Backyard smokers Darren Kai and Mike Souza help fishermen make the most of their catches.
Once upon a time, smoking meat and fish saved lives. If you could dry and cure your haul or hunt, you could feed your family for weeks or even months of lean times. Today, the practice of smoking game is less a necessity than just common sense. You catch a giant fish, and wasting its meat would be a shame. Enter Darren Kai and Mike Souza.
“Really, what we do is take care of local fishermen,” says Kai. “When they have a big marlin, and they don’t know what to do with it, that’s where we come in.”
These smokers take the fish whole and break it down, carving out filets and removing the unusable parts. The fish is then frozen until conditions are right.
“We’ll smoke it when we have time and good weather,” says Souza. “It can’t be raining.”
First, the fish is sun-dried for several hours in a wire cage behind Souza’s Kalihi warehouse, where he runs a paper goods wholesale operation. Then, it’s loaded into a refrigerator-sized metal box, the smoker.
“You have to dry it halfway,” he warns. “If you don’t dry it, it’ll end up steaming in your box. You need a sunny day with a nice wind. That’s the key.”
Really, what we do is take care of local fishermen. When they have a big marlin, and they don’t know what to do with it, that’s where we come in.
Another key to successful smoking, according to culinary authorities, is to brine the fish before smoking it (most Thanksgiving turkeys are brined to ensure moistly cooked meat). A brine is a salt and water solution, which typically also has additional seasoning. Hawaiian-style brining includes, naturally, plenty of shoyu.
“Everyone has their own concoction,” says Souza. His secret recipe was bestowed upon him by the same people who taught him the art of smoking. Who was it?
He gestures westward, toward ‘Aiea: “The watercress patch.”
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Souza is speaking of Sumida Farm, that enduring oasis of spring-fed watercress wedged between endless swaths of concrete in ‘Aiea. Many still remember how its patriarch, Masaru Sumida, battled developers to keep his farm intact as plans for a massive Pearlridge proceeded.
The farm was also known in fishing circles as a place to take a big fish when you didn’t know what to do with it, and Souza met the Sumidas through his membership in a small fishing club. The main Sumida building is still adorned with dozens of prize marlin flukes.
It serves as headquarters for the Aiea Fishing Club, a joy to the late Sumida in his post-retirement years, when he spent countless days out on the water, fishing. He and his hānai son, Matt Kahapea, originally shared the art and science of smoking with Souza.
Smoking Fish Game
However far back the practice of smoking fish goes (perhaps thousands of years), it has evolved from being a necessity to being a technique for creating a savory delicacy from protein otherwise unusable. Once a fish like a marlin gets to a few hundred pounds, the meat starts getting tough and bland.
“Anything that can be smoked, I will smoke,” says Souza, who estimates that 95 percent of the meat he smokes is marlin. On this day, however, he has pork butt in one small smoker and two-dozen racks of broadbill swordfish filets in “the box” (the large metal smoker), plus an experiment: tied-up links of fish sausage hanging like fruit from a top rail.
A thigh-sized piece of kiawe wood is casually propped in a chamber on the bottom, its smoke drawn up into the main compartment.
Anything that can be smoked, I will smoke.
The swordfish, plump and scored like split sausage as a result of being dried in the sun, is ready to be tasted, and it is good. Is good the right word? It is smoky; it is moist; it is life affirming.
And then, just like that, it is gone. This backyard smoking operation, though not commercial, yields market-quality results.
“My mother used to buy the Pike Place Market smoked salmon for 25 dollars a pound,” Kai recalls, who also made all of the pupus—including a smoked salmon appetizer—for his 600-person wedding in 2000. “Then she tasted ours, and she doesn’t buy that anymore.”
“People like our fish,” confirms a modest Souza.
He had opened the smoker door only momentarily to remove the sample for me, but my clothes would carry the mouth-watering aroma of wood smoke and salty goodness for hours.
SMOKED FISH DIP
By Darren Kai
1. A few blocks of smoked fish
3. Cream cheese
4. Green onions
5. Chili pepper, Tabasco, or Sriracha
1. Shred fish.
2. Add rest of ingredients to taste.
3. Mix well and serve with crackers or between two loaves of bread as a sandwich.