Farm-raised in clean water, the locally unloved fish is a delicacy
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
That was the reaction of a team putting together a "Locavore" dinner at Alan Wong's Restaurant for May 20 when Dan Nakasone, who helps Wong find sources of interesting local ingredients, suggested they serve farm-raised tilapia for the fish course.
In Hawai'i, tilapia has a bad reputation as a muddy-tasting fish caught in sluggish, dirty canals and river mouths. An effort a few years ago by the aquaculture industry to rename it sunfish bombed. But on the Mainland, tilapia is considered a fine choice. The Associated Press reported last December that grilled tilapia is Michelle Obama's favorite choice at an Island-inspired restaurant near their Chicago home.
Why the difference in attitude?
"In the Mainland, no mo' Ala Wai," quips Wong, referring to the polluted Honolulu canal.
"My parents were buying tilapia in Florida in the supermarket 25 years ago, filleted, right next to the grouper and snapper. It's an increasingly popular fish," said fish farmer Ronald Weidenbach. "It's only been in Hawai'i that that prejudice exists. The problem is that tilapia was brought into Hawai'i not as a food fish but to control vegetation in plantation ditches, and fish that live in muddy water are going to have muddy flavor. It's associated with plantation culture, living poor."
Though the tilapia sold in Chinatown fishmarkets and other stores are mostly clean-tasting, safe-to-eat farm-raised fish, Islanders remember, or have heard about, the old days. (And by the way, if you do get some live tilapia you're not sure about, put it in an old bathtub or other large container of clean water for a couple of days, and it will rid itself of the off flavor.)
Hawai'i is home to quite a few tilapia farms. The two focused solely on tilapia are on O'ahu: Ron and Lita Weidenbach's Hawaii Fish Co. on the North Shore, and Linda and Jeff Koch's Mokuleia Aquafarm, which sells in Chinatown and at the new Hale'iwa Farmers Market on Sundays.
A number of prawn and shrimp farms, and other farms on O'ahu, Moloka'i, the Big Island and Kaua'i, grow tilapia as a secondary crop. Others, including Friendly Aquaponics in Waimanalo, are growing tilapia with produce crops; the nutrient-rich water in which tilapia have been grown is recycled to grow vegetables. And there are small backyard farms as well.
On the Big Island, future-thinking farmer Richard Ha has started a tilapia operation at his Hamakua Springs Country Farms, where there is a free supply of clean water from the three creeks that run through the property. For now, the fish is among the perks employees receive in lieu of pay raises in these tough economic times; when production increases, fish will be sold.
Tilapia grower Ron Weidenbach, of Hawaii Fish Co., who will provide the fish for Wong's upcoming dinner, said his chief market is Wah Wah Seafood on King Street in Chinatown, where the David Lau family maintains aquariums of live fish. Pick the tilapia you want, and they will clean it for you.
The Weidenbachs started with a backyard catfish operation in Manoa in 1978 and since 1992 have been growing tilapia in an undisclosed North Shore location (to prevent theft). It's an old quarry built by the Army in 1940 and operated for military and commercial purposes until the mid-1970s when the pit filled with water and the quarry shut down. It's crystal clear, very slightly salty spring water, and though it's far afield and there's no electricity, it's a perfect home for the 10,000 to 20,000 fish they raise at any one time. The fish grow in floating cages immersed at least 4 feet into the 100-foot-deep quarry pit. Each day, Weidenbach sets out in a small boat to feed them.
Weidenbach, president of the Hawaii Aquaculture Association, can talk for days about farm-raised tilapia's advantages.
"But," said Weidenbach, "if I've put in a hard day, I can eat a whole fish all by myself."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.