small, too few, or too stingy.

In my early travels, lox and bagels in New York, gravlax in Los Angeles, and delicious wild Scottish Atlantic salmon in Paris, marked the introduction of salmon to my culinary repertoire. But it wasn’t until I moved to Bellingham that I saw whole salmon and ate my first ample portion.

In 1985, I opened Pacific Café, where for nearly 23 years king salmon, broiled with plum sauce and lemon, was the most popular dish. Over time, I perfected seared salmon belly and wild sockeye sashimi.

Every March, fishermen begin preparing for the spring king salmon season. Catching kings is less about attracting them and more about not scaring them. Fishermen work to minimize a boat’s extraneous noises and vibrations, and even the bubbles from propellers.

Two local salmon catchers of note are solo artist Jeremy Brown, and reefnet fisher Dave Hansen of Lummi Island Wild.

One hook, one fish at a time is Brown’s way of catching chinook off La Push and Neah Bay. He trolls at the same speed the fish swim, and once hooked he brings them aboard carefully, to not stress or damage them. The chinook are quickly bled and gutted. Brown uses a special catheter to replace their blood with seawater, then keeps them on ice until he personally delivers them to select restaurants. Brown’s prized kings go to Skagit’s Own Fish Market in Burlington, and, if there’s enough, to Bellingham’s Community Food Co-op.

Hanson and his partners catch sockeye using traditional Native American practices in which fish swim over nets stretched between two boats. After being netted, they’re bled by cutting their gills, then placed in a tank with flowing seawater, where they swim until they die. That dissipates bitter lactic acid buildup, which can harm the taste. Hanson’s sockeye, when seared or sliced as sashimi, taste clean with a hint of fruit.

Last year, for the Hawaiian dinner night at our Kauai tai chi retreat, I made lomi lomi salmon with plenty of reefnet sockeye. Besides being called “da best!” no one said the salmon was manini.

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