Tilapia By Any Other Name ...

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - January 20, 2010
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Chef Vikram Garg

You really have to believe that change is in the air when something goes from being a buzzword to a belief system. It’s finally happening with local agriculture, and I believe that this year may be the strongest local farmers have ever seen.

No more evidence was needed than at last week’s celebration of farmers at that bastion of grace and fine living, the Halekulani. As part of the Halekulani Living series, Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and Halekulani’s own Vikram Garg cooked up a variety of dishes using the best locally grown foods.

Garg has been excited about our local produce since arriving in the Islands to take over culinary leadership at the hotel.

“Hawaii has some of the greatest produce in the world,” he says. “It’s an honor to be able to share it.”


Kathryn Hall, vintner and proprietor of Hall Wines, provided wines for the event. She’s the former U.S. ambassador to Austria and has a long family history in farming. Hall heads up an environmentally friendly winery, and her wines are a joy. They’re highly allocated, as you might imagine, but you might find some on finer wine lists. Exquisite wines and a fabulous example of ecologically friendly farming, too. If you come across Hall 2006 Sacrashe Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, grab as many bottles as you can.

At the event, I talked with Yamaguchi about his plans to start his own farm later this year: “We already have some land and we’re almost ready to start,” he said of the project. He plans to grow produce for his Hawaii restaurants and will partner with some of the state’s most experienced farmers.

But it was with Wong that I had the most spirited conversation of the night - about tilapia.

He’s been using the fleshy, flavorful fish with the worst reputation in Hawaii for months now, and is a firm believer in its value as both a food source and a sustainable product.

“Tilapia is a wonderful fish, with great flavor and versatility,” said Wong, who served the humble fish at the White House last year when he was guest chef. “We’ve been running it on the menu at the restaurant for several months now, and our guests really like it.”

I ventured that there’s such a stigma, locally, about tilapia, that it’s going to be a harder sell than almost anything he’s ever had on the chopping block.

I believe this because over the past 12 years or more, I’ve periodically polled people on their willingness to try farmed tilapia. The results are always resoundingly negative. And some years ago, when the Hawaii Farm Bureau showcased the truly beautiful, white, moist fish at its annual Farm Fair, people were reluctant to even taste it, despite the overwhelming evidence in front of them that the farm-raised tilapia was fresh, clean and incredibly good.

“I think that local people will really be surprised when they begin to taste the farmed tilapia,” said the Wahiawa-born Wong with a smile. I ventured that with a reputation this bad, the fish needs a serious PR makeover.

“Oh, no worries,” he laughed, and shared his own simple marketing trick.

“We’re calling it Lake Wilson Opakapaka,” said the chef with a smile. “Who wouldn’t want to eat that?”

You can try Lake Wilson Opakapaka at Alan Wong’s on South King Street and The Pineapple Room. Let me know what you think.

Happy eating!

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