Caught Not Bought

It’s Sunday morning, when I get an unexpected call. “I got you menpachi” Really?? Excited for some fried fish, and still surprised by the call, we make plans to meet the next day at Chinatown Market Place. My good friends Randy and Chris are planning to sell last nights catch and I invite myself to tag along.

Chinatown Market Place – 1199 Dillingham Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96817

The next morning we meet near Young’s Fish Market and I follow them to the other side of the shopping center. While I’m used to Chinatown, I had no idea a mini version existed in a strip mall, right next to the Chuck E. Cheese.

Inside is everything you’re used to in Chinatown. Heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables, racks of Asian sauces and seasonings, as well as meat and seafood vendors.

As I survey the days offerings, I can’t help but think about how lucky we are to never have to buy fish. Growing up we found time to go fish or knew someone who just went. My father-in-law in his 60’s, is probably one of the best divers out there and even today, I’m lucky to have such generous friends.

On display is everything from fresh tako, menpachi, and onaga to crab, eel, and tilapia.

Even live catfish–grab a glove and take your pick.

I jump back from all the splashing as the cooler rolls in.

A crowd gathers, anxious to see the freshest of the day.

Inside is a few yellow dot papio and a bag of menpachi, reserved for yours truly, one kumu, and so much ta’ape, I lost count.

Considered by many as “invasive,” common, and supposedly less tasty than other reef fish, there’s not too many rules to save these poor souls.

In total, 44 lbs. According to these guys, “not bad” for half-day.

A few jokes, then time for business. A price is decided, and the fish is fair game.

A woman who’s been circling the cooler for some time, quickly snatches the lone kumu. Even at the market you have to be an expert to snag this fish.

Happy with her purchase, she wishes them luck on future fishing trips.

Direct from the source. Today’s catch, fresh ta’ape selling for $4/lb. retail.

We make our way back outside, where I’m rewarded with menpachi and papio. I thank them with a bottle of smoked dashi shoyu to go with their future catch and drop my fish off at home before heading to work.

Later that night we start on the menu. Scaling and cleaning the fish. Then dried and sprinkled with salt.

Menpachi. Always a favorite. Small in size with a pretty color and those huge puppy dog eyes. How can you not love these little suckers? Don’t eat me!

Next the yellow dot papio. Super fresh, best as sashimi. Not an expert in cutting fish, I somewhat butcher it, but manage to get some decent slices. I scrape the bones with a spoon, so no meat is wasted, and mix with green onion for negi-papio.

The oil is heated on medium-high and the fish go in. All but the smallest, reserved to flavor our miso soup.

The finished product. Fried fish with grated daikon, shoyu, and lemon. Papio sashimi. Ponzu okra with natto. Okara, menpachi miso soup, and rice. This is my soul food.

While all papio is good for sashimi, the best I’m told is the one with the yellow dot. Some of the freshest fish I’ve had. Light, sweet, and clean.

A perfect counter balance to the fried fish.

Perfectly cooked. Bits of crispy skin and little crunchy bones, textured with small flakes of fish. A light drizzle of lemon, shoyu, and grated daikon with steamed white rice. Someone hand me a tissue. So good, I might cry.

With a full stomach and a full heart, I sit back–thankful our meal was caught and not bought. It’s something we all pride ourselves on, either catching it ourselves or knowing the person that did.

Not because we don’t want to pay for it, but because the love and care it took to get to our plate is a flavor you can’t replicate. It just tastes better. Not only is it fresh, but knowing the source of our food is a simply a different experience.

Yet as the number of fish lovers continues to climb, most of us are so busy with our day-to-day, we forgot how to fish. So if it happens to be caught, consider yourself lucky. It may be just a matter of time before you find yourself at Chinatown Market Place. But for now, I’ll savor every bite while I can.

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