Yeah baby, you know you want some a’ ‘dat! This is as ono as ono ‘kine truly Hawaiian grindz gets my friends. And no, we’re not talking Ono, as in Wahoo the fish, we’re talking Aku, also known as Skipjack Tuna. The OTHER tuna to its more popular cousin Ahi, a.k.a. Bluefin and Yellowfin Tuna.
Compared to Ahi, Aku is a much more “fishy”, dark red fleshed fish, with a very strong taste as you get closer to its bloodline along the center bone. Hence not as popular to those with a westernized palate who don’t like “fish that taste like fish” for that very notion. Trust me, Aku tastes like fish, yet when fresh or brined and dried, in a GREAT WAY!
Hawaiian Aku, a.k.a. Skipjack Tuna. Image courtesy of FreshIslandFish.com
Larger fresh Aku make for EXCELLENT sashimi, while the next popular way of serving Aku local style is simply pan-fried along with onions, seasoned with shoyu, ginger, garlic and chili peppers. The drawback to Aku being its relatively short shelf life in comparison to other fish, being at its prime only within days from landing on the boat to served on your plate. That said, another popular way Aku is prepared in Hawaii is dried in strips, where its salted brined flesh and dried state buys it a whole lot more time, and also even more of a concentrated “meaty” flavor. Hence what we have here today.
Brah, let me tell you, what you’re looking at there is GOLD. Dry Aku typically runs about $15 to $20 per pound in local stores today, about the same as Ahi. However, price isn’t the only factor, it’s the WAY it’s prepared and dried that separates good dry Aku from GREAT Dry Aku.
Imagine if you grew up in, then lived away from Hawaii for a long time (like oh say braddah Keith comes to mind), and this spread of fresh Dry Aku, Poi and a bottle of the new Primo Beer shows up in a cooler at your doorstep way out in the midwest? It would probably be almost a religious experience, right?
Aku caught by hand line in Moorea. Photo courtesy of HungryWalrus.com
Oh, and notice I say “Dry Aku” and not “Dried Aku”. Same how us locals say “Shave Ice”, not “Shaved Ice”. And “Smoke Meat”, not “Smoked Meat”. Contrary to that present tense usage, we call Costco “Costcos”. “I stay going Costcos.” Ha ha!
So what we have here is over a pound ($25 worth) of Dry Aku from K. Azama Fish Wholesale, courtesy of a friend who’s one of their sales reps.
Let’s open the vacuum-sealed bag and check it out…
And? Speechless. OMG, the moisture-to-toughness level is PERFECT. So is the salt level. Nothing is worse than dried meat or fish that’s either under or oversalted. And this one is on the money! As for the flavor, it’s “pure”, high quality Dry Aku, not trying to be anything else, whereas some folks marinade theirs in a shoyu mixture, this is just salt. ‘Nough. You can tell this came from really fresh cuts, not Aku that was getting old and trying to be used up, as I’ve had a few times from the local supermarkets. I mean, those were still good, but this batch is superb.
Let’s hit it with some poi and a chase of Primo Beer…
OK, I need to pinch myself to check if I’m still alive, because I think I just got served a platter of pupus at Heaven’s Pearly Gates.
Let’s just say this: if I were at a high society dinner party, and the Hors d’Oeuvres making their rounds included the likes of Russian Caviar Shots, Kuromaguro Otoro Tartar and Kobe Beef Wontons, and the server told me, “Sir, we’ve got some amazing Dry Aku from Azama’s, fresh Poi and Primo on ice in back. You want some?” Forget that other stuff, I’d say “lead to your master, master!”
What? Dry Aku
From where and how much? K. Azama Fish Wholesale
Big Shaka to: Perfect salt and toughness balance. Fresh-tasting Aku strips. Nostalgic Hawaii Aku Boats.
No Shaka to: The demise of the Kula Kai R.I.P. :-(
P.S. Now we can’t talk about Aku without mentioning one of the most legendary icons of the industry in Hawaii, The Kula Kai, an eighty-foot wooden vessel that was last of her kind that began fishing local waters in 1949. Her design, known as the “Hawaiian sampan”, is unique to Hawai‘i in its design and construction methods.
My ex-brother-in-law worked on the Kula Kai during the 1970’s, and he made good money doing that, not to mention always coming home with several massive whole Aku to share with the ohana. That was my first experience with super fresh Sashimi, and ever since, I’ve always been a fan of raw fish. And believe me, I remember the “battle scars” he used to show us on his arms and legs from getting literally HOOKED while “on the deck”. We’re talking DEEP gashes. Crazy!
Unlike the more modern longline fishing method used mostly for catching Ahi, traditional Aku boat fishing is much more crude and dangerous. Standing barefoot on the stern’s deck of the heaving Aku boat, with no safety harness or life vest to impede their movements, fisherman dipped lines with a single barbless (and baitless) hook into the Nehu-chummed water. Within seconds an aku would take the hook, and with a combination of physical strength and timing, the fisherman would jerk it up, flick it over his shoulder and onto the deck, then drop his line back into the water. It was as dangerous as it was backbreaking, as a forty-pound tuna could easily pull a man overboard. A skilled fisherman might catch three to five fish a minute. A specialized bait well in amidships allowed them to carry live nehu (a small anchovy that aku find especially delicious), as well as provide ballast for stability. When the crew spotted a flock of seabirds—the telltale sign of a school of aku—they would chum the waters with nehu, causing a feeding frenzy. On a good day, a single aku boat could haul in as much as 40,000 pounds of catch, sometimes more.
An interesting turn events for the industry took place upon the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, as the Navy began confiscating sampans due
to them being suspicious for spying, being they were mostly operated by Japanese crew. They repurposed the larger aku boats—painting them white, upgrading their engines and sending them out on patrol. On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, American planes strafed sampans off Barber’s Point, mistaking them for the vanguard of an invasion force. During the war, many Japanese-American shipwrights either left for Japan or suffered internment. Those sampans still allowed to fish were confined to near-shore waters and could operate only during hours that were in many cases not conducive to catching their target species. By 1942, the fleet’s catch had dropped by ninety-nine percent.
Nisei, a steel-hulled “Hawaiian Sampan” Aku boat collecting Nehu “Hawaiian Anchovy” bait in Kaneohe Bay, September 15, 2008. Photo courtesy of Dan McManus’ FlickR photostream.
While restrictions for Aku fishing ended with the war, Hawaii’s sampan fleet never fully recovered. The era of wooden ships was nearly over, and few shipwrights in the Islands had the skill to repair the sampans as they decayed or wrecked. By 1950, only forty-eight sampans remained, and though they had more longevity, new wooden boats had become more expensive to build than steel or fiberglass. The Kula Kai, built at Kewalo in 1949 by Seichi Funai, was among the last wooden aku boats built in Hawai‘i. Originally christened The Darling Dot, she was purchased from her first owner in the early 1960s by the state of Hawai‘i for use as a teaching vessel; hence the new name Kula Kai, or “school of the sea.” In 1965, fisherman Tom Fukunaga purchased her at auction in Hilo, and continued fishing for aku with her in the traditional way, even as less expensive and more efficient steel and fiberglass long-liners supplanted the old sampan fleet. Today, a few of the small sampans still operate as tourist charter boats out of Kewalo, but of the mighty aku boats, once the pride of the fleet and the backbone of Hawai‘i’s fishing industry, only the Kula Kai survives, and has since been restored.
For more information about the Kula Kai, please read the following article, which most of the information above have been sourced from:
• Saving Kula Kai by Michael Shapiro, Hana Hou Magazine (the inflight magazine of Hawaiian Airlines)
Also see these interesting links on Hawaii’s Aku fishing industry:
• Aging fleet behind decline in Aku catch – Honolulu Star Bulletin
• At work on the bay – Honolulu Magazine
Also don’t miss Pomai’s first attempt at smoking Tako 4 different styles here..