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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 23, 2003

'Ono Samoan delicacy makes its way to local supermarkets

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Up until now, this was a subject too sensitive, too emotional, to write about in the paper.

But now, can.

A few months ago, my friend came back from a trip to Samoa with her suitcases loaded with "Samoan can tuna." She even left behind clothes and beauty products to make room for a couple extra cans. She tells me that this is what you do when you visit Samoa. You come back with "Samoan can tuna," as much as you can carry, and you give it like special, precious gifts to only your dearest friends and family. When you give someone a can, you hand it to them almost in slow motion because it's such a valuable present and expression of generosity and affection.

Van Camp’s Chunk Style Wahoo canned fish once was available only in Samoa and had to be hand-carried by visitors back to the Islands.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

"No worry, sistah," she told me. "I hook you up."

So what's so good about it?

I got a room full of looks like I was from another planet.

"You taste this, you'll never eat regular tuna again."

That proclamation was followed by reverent nods.

And so I was gifted with six cans of the yellow-labeled Van Camp's wahoo from the Samoan Packing Company.

Nothing would ever be the same.

Words can't quite describe the taste. "Ho, da 'ono" is a good start, but it's more than that. Wahoo — a type of mackerel known in Hawai'i as ono — is like tuna, but it has a lighter, less fishy taste. You can make tuna sandwich or tuna salad. Straight out of the can over hot rice with little bit shoyu, that's the winner. Maybe with some onion and furikake. My friends say, with great enthusiasm, that if you eat it with ketchup, "it tastes like meat!"

Even my full-on, fish-hating Midwestern aikane goes for second and third helpings. Once I caught him scraping up the last small flakes stuck in the bottom edge of the can. The stuff is unreal.

And hard to get. Sometimes, a mom-and-pop store will secure a small stash, but it never lasts long. If you're lucky enough to find it in a local market, it's $3 a can. There are stories that a couple of small markets in Kalihi carry the stuff, but it's not on the shelves; it's in the back behind the cash register with the expensive liquor and the cigarettes. You have to ask for it.

But all that has changed now thanks to Edward Nakano at Family Foods Co.

Family Foods has been the Hawai'i distributor for a diverse array of Asian foods since 1987. Nakano has been a fan of the Van Camp's canned wahoo for years.

"When I used to go to Samoa," Nakano says, "the first day when I arrived, I'd always call my friend and say, 'Please get me a couple of cases before I leave!' because I could never eat tuna after that."

Nakano says that the wahoo was only available in Samoa because commercial fishing vessels would bring in catches of mostly tuna with maybe a couple hundred pounds of wahoo in the net.

"They never had enough to export," Nakano explains. "Apparently now, the fishing vessels go out and look for wahoo, so they can produce 10 containers a month. When we got wind that the wahoo would be available, we immediately made arrangements to start bringing it in."

The first shipment from Samoa is already in Hawai'i supermarkets. Foodland spokeswoman Cheryl Toda says customers had been requesting it for some time. Word got around Foodland that the stuff was beloved but the only way to get the prized canned fish was to go to Samoa and bring it back as omiyage. When Family Foods got this first shipment, Foodland purchased two containers. "As much as we could possibly get," Toda says. Each container has 1,800 cases. Each case has 24 cans. That's more than 86,000 cans of wahoo among Foodland and Sack 'n Save stores in Hawai'i. Says Nakano, "The response has been very good. For example, Foodland has purchased from us and it's almost sold out."

Says Toda, "I talked to our grocery people and they say it's like gold."

Foodland was running a special, four cans for $7, but that's pau and now, the regular price is $1.99 each for the 6-ounce can.

"It's not a cheap product. It's very expensive to bring in because they demand cash upon placing an order. So it's a different method of purchasing," Nakano says.

And then, Nakano speaks the magic words that legions of devotees have been dreaming of. The clouds part, the sun shines in and shouts of gladness rise up as Nakano proclaims:

"It will be a regular product in Hawai'i stores from now on."


Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.