The Fish That Comes With a Year of Good Luck

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In Hawaii, I grew up on a street named after a fish — ulua, the biggest of the jacks, a blunt-headed silver bruiser, sometimes weighing more than a hundred pounds, that glowers along the reef. It is caught with tall poles anchored in the sea cliffs and baited with eels or octopus sewed to the hooks. Mahimahi, a neon blur in the deep, was the next street over.

We were surrounded by ocean, yet my family ate seafood only under duress, as dutiful Catholics on Fridays during Lent, tidy golden-battered fillets of perch — a fish of the mainland — from the freezers at Safeway. I had my education in local waters later in life, as a hostess at a restaurant, eavesdropping on the servers who patiently described to tourists the species on the menu: meaty ahi (yellowfin tuna); creamy opah (moonfish); delicate, whiskered moi (threadfin), once reserved for royalty; lean, long-bodied ono (wahoo) that races, jags and dives, tormenting its hunters; and the hierarchy of snappers, from ehu to opakapaka and, above all, onaga, with its ruby sheen.

It is onaga that I look forward to all year, that is the centerpiece at the Christmas Eve potluck next door, to which Stella Chang, my mother’s neighbor of close to 50 years, graciously invites me, the prodigal from New York. The table is crowded, or as we say, kapakahi

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(mixed up) — rice in a 10-cup cooker, stuffed cabbage, glossy lo mein, a great ham under halos of pineapple, king crab legs with a little hotpot of melted butter, pink-hearted roast beef to be sluiced with jus — but onaga is the prize, the whole fish buried under a thatch of scallions, cilantro, carrots and celery, only showing its frilly tail and one pearl eye.

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The flesh lifts straight off the bones.

Glenn Yamashita — Uncle Glenn to the young people who wander the house, regardless of actual relation — has been making this dish for some 25 years. It’s his variation on a local specialty, a Chinese-style steamed fish, salty-sour from a stuffing of preserved vegetable and faintly sweet from the flesh of the fish itself. Skeins of Japanese somen noodles are tucked beneath and hot oil poured over at the end. Done right, it crackles.



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