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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Fish cake: It's a staple in many Island kitchens

Video: Making fish cake, okazuya-style
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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Marylene Chun displays a freshly cooked (yes, homemade) fish dumpling.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The term fish cake means lots of things in Hawai'i:

Fish cake, type 1: A pink-to-gray paste of scraped, minced or pounded raw fish; to call this fish cake is a misnomer.

Fish cake, type 2: Kamaboko steamed and formed puree of fish used in Japanese cooking. It is sold chilled.

Fish cake, type 3: Fish paste-based foods; Chinese and Japanese combine fish paste with seasonings and vegetables to use as stuffing or dumplings.

Fish cake, type 4: Fish "burgers" bento-box fish patties. They're made from chopped fresh fish, flavorings, vegetables, pan-fried or deep-fried.

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This Japanese-style fish cake, breaded in panko and deep-fried, can be made with more flavorful species such as aku as well as white-fleshed fish.

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Fish cake. Ask any Islander what a fish cake is and, depending on their ethnicity, their age and their favorite takeout spot, you'll get a wide range of answers. And a lot of opinions on what makes a good fish cake.

If you're Chinese, you might define it as that pinkish-gray paste you buy in the fish shops, or the steamed or fried cakes made from that ingredient.

If you're Japanese, you'd probably think of kamaboko, loaves of pureed, steamed whitefish the pink-and-white half-moon form a common ingredient in saimin and fried rice. Or you might picture chikuwa, hollow rolls of steamed and grilled kamaboko.

If you're Hawaiian, you'll likely think of 'o'io, the aptly named bonefish (aka ladyfish, Albula vulpes). Scraped from the many-ribbed skeleton, the tender white flesh is often blended with ogo or other seaweed and made into fried cakes.

Lots of older locals of all ethnicities would think of Mom's or Grandma's tuna patties, made with Coral-brand tuna the fall-back supper of choice when payday was distant and the cupboard bare. Depending on your background, the cakes might be flecked with green onion or flat-leaf parsley, flavored with shoyu or salt and pepper, topped with a gingery soy sauce or tartar sauce, or blended with tofu or mashed potatoes.

But if you were Noe Cobb-Adams, you'd think of Tanioka's Seafoods and Catering in Waipahu, famed for its fried fish-cake bento, made with fresh 'ahi. Cobb-Adams (no relation) is the reason I embarked on a fish-cake odyssey. She wrote The Advertiser to ask for Tanioka's recipe, saying that she lives in town now and can't get out to Waipahu much.

I called owner Mel Tanioka, who very politely declined to share it. Like many restaurants, Tanioka's have a policy of not giving out the recipes for their signature dishes.

Understandable. No problem.

But then, through a happy coincidence, somebody handed me a Tanioka's fish-cake bento at a volunteer event.

The hunt begins

Suddenly, I was struck by a condition well known to those who love to cook: recipe lust. You'll make any number of phone calls, spend any amount of time on the Internet, send any number of letters or e-mails out, page through any number of cookbooks.

Must. Find. Recipe.

I wanted to know how to make a great okazuya-style fish cake one that tasted as good cold as it did hot, that had powerful flavor and interesting texture, like Tanioka's version.

I sent out calls in the newspaper and among my sources and got lots of information, and even, from reader Lance Samura, a recipe from Tanioka's an upscale fresh 'ahi cake served with sweet chili sauce that Tanioka's executive chef Jensen Endo once demonstrated on a local TV program. This isn't Tanioka's standard bento fish cake, but it offered some clues at to how the specialty is made. The fresh 'ahi is chopped, combined with seasonings (garlic, salt, pepper, ginger, sesame oil) and breadcrumbs, like a conventional crab cake. However, this version was coated with panko (Japanese bread crumbs) and deep-fried, and the typical okazuya-style fish cake is pan-fried and unfussy.

Kamaboko it's not

When I interviewed her about her new cookbook, "Japanese Cooking Hawai'i Style" (Mutual, closed spiral, $26.95), I asked cookbook author and retired home economist Muriel Miura about fish cake, and she pointed out that the kind of fish cake we're talking about shouldn't be confused with kamaboko. This popular ingredient those pink and white half-moon loaves is made from white-fleshed fish that's been boned, ground, rinsed to remove taste and color, flavored, colored, formed and steamed. Since it's pre-cooked, it can't be used to form a cake, although shreds or slices of kamaboko may be added to a fish-cake batter.

Miura recalled that her father, who owned a teahouse in the 1940s, made his own fish paste by scraping the flesh of the bonefish or other fish and blending it with egg white or some other binder. As do the Chinese, Japanese use fish paste as a stuffing for eggplant or tofu, or form small dumplings to float in hot soup.

Marylene Chun of Kailua, a more-than-faithful reader and fellow food detective, introduced me to Chinese-style fish cake, called in the dialect of her roots gnee biang. It's a totally different dish, made with fish that's been scraped from the bone and pounded into a paste (found in some supermarkets and fish shops and in Chinatown). The result is a pleasing, pillowy light, smooth texture, rather like a French rissole.

Her mother, Aileen Chun, would add seasonings to form a thinnish batter and drop it by spoonfuls into hot peanut oil "it HAS to be peanut oil" to make free-form pancakes that her children loved to eat hot, right out of hand. Sometimes, Mrs. Chun would add ground shrimp, ground pork or other goodies to the mixture whatever she had on hand.

"It was about frugality. Nothing could go to waste, not even the little bit of flesh on the bones," said Chun.

You can use any affordable fish to make fish cakes. My first try with aku was easy and delicious, and, in fact, many old-timers prefer aku to 'ahi because the flavor is more pronounced.

Be wary of salt

Last week, Chun and I spent a delightful morning testing recipes for both Chinese-style and okazuya-style fish cakes, but there was one disappointment for both of us: Today's Chinese-style fish paste is heavily salted, probably to help preserve this very perishable product. But the salt hit is just too much. If you can find a fish market that makes unsalted fish paste, by all means buy it (and let us know where it is!). Barring that, we suggest you combine commercial fish paste 50/50 with fresh-ground fish (just pulse the fish in a food processor until it's smooth).

Or, if you've got a fisherman friend who'll keep you supplied with 'o'io (bonefish or ladyfish) or other white-fleshed fish, make your own.

Writer Shirley Rizzuto, author of a long-running column in the Hawaii Fishing News, explains how to do this in her book, "Fish Dishes of the Pacific from the Fishwife" (Fishing News, 1986): Clean and fillet 'o'io. "Lay the fillet skin side down, take a spoon and scrape the flesh from the bones, watching out for additional bones or scales."

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.