Sometimes it’s known as sablefish, sometimes it’s black cod though in Hawaii it primarily goes
by the name butterfish. And the only preparation for butterfish was misoyaki style. First
marinated in a mixture of miso, sugar, sake, mirin and a little grated fresh ginger (often
purchased from the market pre-marinated) then grilled or pan fried. Growing up, it’s the stuff of
Pavlovian reactions. However it wasn’t just a major salivary response that ensued. I literally
dropped whatever task I originally had planned simply from the aroma of cooking butterfish.
The smell of misoyaki butterfish had me dropping everything and redirected my attention to
simply getting ready to eat. I brushed off many a karate class simply because Mom started
cooking the butterfish before I left the house. “I’ll just train twice as hard at the next class”.
Add a plateful of hot rice and I was now the poster child for uncontrolled portion sizes.
Of course, as we age things change. I no longer get the same Pavlovian reaction just for misoyaki
butterfish… but also teriyaki butterfish… and miso butterfish flavored bonefish fishcakes.
As a fledgling foodie, I thought nothing could be fine as misoyaki butterfish until I tried
teriyaki butterfish. During an ill fated fishing excursion on Maui – the combination of wicked
wind spraying fine sand and cold rain against your face and skin had us retreating to the car for
protection. Terrible fishing conditions, no bites but we do have lunch in the cooler. Might as
well eat. Hmm, fried noodles, musubi and what’s this? Shoyu fish? No, teriyaki flavored
butterfish? Whoa. Food epiphany! Butterfish can be great even if miso is not present! Sad to say,
the Noda Market in Kahului where it was purchased no longer exists.
As the family grew, to help stretch the food dollar Mom also mixed misoyaki butterfish with
affordable bonefish and ladyfish (oio and awaawa in Hawaii) to make butterfish flavored
fishcakes. Only 1 tray of misoyaki butterfish was needed instead of the 4 to 6 trays (at $8 to $10
per pound, pre-marinated butterfish isn’t cheap) plus one large tray of minced bonefish.
Delicious as they were, I didn’t ask Mom to make these very often after watching the labor
intensive process of deboning, skinning and mincing the raw miso butterfish.
What’s a Butterfish?
This is where it gets a little confusing. The true butterfish refers to the Stromateidae family of
fishes which include pomfrets and pompano that don’t resemble or taste like the butterfish I’m
speaking of. The true name of “my” butterfish is actually the sablefish or Anoplopoma fimbria.
It’s a deep sea fish usually found in Northern Pacific waters and it resembles a dark codfish. That’
s why its other name is the Black Cod. Because of its oily flesh, it took the name butterfish in
reference to that rich, fatty flesh. Confused? You have a right to be. I guess it’s the “You can call
me Ray, or you can call me Jay” of the fish world.
Because they live at such depths, they build a reserve of fat (like all cold water fishes) including
a fair amount of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid
(DHA) that rivals the omega-3 fatty acid content of salmon. These fats sustain the fish in these
frigid waters but also give a buttery mouth feel when we consume them.
Butterfish 3 Ways
I’ll admit it right now. I usually take the path of least resistance when making misoyaki
butterfish. Buy it from the market already marinating in miso. Sure it costs about $3 a pound
more but the store bought stuff always give you a firmer texture which is the Pavlovian
butterfish of my youth. However marinating your own doesn’t take that much more time and it
usually produces the delicate flesh found in restaurant prepared misoyaki butterfish.
1/4 cup sake
1/4 cup mirin
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup white miso
Fresh grated ginger
Mix all ingredients then coat butterfish steaks or filets and refrigerate for 3 to 5 days. Wipe off
excess miso and grill or pan fry. Carefully monitor the cooking as the sugar and miso will burn if
You can use your own favorite teriyaki recipe (or even pre-bottled teriyaki sauce) for this
preparation. If I’m simply pan frying the butterfish, I make sure it has marinated for at least a
day. When grilling the butterfish, I like to reduce the marinating liquid and use it as a glaze on
the final product.
½ cup shoyu
¼ cup water
¼ cup mirin
¼ cup light brown sugar
Grated fresh ginger
Chopped fresh green onion
Combine all ingredients and marinate the butterfish in the refrigerator at least 4 hours
preferably overnight. Pan fry or grill butterfish. Can also simmer the marinating liquid and
reduce by 50% to use as a glaze on the cooked pieces of butterfish.
The inspiration for the Char Siu Flavored Butterfish came from a recipe for tea-smoked-
something-or-other that I viewed on one of the cable stations (I think it was some type of
poultry). The fatty richness of butterfish holds up well to the strong flavors in the marinating
liquid and the smoke. You can try the original preparation by placing Oolong tea along with star
anise, dried orange peel, cinnamon and cloves on the bottom of a heated wok until they start to
smoke and place the butterfish suspended over the smoking ingredients then cover but it’ll
probably set your home smoke detector off. An outdoor smoker seems like a better proposition
to me. One half inch thick fish usually takes about 30 minutes, 1 inch thick pieces take about
60 minutes of smoking.
Char Siu Flavored Smoked Butterfish
½ cup shoyu
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp hoisin sauce
1/8 tsp Chinese five spice powder
½ tsp red food coloring (optional)
Combine all ingredients then marinate butterfish at least 4 hours (can also marinate overnight).
Pat dry butterfish then place in a smoker for 30 to 60 minutes depending on the thickness of
A Fish of Many Names