My brother-in-law is a no nonsense kind of guy. If there is a task to be done he likes to do it quickly and immediately. This is what I noticed when I talked to first my sister, then her husband.
Sister to sister, when I'm asking Sherry for a favor I'll launch into a whole long 15 minute explanation to her of the who, what, why, when and where. I found two gorgeous whole four pound 'Ahi at the Kailua Farmer's Market and I'm not that ma'a (familiar) with cleaning and filleting fish that size. Give me a smaller red fish, 'Aweoweo or Menpachi, no problem, but, a larger 'Ahi or Aku, and I get a bit worried. After some internal hemming and hawing and even walking back to the car I told myself to turn around and go back. Just buy the fish already, because I can't go on being forever intimidated by cutting up whole fish.
I reasoned if I tackled this task of cleaning and filleting by myself, using a cookbook, it would take me an hour or two and I would be left with something that looks mangled and like fishcake. On the other hand, if he was willing and I was able to watch my brother-in-law, Nathan, a lifelong fisherman, I would pick up all those expert tips and great shortcuts that would simplify the whole process. And, I know he would create perfect matching 'Ahi fillets.
Right after talking with my sis about asking her husband to teach me to clean the fish I called her husband on his cell phone. That conversation lasted 15 seconds.
Me-"Hey, Nathan, can you show me how to clean 'Ahi? I have two, gonna give you guys one."
Nathan-"Nah, no need, no need. It's on ice, yeah? Come after lunch"
Me-"(slightly offended) Of course it's on ice. (cheerfully) OK, I'll be there."
I showed up with an apron, a camera, ziplocs and the cooler full of ice and the fish. Nathan sharpened two knives, a smaller one for the detail work and a larger one to chop the bones. We went outside their home to a sink that was made especially for fish cleaning. They also have an outside wok so all those smells and smoke don't linger in the house.
A disclaimer here, I'm not using the technically correct terms for parts and bones of the fish. Nathan expertly sliced the side fin off starting two inches behind the side fin, working in the direction from the tail to the head and also taking with it what he called the fish armor. This armor is a two-inch in diameter configuration of cartilage. Then, he came up to the vent in the head and snapped the spinal bone with a blow using the larger knife. He discarded the head, guts, gills and any soft red matter.
Nathan sliced the back bone horizontally off, again working tail to head, taking off more fish armor in the process. He took off that sharp, small, pointy back fin (careful, I've been poked by these fins before and it isn't pretty). Some people like the darker red blood meat strips next to the pinker flesh but many find it too gamy so you can cut that off as well, he said.
Nathan slit off the bottom belly fin, again horizontally, slit open the belly and removed the guts from the stomach cavity. He cut the bottommost belly portion off from the rest of the fish. He cautioned me to cut off the greenish one-inch by four-inch bile portion with a scissors later. Nathan said that 'ahi belly is a delicacy and to always fry it, dredging in seasoned flour first.
Nathan made a small cut just above the bone that runs down the middle of the fish, right past the tail and inserted the index finger of his left hand as a convenient handle to grip the fish (Excellent tip! See photo on left). With his smaller knife in his right hand, he skimmed over the middle fish bones and created tension by holding the tail portion with his left finger. Nathan cut the fish in half horizontally. He flipped the fish over, created another handle for his finger to hold and cut the second fillet off the middle bones the same way. He continued to pull off pieces of red matter as he went along. It was only at this point that he chopped the tail off.
Nathan used his very sharp smaller knife to skim the fillet off the skin. He placed the fillet with the skin side down and he skimmed over the skin separating the skin from the flesh. He very skillfully took the skins off both fillets in almost one intact piece, no easy feat. Discard the skin, the head, the red matter, the guts, the gills and the blood meat. Keep the bones and the tail for the recipe below.
I thanked him profusely and kept the bones for the very best miso soup imaginable. My mind has been happily conjuring up images of what to do with these gorgeous, super fresh fillets. 'Ahi sashimi with hot mustard-soy or ginger-sesame oil-soy sauces? 'Ahi poke? Fried 'Ahi steaks sizzling in butter, salt and pepper? Jessie Kiyabu's super fried 'Ahi cakes? This makes me happy. Even though Nathan did all the cutting in a flash, 15 min. max per fish, I felt that with my photos, my memory and his super tips, I could confidently tackle my next whole fish by myself.
Easy 'Ahi Bone Miso Soup
Bring the 'ahi bones, a couple of dried shrimp (ama ebi) and 4 cups of water to a boil. Turn down to a high simmer and skim off scum occasionally. Simmer for 30 minutes. Take out and discard the bones and ama ebi. Strain the broth through two layers of cheesecloth over a colander to get rid of extra scum. In a bowl, using a wire whisk, whisk 1 cup of miso with 1 cup of water until the miso is dissolved. Pour into the 'ahi broth. Turn to Med-High but do not boil. Serve immediately with shredded and cooked 'Ahi or chicken, small cubes of tofu and chopped green onions.