Hula and "fish sommeliers": Oahu's leeward coast reveals Hawaii at its most traditional and dynamic

The quieter, western side of the populous Hawaiian island is a world away from Honolulu, a boon to cultural travellers

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      Part Hawaiian, part Samoan, Siasau Matagiese learned to swim before he could walk. Growing up in Kauai, his dad—having learned from his own father—would take him spear-fishing every day, catching species like kalas (bluespine unicorn fish) and small uluas (trevally) for dinner. The tradition lives on: spear-fishing remains Matagiese's deepest passion, the ancient practice connecting him to his culture.

      “Fishing is in my blood,” says Matagiese, who goes by the nickname “Saui” (rhymes with Maui). “My father is a fisherman who was born and raised in Samoa, where you fish as part of the lifestyle, to eat. I remember him diving and letting us swim alongside him, and saying ‘watch what I’m doing.’ As I got older, he began teaching me techniques.

       “Spear-fishing is selective: you see what you want and you go after it,” he says. “There’s no bycatch. What you catch, you eat. For fishermen, it’s respect and responsibility to not waste.”

      Siasau Matagiese learned to spear-fish as a child from his Samoan father while growing up in Kauai.
      Gail Johnson

      Matagiese's understanding of Hawaiian fish is vast, from mythology and legend to how different types behave. He also knows all about how to prepare and serve fish, and how various types taste. Now 28 and living in Oahu, he is applying that knowledge to a new role as one of the world’s first fish sommeliers.

      Just as a wine sommelier specializes in wine service, with extensive training to help diners select something to suit their taste and pair it with food, Mina’s fish sommeliers guide diners through the menu by explaining the flavours and textures of a range of species. Table-side service with an educational slant, the goal is to help people pick a fish they’ll enjoy and possibly lure them out of their comfort zone. (Side note: watch the position catch on in Vancouver and beyond.)

      Michael Mina, a James Beard Award-winning chef who operates multiple restaurants throughout North America and in Dubai, created the job specifically for Mina’s Fish House, a line-to-table beachside restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina on the island’s western shore. 

      Local fisherman Jared Chang was the restaurant’s first full-time fish sommelier. Fellow fisherman Ryan Houser took over in December 2018, with Matagiese joining on a part-time basis earlier this year. (A 6-foot-2 former university football player who befits the term “gentle giant”, Matagiese also works full-time as a juvenile counsellor with the State of Hawaii.)

      Onaga, or long-tail red snapper, is a Hawaiian fish that's served whole and deboned at Mina's Fish House.
      Gail Johnson

      At Mina’s, a breezy, open-air spot that overlooks a turquoise crescent-shaped lagoon, Matagiese makes rounds while carrying a beautiful dish of whole, raw, freshly caught fish, turning heads as he walks by. When he stops at a table, he introduces himself then describes the day’s fresh catches as well as other seafood items on the ever-changing menu.

      “A lot of people find fish intimidating,” Matagiese says. “Or they say they don’t like it. When people say they don’t eat fish, 80 percent of the time, it’s because they’ve had one bad experience. It could be because they haven’t had fish prepared properly.

      Matagiese, who has undergone the male rite of passage that is the tribal Samoan tattoo known as pe’a, his body adorned in black ink, recalls how his Samoan grandfather practised what’s largely a lost art of weaving baskets out of bark then burying them the sand to catch fish. He explains that the taste of a fish can change from the moment it’s caught, particularly if it’s caught by hook.

      “Fish can cook themselves on the hook if the fight ends up being too long,” he says. “Acid build-up starts to cook the meat. It can ruin the quality. Local fisherman have a real understanding that the moment it’s on the hook, quality control starts.

      “I have experience with a lot of fish, so I can break it down for people and talk about tastes and textures and compare Hawaiian fish to a fish they might be familiar with,” he adds. “I love talking about fish and fishing. If I go to a table and end up talking about fishing trips, even that makes my day. And if I make a recommendation that a guest really enjoys, that makes me really happy.”

      If someone told Matagiese they enjoy eating salmon, for instance, he might suggest kampachi, which, like all of the fish at Mina’s, is served whole and deboned: “It has a high fat content that’s very similar to salmon. Salmon generally has a strong taste that some say is a little fishy. Kampachi has a more neutral nutty, buttery flavour.”

      Monchong (also known as pomfret) is soft and delicate, with a creamy flavour; masimasi (mahi mahi) is milder.

      Ahi, which means “fire” in Hawaiian, gets its name not from the colour of tuna’s loin, as is often assumed, but from local lore. “Ahi is such a powerful fish on the hook,” Matagiese says. “It will run straight down and can take you a few hours for a fight. In ancient days, people who fished by hand made rope. When ahi would run, that rope would start to rub on wooden canoes, and create that friction to create sparks. Once, it lit a fire. That’s where the name ‘ahi’ comes from.’ The word for this fish in Samoan also means ‘ancient fire’.

      “I love sharing my culture,” Matagiese says, “and food is culture.”

      Hawaiian culture shines on Oahu's west side

      If cultural tourism is becoming more popular around the globe, Hawaii is rich in possibilities, with the native culture experiencing a resurgence after decades of colonial suppression, much like Indigenous culture in Canada. The west side of Oahu—the leeward coast—is no exception.

      When people think of Hawaii’s third largest island, home to the majority of the state’s population, what might first come to is Honolulu’s busy Waikiki Beach or the North Shore, which is legendary for its big breaks and surfing. Oahu’s western shore is entirely unlike either.

      Lesser known than Honolulu and the North Shore, Oahu's western shore is known for its glorious sunsets.
      Gail Johnson

      Also known as the sunset coast, the sunny, dry area along the foot of the Waianae mountain range was relatively undeveloped until about 20 years ago. That changed with Ko Olina (“Place of Joy”), a 642-acre master-planned community that’s about a 30-minute drive from Honolulu and home to a handful of resorts, including Disney's Aulani and the Four Seasons. The latter oceanfront luxury property sits adjacent to Lanikuhonua (“Where Heaven Meets Earth”), a 10-acre nature preserve and cultural centre, and faces one of four man-made lagoons with sandy beach where, on occasion, Hawaiian monk seals, an endangered species, might rest, protected by law.

      Strung along the western shoreline of Oahu's master-planned Ko Olina community are four man-made crescent-shaped lagoons, like this one fronting the Four Seasons Resort O'hau at Ko Olina.
      Gail Johnson

      The area provided resplendent refuge to former Hawaiian chiefs and royalty, including King Ka’mehameha (1736 to 1819), who united the Hawaiian islands, and Queen Lili’uokalani (1838 to 1917), Hawaii’s last monarch.

      Ka’ena Point is the island’s most westernmost edge. Leaping Rock is on this sacred ground (now within a protected natural area reserve, with native plants and seabirds and rare coastal sand dunes). It was here, according to Hawaiian legend, that mortal souls would make their final leap to the realm of the gods.

      Anyone can make the 3.8-kilometre trek to the wind-swept point along a wide, flat, dirt path (once a railway) with mauna (mountain) on one side, and moana, or ocean, on the other, jagged volcanic rock jutting out of Crayola blue waters in piercing relief. Then there’s Four Seasons’ Realm of the Gods walk, complete with hula, guided by La’akea Perry. Perry is a kumu hula (hula instructor) with Ke Kai o Kahiki, a hula school and cultural group whose members perform globally.

      Within minutes of speaking to Perry (who also works as entertainment director for Paradise Cove Luau and in the office at a waste-management company—Hawaii is an expensive place to live), it quickly becomes clear that there’s much more to hula than what most tourists might realize.

      Hula instructor La’akea Perry (right, with one of his students, a fire dancer) is a cultural guide on the Four Seasons Resort O'hau Ko Olina's Realm of the Gods walk to the island's westernmost point.
      Gail Johnson

      Perry, who chants and plays a Hawaiian drum called ipu heke, made of dried gourds, explains that hula is the foundation of Hawaiian culture, having been a way of communicating before its written language existed.

      “There’s basic footwork that is very traditional; you’ll see it in every dance,” Perry explains. “Each step has a meaning and a name. The handwork may vary, but footwork keeps everything connected. It’s all telling a story.

      “Within our school we don’t just learn dance,” he adds. “We learn tradition, including food preparation and cooking; arts and crafts; the making of clothes, instruments, and implements. We learn everything we need to for how we conduct ourselves in Hawaiian daily life.”

      During the Realm of the Gods outing, Perry and one of his students typically perform a story of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire known for her passion, jealousy, and fury. While each hula school has its own lineage and characteristics, the Ke Kai o Kahiki style is athletic, with complex, sharp movements that require strength, endurance and coordination.

      For Perry, being able to re-create this piece of Hawaiian history through song and dance on ancestral land is a spiritual experience that reminds him why he’s so dedicated to and enamored by hula.

      “I grew up playing basketball and football, but hula was always there,” Perry says. “I love the way it moves, the way it sounds, the way it makes you feel, what it does for you and everyone around you.

      “It’s a connection to culture and history,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m learning something—it  feels like I’m remembering something I already knew.”