For folks in Hawai‘i, butterfish is not simply a species of fish; it’s a preparation of fish. Hawaiian butterfish is miso-marinated black cod. Black cod is not really a cod; it’s a black-skinned (thus the name) sablefish (that kind of looks like cod.)
(There is an Atlantic ‘butterfish’ (wild-caught off the US from Maine to South Carolina) but it is smaller than the sablefish; in the UK, butterfish is a small eel-like fish – both of these are not what folks in Hawai‘i refer to as butterfish.)
Whoa, let’s look back …
Sablefish occur in the North Pacific, the Bering Sea and adjacent waters from Hokkaido, Japan to Baja, California, with greatest abundance in the Gulf of Alaska. Adult fish are found in depths between 1,200 to 3,000-feet. (NOAA)
Fishing methods include hook and line (and lately long-line fishing (where hundreds or thousands of baited hooks branching from a single line are used) is the predominant landing method,) pot and trawler. Sablefish are targeted through sets along the ocean bottom, the preferred sablefish habitat. (NOAA)
Early Island reference to the fish was made in Honolulu’s Saturday Press, January 5, 1884, “A new food fish called black cod has been discovered. It is caught off Queen Charlotte’s Island (British Columbia) in deep water and the supply is said to be inexhaustible.”
Later, an AP story from Seattle noted, “Black cod, formerly a neglected fish, became popular immediately upon its indorsement by the United States bureau of fisheries under the new name of sablefish, and doubled in price.” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 13, 1917)
For some, butterfish is simply the black cod/sablefish, prepared however. Some even warn of the escolar (walu,) another very rich fish (and often labeled as ‘butterfish’) – apparently, it is so oily it causes gastric difficulties.
But, generally, when you think of Hawaiian butterfish, many look forward to the miso-marinated black cod/sablefish.
Misoyaki (charred miso) style includes miso-marinated, then fired over a grill or pan seared. (Actually the misoyaki marinade will also work on salmon, ahi and other firm fish – even chicken or beef.)
In 1868, the first 153-Japanese immigrants arrived in Honolulu on board the 3-masted sailing ship Scioto (Saioto-go.) They brought with them miso and shoyu.
This was Meiji 1 – the first year of the Meiji period, a period of awakening, expansion, and opening to the outside world after 268 years of peaceful isolation during the Edo (Tokugawa) period.
During the 1880s, more Japanese came to work in the sugar fields; they introduced sake and soyfoods to Hawaii. (Soyinfo Center)
Soybeans originate from China. In 2853 BC, Emperor Sheng-Nung of China named five sacred plants – soybeans, rice, wheat, barley and millet.
Soybean plants were domesticated between 17th and 11th century BC in the eastern half of China, where they were cultivated into a food crop.
From about the first century to the Age of Discovery (15-16th century), soybeans were introduced into several countries such as Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal and India. (The terms so-ya, soya and soy have never existed in Japanese or Chinese.)
It started coming to Hawai‘i. In 1893, a report of Japan’s Department of Agriculture and Commerce noted Exports (Class 22) include “Soy. The total value of the latest export is 41,029 yen, and chiefly exported to Hawai‘i.”
Hawai‘i Agricultural Experiment Station, Annual Report (1908) notes, “Several varieties of soy beans have been grown for use as fodder, green manuring, and human food, particularly in the Japanese product, Miso. The yields have been very encouraging.”
“About 500 tons of soy beans are annually imported from Japan, and the demand is increasing. The beans are sold in Honolulu for $3 per 100 pounds. The market can easily be supplied by home production.”
Miso, or ‘fermented soybean paste,’ is one of East Asia’s most important soyfoods. Miso is an all-purpose high-protein seasoning, which has no counterpart among Western foods or seasonings. Made from soybeans, rice or barley, and salt, its smooth or chunky texture resembles that of soft peanut butter.
A Federal Court (Judge Dole) ruling noted, “miso is a manufactured article. It is not preserved (soy) beans, as counsel for the government contends. It is made from rice and beans, and rice is the component part of chief value.”
“Miso is a new and completed commercial article, known and recognized in the trade by a specific and distinctive name other than the names of either of the materials of which it is composed.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, April 7, 1910)
At some time, someone combined the miso with the fish and the Hawaiian butterfish was born. (Lots of information here is from Soyinfo Center, Scott and Hawaii Magazine.)