Saturday, December 27, 2008



We called them Nehu.

On warm, still, Saturday evenings, when the moon was full, and the tide was low, we would all head over to my Grandma's beach house in Kaneohe. Those evenings were perfect conditions for torching. After the sun went down and the tide was just right, my Grandpa, Dad and Uncles would fire up the Coleman kerosene lanterns. My brothers, cousins and I would watch intently hoping to one day be in charge of the light. Sometimes, the lanterns didn't fire up right away and glow bright or they would flicker. That usually meant changing one of the mantles, the net like filament held inside the globe. I remember the hissing sound a good strong lantern made and the clean smell of burning kerosene. Once burning brightly, the lanterns were easily quieted with a quick turn of the adjustment knob. It was important for the light to burn bright so we could see three feet or so beneath the surface of the water to the mudflat below. This is where the oama slept.

Grandma at her Beach House

To catch oama, we would gently lower a faded red, flat bottomed scoop net into the water just in front of a slumbering oama. Once the rim of the net was resting flush with the ocean floor you would slowly lift your foot up and stomp as hard as you could right behind the oama's tail while almost simultaneously jerking the net up. Sand and mud immediately went up in plumes completely clouding up the surrounding water. Sometimes when you held your net up to the lantern there would be an oama in it. Sometimes even two, if you were lucky- and skilled that is. Sometimes the net was empty.

, or juvenile goatfish
(image courtesy

The evenings catch would be taken back to the beachhouse and Grandma would sometimes clean and fry them but usually she would pickle them whole, minus gills and guts, with vinegar and onion. As a kid, I was never too fond of eating them that way. Although the vinegar softened them up a bit, there were still bones and fins and other poky things to contend with.

Oama in Net
(image courtesy

A lantern glowing in the middle of a dark ocean will attract all sorts of creatures. I can recall seeing tako and cuttlefish and I think we even saw a ray of some kind slowly glide by once, not to mention all the other imaginary creatures that swam just out of view beyond the light's reach.

The light would often attract nehu; inch or inch and a half long fry or maybe they were anchovies of a sort. Some might simply call them bait fish (they weren't bait to us though). You would see their silvery sides glistening in the dim light as they schooled around, probably feeding on the plankton soup that was also attracted to the light source. All you have to do is sweep your net back and forth to catch them. It was easy enough to net a couple of handfuls. This was a nice consolation if the oama decided to sleep elsewhere.

We'd take the nehu back to the beachhouse kitchen where Grandma or Grandpa would lightly dust them with flour, guts, gills, bones and all, and quickly deep fry them in hot oil and season them with nothing but salt. They were good and crunchy and you could eat them whole without worrying about bones because they were so crispy.


Fast forward a few, (actually many) years. I saw a recipe for a Spanish tapa called boquerones and it reminded me of nehu. I imagine there are many cultures that eat these little guys in the same way. When I was doing our Christmas food shopping at Santa Monica Seafood, I found these little smelt in the frozen case and thought I'd try them nehu style, just flour, a little salt and pepper and deep fried 'til crispy. They were almost as good as I remembered, although I don't think anything can replace venturing out torching and actually catching them myself.


The Death Metal Soccer Coach said...

That was an awesome read. So much memories of small kid time. Your "nehu" looked like it came out awesome.

I took your story one step further, and now I can't stop thinking about neck tie fish. Yuck!!

B said...

Thanks DMSC. I think the older I'm getting, the more nostalgic I'm getting. It's fun to get these memories down before I start to forget them.
Thanks for reminding me of necktie fish! Now I can't get the image of them out of my head too!!! Double YUK!