Ferocious and delicious, the kingfish is one of New Zealand’s most coveted fish. This is salty yarn of one man’s dogged pursuit of this elusive nemesis, and the delicious ceviche that followed.
I’m terrible at fishing. I can’t tie a knot. My bait presentation is terrible. Whenever I do hook anything it’s very, very small. And if it is of legal length I’ve got no idea what to do with a filleting knife. So, while I love being out on the water with friends who are fishing, I’ve taken to leaving the rods to the others, and sticking to drinking beers. Until one afternoon early this summer.
In the first days of the high pressure system’s reign over New Zealand, before we knew the sunshine would bathe us for weeks, we seized on what looked like a reasonably nice afternoon and took the boat out after work to enjoy the Hauraki Gulf.
As the wind rose and the sun hid behind clouds, we soon discovered most boats were heading back in. Relatively young and male, our group continued into a rising swell, past Rangitoto and onto Tiritiri Matangi. The 45 minute journey took an hour and half in the rough conditions.
When we got to our secret spot, we were rewarded for our stupidity: other than a slowly moving container ship, we were the only boat within sight. But by the time we reached Shearer Rock, I didn’t really feel like a beer. Lunch was churning in my belly. When I was offered a chance to cast into a school of kingfish slapping against the buoy, I just thought it might be a chance to take my mind off my roiling stomach.
I flicked the lure close to the floating marker and reeled it back in, doing my best to copy the others’ attempts to replicate a fish’s swimming movements. I really am shit at fishing and I was sure I wouldn’t catch anything. But to my shock, within moments, something big and strong had taken my lure and was swimming away with it very fast.
I didn’t know what to do. My three crewmates were yelling things at me. I thought about letting go of the rod and ending this misadventure immediately. But instead, I tucked the butt of the rod into my groin and went to war with this fish.
Suddenly I was Hemingway’s Santiago, my unlucky streak over. I was now locked in a duel of strength and mutual respect with a beautiful creature from the ocean. After what must have been five minutes of the fish taking more line than I was reeling in, I felt like Santiago on his second night, pulling in his marlin. After ten minutes, my arms were in agony, but I was slowly succeeding. The fish was in sight of the boat.
I asked about the etiquette of sharing the load of bringing the fish onto the boat, and my plea for help was laughed at.
Finally, I reeled the kingfish close enough for it to be grabbed by the tail and dumped into the back of the boat. It was shiny and elegant. Its belly was white, its back emerald, a yellow stripe along its side. It was a beautiful animal.
I was immensely proud to have caught my first kingfish, to have won a battle against a strong and honourable beast. But I was deeply sad to end the life of something so stunning and powerful. Until I ate it.
Although I’m shit at fishing, I am a very good cook. And kingfish is my favourite eating fish. Its texture is firm but delicate, its flavour clean but strong. It makes subtle sashimi and it’s beautiful barbequed as thick steaks, dressed only in salt, pepper, lemon zest and chilli.
But my favourite way to serve kingfish is cured in citrus with fresh herbs. It’s perfect for summer: crisp, cool, zesty, and fresh.
While Peru’s “ceviche” appears to have claimed naming rights for most dishes that involve lime juice and coconut milk, the subtle variations on the recipe will take you on a journey around the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Fiji’s kokoda, Samoa’s oka, ota ika in Tonga, poke in Hawaii, kinilaw in the Philippines.
My recipe is a typically Kiwi multicultural melting pot of influences. Add or remove what you like depending on where you want to travel.
Heaps of limes
Lots of lemons
A pile of fresh coriander
A bunch of spring onion
Chilli (flakes or fresh)
Finally slice the spring onion and put it in a bowl with the citrus, to mellow the sharpness of the onion.
Cut the fish into small cubes and coat in the citrus onion mix, turning it over with your hands. Finely grate the ginger into the bowl. It will add heat and freshness. Season now, so the salt has time to flavour the fish.
You want the fish to cure in the citrus for at least 30 minutes in the fridge. The fish should turn firm and opaque.
Finely chop the coriander stalks and mix in with the fish. Coarsely chop the leaves and set aside for later, so they don't go soggy.
Half-peel the cucumber so you still have some outer skin but not the really tough part. Finely dice into small cubes. Cut the red pepper into similar size.
Add chilli. I like it when you can definitely feel the heat.
At this point, tip off some of the citrus so it isn't too juicy.
Add the coconut cream (shake the shit out of the can). I add just enough to coat the fish — you don't want it swimming in liquid.
Now, add heaps of coriander leaf. And check the seasoning. I like it salty, like the sea.
Serve on a thinly sliced, toasted piece of sourdough.