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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Monchong swims into the mainstream

 •  Monchong fillets cook up quickly

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Grace-Ann Robello eyed the package of slightly pink-fleshed fish in the Mo'ili'ili Star Market seafood section and nodded. "Monchong. Yeah, I heard of it, but I only ate it once, in a restaurant, and it was good. But it wasn't something we grew up eating, and I don't how to make it," the 32-year-old Makiki resident said. She put the package back and reached for more familiar salmon fillets, then turned to ask, "Is it Chinese or local, or what?"


• Taractichthys steindachneri; big-scale or sickle pomfret

• Tender, flaky, simple flavor

• Best preparation methods: pan-fry, sauté, broil

• Per (3-ounce) serving, grilled plain: 125 calories, 6 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 60 mg sodium, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 17 g protein.

Good questions, Grace, and questions that many folks have no doubt asked as this mild-flavored, easily prepared fish moves further into the mainstream.

Monchong — Taractichthys steindachneri, aka sickle or big-scale pomfret, aka hire jiro monchong (Japanese), aka mukau (Hawaiian) — is a deep-water fish that is brought into local ports by longline and bottom-fishing boats. It's generally a by-catch — that is, not the fish that they were going for, but one that's brought up along with the desired catch. Most Monchong here are caught by longline tuna boats and sold through the United Fishing Agency auction in Honolulu.

Don Leong of Wing Sing Seafood Inc., whose father preceded him in the fish business, says that back in the 1950s and '60s, monchong was strictly a "trash fish" — one that would be thrown back by fishermen, or sold for pennies at Chinatown markets. "We get hard time selling that fish. We tell restaurants try, try, they say no, no way," he recalled.

Howard Deese of the state Ocean Resources Branch says monchong is a toss-back in Europe and elsewhere and "a dirt-cheap fish" here — it sells for around $2 a pound at auction, just above $4 to $5 wholesale and $5 to $9 retail, considerably less expensive than some other popular fish.

Cliff Yamauchi, operations manager of Garden & Valley Isle Seafood, says part of the pomfret's problem is its appearance — the heavy black scales and inedible skin: "You're eating with your eyes, and you look at a monchong and think, 'Would I eat that?' "

Monchong dressed Italian-style and served with steamed fresh vegetables makes a healthy dinner easily in less than half an hour.

Photos by Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Monchong fillets have a slightly pink tinge and often are oddly shaped because so is the fish. The fish is usually sold as boned fillets at $5 to $9 a pound.

A tomato-herb relish, tossed together before grilling the fish, provides a zesty topping. This relish also is great with delicate, fresh pasta as well as a topping for garlic toast.

Lightly dust monchong with seasoned flour or cornstarch, fry in olive oil in a nonstick pan at high to medium-high, until golden brown. Fillets usually cook in less than five minutes.
The combination of the fish being a deep-water catch — meaning not one the average shore fisherman ever sees — and the lack of marketing mean that even fish-loving locals may never have eaten monchong.

Today, however, monchong is something of a success story for a promotion program orchestrated by the Ocean Resources Branch of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism in the 1990s. Fronted by Deese, the marketing project was aimed at educating restaurateurs about underutilized species. The effort included issuing brochures and posters describing Island fish, developing preparation guidelines, taste-testing to create a descriptive language about the fish and generally encouraging restaurant chefs to introduce them to diners.

Still, said Yamauchi, monchong is better known in restaurants than at retail. And, said Deese, in contrast to opah, another underutilized fish that has gone high-end, monchong took off first with Mainland chefs, more slowly with Island chefs — and it is still mainly used when better-known fish, such as 'opakapaka and mahi, are too expensive or scarce.

"The name is not very familiar to most people; they don't know what it is or how to prepare it," said Yamauchi. But, he said, if you conducted a side-by-side taste-test with, say, 'opakapaka, the average person would probably not be able to say which was the expensive fish and which the one-time "trash" catch.

The name might be a little bit of a barrier for some people. It's also a mystery.

Leong says his dad told him that monchong is a Chinese name for a stringed instrument similar to a banjo, given to the fish because its rounded shaped resembles the sounding board of instrument. But he's not vouching for this story. "It may be only a rumor. I don't know how true it is," he said, laughing.

Bob Fram of Garden & Valley Isle Seafood, who is something of an authority on fish nomenclature, notes that many common fish names used in the Islands were given to the fish by early Japanese fishermen. The names might refer to the appearance of the fish, or its characteristics. Shutome (broadbill swordfish), for example, is said to mean mother-in-law (for the sharp bill?); it's a name unknown in Japan. As to monchong, however, Fram admitted he's clueless.

Whatever you call it, monchong is a mild-flavored, firm-textured, white-fleshed fish, reasonably priced and easy to prepare. It's most often sold filleted and boned and one of its most desirable characteristics is that it has an excellent shelf life if properly handled.

In cooking tests conducted by chef George Mavrothalassitis, monchong was judged best for sauteing, followed by broiling and poaching. Brooks Takenaka of United Fishing Agency, which operates the Honolulu fish auction, said they've tried it as sashimi and it's "pretty good." Deese says he approves of steaming monchong, though Mavrothalassitis is against it.

One friend recommends steaming monchong Chinese-style — with a little grated ginger on top — and serving it with sizzling oil, soy sauce and slivers of green onion. We've also heard that the meat remaining on monchong bones — purchased from a friendly fishmonger, such as Tropic Fish at Ward Farmers Market — can be grilled and served as a beer drinker's pupu with shoyu or just a little salt and pepper.

Ask fish experts how to prepare monchong and the answer is almost unanimous: simply.

"I have a favorite recipe that works for all fish: salt, pepper, sauté," said Deese. "I really enjoy the variety of flavors available in fish."

"I say sauté in, maybe in olive oil, just to pan-sear it. It's almost hard to ruin it because of the fat content but don't overcook it," said Yamauchi.

"I eat my fish real plain, either grill it or sauté it with some olive oil. I don't like to put all this kind sauce; it kills the fish, you can't even taste the fish," said Leong.

"I just prefer it sauteed, but it's a very versatile fish," said Star Markets seafood buyer Pat Yamamoto. "You can smoke it, fry it, broil it it, bake it, steam it. There's a lot of things you can do with it."