THE FAMILY FISHMONGER
by Amy Grondin
By trade I’m a commercial salmon fisherman. The work is hard, yet thoroughly rewarding. The motions of fishing are repetitive, allowing my mind to wander while my hands are busy with fish. When I am working on the water there are two things that I day dream about: My next meal simmering away in the galley, and the next country I will visit after the fishing season is done. Fish are the focus of my occupation and the subject of my preoccupation, so it’s no surprise that seafood counters hold pride of place in my food-centric explorations around the world.
Seafood counters are the natural history museum of a country’s sea creatures and imported delicacies. Each species of fish for sale has been designed by nature to suit its unique corner of watery habitat. The sleek, drum-tight tuna are built for open-ocean speed. Flat, comical-looking sole and halibut have mottled tops that camouflage the fish when they rest on the seafloor. Tiny anchovies are outposts of their giant, safety-in-numbers schools. All these fish have joined the mixed-species school displayed on ice at the seafood counter.
When I’m closer to home, there’s a Seattle grocery store that offers both a culinary tour of the western Pacific and a seafood department beyond comparison. Its shelves are stocked with foodstuffs from Japan, China, Thailand, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and India. One look at the Uwajimaya seafood department and you’ll instantly understand how important fish is in these countries.
The seafood department’s corner location is huge, bright and clean. Freezer and refrigerator cases brim with packets of whole, portioned and value-added seafood from all over the world. Move in a little farther and a mound of ice with a cornucopia of whole fish awaits. If you’re not in need of a whole fish, check out the 20-foot-long case of fish fillets, shrimp, squid and octopus. A wall of tilapia swim in lazy circles in their tank, while Dungeness crabs hulk in the adjacent massive tank. Next come nine species of oysters. To complete the intertidal-zone offerings, sea cucumbers, mussels, clams and geoducks, bubble away in saltwater, happy as, well, clams.
Fish to be sorted, cut and displayed are delivered every morning to Uwajimaya. To feed customers’ appetites takes years of experience with fish and practiced knife skills. Ken Hewitt is at work managing Uwajimaya’s seafood department well before the doors open at 8:00 a.m.
Earning a living working in the seafood industry is a generations-old family tradition for Ken. His great-grandfather, Nikola Andrich, immigrated to the United States from Croatia in the 1800s, bringing only his strong hands and seafaring know-how gained from fishing around the Dalmatian Islands. When work ran out on the East Coast, Nikola came west and bought a farm in Anacortes. He soon began fishing again, but this time for Dungeness crabs.
Nikola’s daughter Margarita Adrijic was next to take up the family fish business. Margarita chose to use the traditional spelling of the family’s last name, rather than the Americanized version that Nikola was given when he came to the United States. In 1972 she opened a seafood shop in the West Seattle Junction on California Avenue.
Hewitt started helping out at his grandmother’s shop when he was seven, and by age 10 he was cutting fish alongside his older brother Dave. When their grandmother retired in the 1980s, Hewitt went to work for Mutual Fish and his brother landed at Uwajimaya, keeping the family tradition of fishmongering alive. In 1999, Uwajimaya moved into its current location at 600 Fifth Avenue South in Seattle. And after 15 years at Mutual Fish, Hewitt was recruited to run Uwajimaya’s new seafood department.
So, how do you cut and portion those whole fish that are glistening on ice at Uwajimaya if you aren’t a fourth-generation fish monger? “That’s what we’re here for,” says Hewitt. “Pick the fish you want to take home and we’ll cut it any way you want it.”
Hewitt’s crew will also help the do-it-yourself customer who wants a quick tutorial on turning a whole fish into fillets for the dinner plate. The best time for a lesson is in the morning—but not on Tuesday. “That’s our seniors’ discount morning,” says Hewitt. “Things can get busy then!”
Uwajimaya’s seafood department wastes very little. “Our customers know how to cook fish and use almost every part of the fish, head to tail, inside and out. The parts that are not taken home with the customer we add to the compost,” says Hewitt. Uwajimaya participates in a commercial compost collection program that is offered by their garbage pickup service. Six month after collection, the trimmings and unused fish parts will enrich soil as compost rather than taking space in a landfill.
While other grocery stores display fillets and dispose of the rest, Uwajimaya sells fish collars, belly meat, carcasses and heads in addition to the fillets. These bits and pieces may sound odd to the uninitiated, but simmering these parts gives you rich stocks and soups in return for minimum effort and cost. If buying fish bones creates a mental hurdle, think of these fishy extras just as you would ham hocks or beef bones. (No one seems intimidated by making a beef stock.)
Sustainable-seafood experts advise us to eat a variety of seafood both for our health and that of the ocean’s fish. Not known for being adventurous seafood eaters, most Americans stick with the tried and true. The most popular fish eaten in the United States are shrimp, salmon and canned tuna.
But Uwajimaya’s sales tell a different story. Sablefish (often called black cod) and northern mackerel fill the shopping carts at Uwajimaya. These lovely fish, rich in omega-3s, can be a challenge to find elsewhere. At Uwajimaya you can see that these fish are well handled and smell that they’re sweet. Hewitt prides himself on the work he and his team do. The high quality of the fish on display and the knowledge of the staff selling can inspire customers to confidently try a new species of fish for their dinner.
All the fish talk made me hungry, so Hewitt suggested the black cod in kasu marinade: “We make it ourselves and it sells out quickly.” He wrapped the fish for me to take home. A few more items added to my shopping cart and off to the checkout. I left Uwajimaya that day eager to transform my Northwest kitchen with the tastes and scents of faraway places bought close to home.
Try Taichi Kitamura’s Wild Salmon and Winter Root Vegetables in Miso Broth
Amy Grondin has worked since 1993 on boats in the Alaska Salmon industry as a buyer and micro-processor of wild salmon. She also contracts as a sustainable seafood consultant and commercial fishing outreach specialist. A long time member of Slow Food, she advocates for sustainable local food systems and has great concern for the sustainability of ocean resources.