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How to Buy Ahi

If you're ready to try your hand at making poke, you might be wondering, where should I buy my ahi? What should I look for? What grade do I need?

For answers to these questions, we turned to John Kaneko, a specialist in seafood safety and quality control. Here's how he purchases his ahi.

How do you choose ahi for poke?

When I buy ahi to make poke, I look for the best value. That means balancing quality and price. The ahi should be of high enough quality to eat raw. That means fresh, red in color, translucent and firm in texture.

The size of tuna also affects price. Using portions from smaller fish to cut into cubes for poke usually means a price break. Higher levels of healthy fish oils give ahi exceptional flavor but also command a much higher price. Because oil is normally added to make poke, ahi with high oil content is not necessary.

Ahi fillet

Where do you buy ahi?

People in Hawaii are lucky to have a good year-round supply of local fresh tuna. We also have many different places to buy it. We have access to the full range of quality from the world-class sashimi grades to more affordable grades of. Fresh local ahi is available at grocery stores, where the ahi steaks are often tray-packed, or at specialized markets that sell a variety of seafood and grades cut to order.

One of the best ways to select just the right piece of fish is to go to a market that offers ahi in a range of quality grades and prices. This is a quick way to learn and appreciate the available quality of ahi because you can compare the tuna loins or quarters in the retail case.

Knowledgeable counter staff can help guide you to the best choice for your particular needs. This way you can select fish based on quality and price and buy exactly how much you need for that special dinner, or an everyday family meal.

How do you store the ahi once purchased?

I always keep a cooler in the trunk of my car to keep groceries cold. When I go out to buy ahi, I make sure to load it up with ice. Keeping ahi cold is extremely important. Ahi is precious and its beautiful red color is sensitive to temperature changes.

At home, I put my ahi in a watertight plastic bag and bury it completely in ice in the refrigerator. Most refrigerators run at about 45 degrees. That’s too warm to properly hold ahi. Ice maintains the ahi temperature at 32 degrees, perfect for preserving quality. Also, it is extremely important to make sure that water never touches ahi, or the bright red color will quickly become discolored.


Tips on making poke?

Less is better. Learn to appreciate the taste of the raw materials. High quality fresh ahi doesn’t need much. Don't overdo it with spices and salt.

Try to make the poke right before you eat it. Always keep it cold, even when serving. Cut up the fish into cubes first, add the oil and mix lightly.

I oil the fish before adding the vegetables (e.g. ogo, Maui onions, green onions) so it doesn't discolor. I mix everything together and season right before serving.

Other thoughts on buying ahi?

I always read labels carefully. In today’s global seafood market you want to be asking, where does this fish come from? Is it from Hawaii, or is it imported fish? Seafood at retail counters is supposed to be labeled by country of origin. If it’s not labeled, I ask.

I also want to know if it is natural or treated. Previously frozen tuna treated with carbon monoxide results in an unnaturally bright cherry-red color. If previously frozen and gassed, it's imported and not from Hawaii. Gas-treated tuna must also be labeled.

What's the importance of buying local?

Buying local supports Hawaii businesses, employees and their families. It helps to reduce our dependence on food shipped to the islands and improves our self-sufficiency in food production.

Buying local ahi also means that it comes from a responsible fishery, well-managed for sustainability. I believe in supporting local food producers, including growers, ranchers and fishermen. We enjoy extremely good quality fish in Hawaii because we have a local fishing industry that prides itself on producing high quality fish in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Hawaii’s fishermen need our support. Without them, we would be left with only imported seafood. That makes no sense since we live in the middle of the Pacific, surrounded by ocean and tuna.

Hawaii's tuna fishery is culturally and economically important to us. It employs a lot of people. Local seafood is at the heart of many island food traditions. To me, fresh ahi is essential to the quality of life in Hawaii.

John Kaneko is the project director for PacMar Inc. in Honolulu. He is also team leader for the NOAA-funded Hawaii Seafood Project, which supports the Hawaii seafood brand on issues of responsible fisheries, sustainability, seafood safety and seafood and health.

Hawaii seafood4

Comments from Readers

  1. Ce7d8c2db8a7b15ee517312e12fe1b70
    Alexis Kauihou on 7/1/2009 at 10:21am

    Thanks so much for the ahi info! I was just trying to look for a store to buy fresh ahi, so I could make some poke. The info provided will help me to make the best selection possible. It's awsome to get these kind of tips from a local.


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