Maori have a huge respect for this species and traditionally it has been a major factor in ensuring the well-being of the people. It is a fish that lends itself to drying, salting and smoking, and this is how Maori preserved it. No seaside pa would have been without its large drying racks where kahawai, along with sharks and rays, would have been prepared for future consumption.
To the European palate, kahawai would have been too strong; the whiter flesh of other species would have been preferred. Kahawai has strong ‘blood lines’, which if not removed or dealt with immediately, give its flesh a more pungent taste. Most people will have first eaten kahawai after it had been smoked, either in a ‘hot’ 15-minute smoker made famous by the New Zealand manufacturer Kilwell, or in a cold smokehouse where the process takes place at cooler temperatures over a much longer period.
There are few tastes to compare with a well-prepared hotsmoked kahawai straight out of the smokebox and eaten between two bits of fresh bread, washed down with your favourite tipple.
But kahawai is much more versatile than that. The secret is in how the fish is treated from the time it hits the deck. It should be handled no worse than your favourite catch – dispatched quickly and placed on ice. The difference is in the bleeding. To get rid of a lot of the dark meat and stronger flavour, the fish needs to be bled immediately. A simple cut across the ‘throat’ to sever the main blood line, or else ripping out the gills, will do the job. Allow the fish to bleed for a period, wash it over the side and place it on ice. It can then be filleted or prepared in the same way as you would most other species.
When kahawai are spawning the females will be full of roe. This should be carefully removed during the cleaning process, dried and set aside. When you smoke your kahawai, do the roe at the same time, laying it on a piece of chicken wire to prevent it slipping through the racks. When smoked, mix it with a little Thousand Island dressing and spread on toast with freshly-ground salt and pepper – yum!