The Fish That Comes With a Year of Good Luck

In Hawaii, I grewup on a street named after a fish — ulua, the biggest of the jacks, a blunt-headed silver bruiser, sometimes weighing more than a hundred pounds, that glowers along the reef. It is caught with tall poles anchored in the sea cliffs and baited with eels or octopus sewed to the hooks. Mahimahi, a neon blur in the deep, was the next street over.

We were surrounded by ocean, yet my family ate seafood only under duress, as dutiful Catholics on Fridays during Lent, tidy golden-battered fillets of perch — a fish of the mainland — from the freezers at Safeway. I had my education in local waters later in life, as a hostess at a restaurant, eavesdropping on the servers who patiently described to tourists the species on the menu: meaty ahi (yellowfin tuna); creamy opah (moonfish); delicate, whiskered moi (threadfin), once reserved for royalty; lean, long-bodied ono (wahoo) that races, jags and dives, tormenting its hunters; and the hierarchy of snappers, from ehu to opakapaka and, above all, onaga, with its ruby sheen.

It is onaga that I look forward to all year, that is the centerpiece at the Christmas Eve potluck next door, to which Stella Chang, my mother’s neighbor of close to 50 years, graciously invites me, the prodigal from New York. The table is crowded, or as we say, kapakahi (mixed up) — rice in a 10-cup cooker, stuffed cabbage, glossy lo mein, a great ham under halos of pineapple, king crab legs with a little hotpot of melted butter, pink-hearted roast beef to be sluiced with jus — but onaga is the prize, the whole fish buried under a thatch of scallions, cilantro, carrots and celery, only showing its frilly tail and one pearl eye.

The flesh lifts straight off the bones.

Glenn Yamashita — Uncle Glenn to the young people who wander the house, regardless of actual relation — has been making this dish for some 25 years. It’s his variation on a local specialty, a Chinese-style steamed fish, salty-sour from a stuffing of preserved vegetable and faintly sweet from the flesh of the fish itself. Skeins of Japanese somen noodles are tucked beneath and hot oil poured over at the end. Done right, it crackles.

Red fish are in demand as the new year looms; they’re the color of luck. Local TV anchors report ahi prices as breaking news. Restaurants and hotels typically get first pick, so Uncle Glenn orders his onaga a month ahead through a friend who owns a sushi bar. (An unexpected blessing of the 2020 pandemic lockdown was that home cooks suddenly had access to the islands’ best fish, with boats offering drive-through specials at the pier.) This is how it goes in Hawaii, little favors and shares, a jar of guava jam left at the front door, a sack of mangoes hanging on the knob.

When I asked Uncle Glenn for his recipe, he wrote it out by hand, as he does not own a computer, and drove an hour to Mrs. Chang’s house to drop it off for her daughter, who scanned and emailed it to me. Two of the ingredients are readily available in Hawaii but elsewhere may require more of a search: chung choi, a salted turnip top wrapped in its own long leaves — pickled mustard greens are a fine substitute, bringing a similar sourness and depth — and scallop powder, a seasoning of pulverized dried scallops whose intense brine can be approximated with fish sauce.

Onaga is regal, but at Mrs. Chang’s, we don’t stand on ceremony. The reverence is in the gathering itself, in finding a way to be together, despite everything. We scrounge for spots on the couch and floor, eat off paper plates and ready ourselves for the scrum of holiday games: decoding Christmas-carol titles from emoji, stealing Secret Santa gifts. The rule is, no gift can be stolen more than three times. The most-fought-over in recent memory was a bag of Hokkaido Nanatsuboshi rice — a rice so coveted that when I told this story to a friend, she gasped and reached into her cabinet to show me she had it, too — so this year, we thought we’d reprise the skirmish by bringing another bag. But there turned out to be too many gifts, and no one chose our rice.

It was tempting to smuggle it back home. Instead, we left it on the table at the end of the night, our mahalo, and our hope to be here again next year.

Recipe: Uncle Glenn’s Onaga (Steamed Red Snapper With Somen)

Ligaya Mishan is a writer at large for T magazine and a new Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine. “Filipinx: Heritage Recipes From the Diaspora,” a cookbook she wrote with Angela Dimayuga, was published in November.

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