Dry Aku & Poi


K. Azama Fish Wholesale Dry Aku & Taro Brand Poi

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.


K. Azama Fish Wholesale Dry Aku, Taro Brand Poi (HPC) and Primo Beer

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.


Taro Brand Poi (HPC), K. Azama Fish Wholesale Dry Aku and Primo Beer

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…


K. Azama Fish Wholesale Dry Aku

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.


K. Azama Fish Wholesale Dry Aku

Let’s hit it with some poi and a chase of Primo Beer…


Dry Aku dipped in poi

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.


OMG!

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. :-(


The once glorious Kula Kai “Hawaiian Sampan” Aku Boat, lies in dire need of restoration at Kewalo Basin in 2011. Photo by Pomai

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.


The once glorious Kula Kai “Hawaiian Sampan” Aku Boat, lies in dire need of restoration at Kewalo Basin in 2011. Photo by Pomai

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!


The once glorious Kula Kai “Hawaiian Sampan” Aku Boat, lies in dire need of restoration at Kewalo Basin in 2011. Photo by Pomai

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.

School of Aku shoaling

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 see:

Roy’s Big Island Smoked Marlin and Smoked Ahi…

Also don’t miss Pomai’s first attempt at smoking Tako 4 different styles here..


Smoked Tako Big Island style


Comments

Dry Aku & Poi — 20 Comments

  1. My dad remember as kid taking the bus home a bus full of workers from the tuna canning plant going home. You could smell fish on them but they all hard workers from Coral Tuna Plant.

  2. Had a Coral Tuna plant right here on Kauai. And anyone else remember Coral Ono? Until Kauai entered the national chilled fish trade, aku was as low as $1.60 a pound on a Sunday afternoon. Good for fresh, smoked, and dried. Still have roadside, though.
    As far as the aku fishing disappearing, i seem to remember the makule saying the Nehu had been fished out, Nehu were a schooling fish and way to easy to catch. They wiped them out. Just like the aweoweo schools and soon the akule if we don’t give these schooling fish some protection . We could start by stopping the catching of halalu (and oama), and not let them net in DOT harbors, which could be refuges.

    • zoomeboshi,

      Dry Aku is EVERYWHERE here in Hawaii’s markets. The one I’m showcasing here having being of the most prime example! Alongside Dry Aku, you’ll typically find Smoked Marlin and Smoked Ahi. Dry Ahi (not smoked) a bit more rare, but it is around.

  3. Dry aku, poi, and beer. The definition of ‘pau hana’.

    I am surprised that dry aku has not made it into the culinary mainstream. Lately, I have seen it’s close cousin, katsuobushi, working its way onto many menus in the form of a dashi. Not fishy enough for me though. If I had access to it, a chunk of dry aku floating in there would do it for me.

    One of my pake ways is when I make dashi instead of throwing the katsuoboshi away after filtering, is to add a little shoyu to the katsuobushi and scarf it in the kitchen. The benefits of being the cook….

    Back to dry aku, I like it best chopped up in the middle of onigiri.

    • Arny,

      Or dry ANY fish! It would be interesting if they threw Dry Aku into a basket on the Food Network show ‘Chopped’. For dessert! Ack! lol

      Ooh! I’ll try chopping up some of the Dry Aku and stuffing it in the center an Omusubi… with nori wrapped around it, of course!

      Here’s a photo reader Billy eMailed me of the Kula Kai wheelhouse, with an artistic filter applied…

      Kula Kai Aku Boat Wheelhouse

  4. Using my trusty Canon PowerShot S100, here’s some photos I took on my way home from work this afternoon (10.21.13) at Kewalo Basin, where the Nisei steel-hulled Aku Boat (very similar to the legendary wooden-hulled Kula Kai) was docked at her slip after what appeared to be yet another hard day’s work gone Aku Fishing. Enjoy…



  5. Now come the part finding many different ways to use dry aku. I want to serve it in more up scale way for parties. Thinking of crostini bread thin slices with thin slices of cumcuber on a platter caviars. Maybe you have a better ideal for me.

    • Amy,

      Only problem with that is it might wreak havoc on your guests’ breath — especially noticeable by those who didn’t eat the dry aku Hors d’Oeuvres. I like your thinking though! I wonder how well Dry Aku would do blended with Cream Cheese? Sounds far-fetched, but hey, it works with Lomi Salmon! Ooh! There’s an idea! Lomi Aku! Same recipe as Lomi Salmon, switching salted salmon with dry aku, served atop layered crisped lumpia and wonton wedges. To make that sound “fancy”, name it “Lomi Aku Wailea”, and if the guests ask what that is, tell them, “Just shut up and eat it”. lol

          • Kelike,

            Are you trying to say I’m not sophisticated enough to be related to Ming Tsai or Alan Wong, but am more of a laid-back and casual Sam Choy kinda’ guy? lol Actually, if you ever heard Alan Wong talk casually, his pidgin is be pretty “Waianae thick”! I still think Ming Tsai should have won that Next Iron Chef competition. He’s way ahead of the even the current iron chefs!

            Here’s a mock-up of a logo I came up with for a ‘Kewalo’s Kula Kai’ restaurant concept I thought about…

            Kewalo's Kula Kai Restaurant Logo Concept

            The tagline would be “Dockside Seafood ‘n Steaks” (ideally located in Ward Warehouse overlooking Kewalo Basin).

            When I was taking photos of the Nisei at Kewalo Basin, an old timer there told me Kula Kai had sunk at her slip at Kewalo Basin about 8 months ago, and they ended up scrapping her. Bummers! Well, naturally the Kula Kai restaurant would feature a down-scaled mock-up of the Kula Kai Aku Boat that would be part of the dining room decor and seating area (similar to Sam Choy’s now gone BLC on Nimitz).

  6. I made a cheese ball with caviars from lumpfish and roll in chopped parley for party. It simple and quick. Served with crostini.

  7. Before there was no such thing as ahi poke. Ahi was used for sashimi only. Aku was the fish used for poke. It was a cheaper cut and much firmer than ahi so it held up well when mixing with different poke ingredients.
    Alan Wong has that Leilehua, Wahiawa, Waipio valley pidgin. In Wahiawa we had a whole different way of speaking.

    • A.T.,

      Now that you mention it, I don’t recall seeing much Ahi Poke — or Poke at all for that matter during the 70′s being common in the supermarkets, only making appearances towards the 80′s. Everything before Poke in my household at least was Sashimi… and all made with Aku, not Ahi.

      Ahi back then in Hawaii I presume was mostly reserved for high-end Sushi restaurants. Then it trickled down to takeout Sushi. Now, dang, everywhere you look there’s Ahi Poke. But that’s only going to last so long the way the fisheries statistics are going. I haven’t looked it up yet, however I’m curious what the stats are as far as Aku supply is in Hawaii waters are today, compared to say 20 years ago. With Aku boats now that you can count on one hand, it appears evident, right?

  8. This post takes me back to days gone by, when you could buy a 1/2 pound of dry aku or marlin for about a dollar in Hilo at the mom and Pop stores in the early 80′s. now days you feel guilty about eating something so expensive.

  9. mahalo for taking the Kula Kai to a memorable moment in time for our na keiki. I jumped on board too and took pictures in hopes to save this beautiful boat.

  10. Luwella,

    When I heard the Kula Kai sank at its dock at Kewalo Basin, my heart literally dropped and to be honest, I shed a tear. The Kula Kai was such a historical part of Hawaii, it really should have been drydocked and put up as a museum piece at some place like say, Hawaii Plantation Village in Waipahu. It’s even more endearing on a personal level, because I had the experience of eating AMAZING fresh Aku right of its stern by one of the fishermen who worked on the Kula Kai, and seen first-hand, the physical toll it took to get that fish.

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