A Review of Suisan Fish Market: Although the classic Hawaiian diced raw fish dish known as “poke” has gained great popularity on the mainland in the past decade, locals in the town of Hilo and elsewhere were eating it many years before to little fanfare.
It began with local fishermen in the islands saving the cut-off parts of their catch and adding seasonings to them to eat as a snack. In the 1970s, poke became increasingly popular and eventually evolved into an entire subsection of contemporary Hawaiian cuisine. It is most commonly prepared with cubes of yellowfin tuna also known as “ahi”, and skipjack tuna called “aku”, along with embellishments like green onions, sesame oil, Maui onions, sea salt and the pungent seaweed known as “limu”. Some poke batches are seasoned with soy sauce, wasabi paste, chili peppers and fish eggs, while a more traditional form includes roasted, salted ground candlenut.
Most of these varieties and several more are served up daily at Suisan Fish Market, which has been selling fish and poke out of the same location at the mouth of the Wailoa River along Hilo’s bayfront for several generations. The business has seen its fair share of setbacks, including the crashing of two massively destructive tsunamis into the city’s usually-sheltered bay of rocky black sand beaches in both 1946 and 1960. But the owners stuck it out, and over the years have seen Suisan grow to become the largest food distribution company on Big Island.
Suisan runs warehouses all over the island, but maintains its original windswept riverfront fish market as a place for retail sales, and informally as a historic landmark. The store smells strongly of fish immediately upon entering, undoubtedly a testament to the freshness of the catch, but for people who are bothered by the smell it could be a bit too much. Visitors first come upon refrigerated display cases full of vacuum sealed large fresh fish cuts of various species, informed by the plastic notecards attached to the racks. This is the place to pick up a mouth-watering ahi steak for a backyard barbecue, or to find a juicy slab of mahi-mahi for an unforgettable batch of fish tacos.
Beyond the full cuts of fish is another, larger display case crammed with all of Suisan’s prepared food. Several different types of classic poke are available, made with raw ahi, aku, hamachi, and salmon. Then there are the many side dishes, like crab and lobster salad, kim chee, octopus, sweet potato and seaweed salad. All the to-go bowls and plates they serve include a side of either brown rice or “hapa” – meaning mixed white and brown rice. Their pricing is based on number of scoops: 1-Choice Bowl, 2-Choice Bowl, “Small Kine” Bowl and Plate, all with their corresponding number of side dishes.
All these delicacies are available for purchase by the pound in bulk containers, too, and sometimes Suisan will only sell certain varieties by the pound. Refrigerated cases at the far end of the store contain packages of dried fish and containers of freshly made poi, as well as smaller pre-packaged portions of fish steaks and cubes. Much of its inventory is based on availability, as the company has built its business around the freshest fish possible, so it’s not uncommon to see half of the display cases empty, especially after the mid-day lunch rush.
How To Get There:
Suisan Fish Market can be found on Lihiwai Street along Hilo’s iconic waterfront, just off of Kamehameha Avenue. Look for the blue building with glowing neon red sign right next to the river’s mouth. The shop is situated half a block from the eastern entrance to Banyan Drive, the historic winding thoroughfare of towering banyan trees, picturesque beach parks and the city’s most luxurious hotels. It’s open from 9:00am to 3:00pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and closed on Sunday and Wednesday. Other sights within walking distance of Suisan include the serene and always green Liliuokalani Gardens, Reed’s Bay Beach Park, and the palm-lined rocky outcrop jutting out into the bay called Coconut Island, or “Moku Ola” (Island of Life) in Hawaiian.