The Opihi Shellfish Story
What’s going on underneath those shells? From gastronomy to conservation to evolutionary biology, we pry the secrets out of these little limpets.
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Of all the gastropods in the sea, Hawaii loves the humble opihi best of all. With shells shaped like miniature Mount Fujis, the tenacious way they cling to rocks and a sharp saltiness that complements the mildness of poi so well, opihi are both cultural treasure and coveted pupu.
You will find them in the wild along remote shorelines from the Big Island all the way to Gardner Pinnacle, the last barren outcrop in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. You will find them rattling around in bags tied to the waists of opihi pickers, who risk their necks to get them. You will find them next to the poke in Honolulu fish markets, selling for up to $18 per pound in the shell. But as a rule, you won’t find them along any stretch of coast where you can also find a place to park, because where people go, the opihi disappear—often right down the gullet of whoever sees them first.
When it comes to fresh Hawaiian seafood, nothing spends less time in transit than the opihi plucked off the rocks and slurped right out of the shell, wriggling tentacles and all. They are typically eaten raw, either plain or poke style, with limu and a dash of sea salt. They also go well on the grill, seasoned with shoyu and ginger perhaps, or a splash of Tabasco or, in a pinch, a spare packet of Taco Bell hot sauce.
At the haute end of the spectrum, there’s a New Wave Opihi Shooter on the appetizer menu at Alan Wong’s—a single raw opihi in a narrow cordial glass filled with spicy tomato water, fennel, basil and ume shiso essence, all meant to be downed in one gulp. Chef George Mavrothalassitis, of Chef Mavro restaurant, once substituted opihi for abalone in a ceviche. It turned out great, he says, but he admits that he prefers his opihi live and unadorned. “The best way is to go to the rocks, grab some opihi, a baguette, a bottle of white wine, and it’s enough,” he says. He is, of course, French. Most opihi lovers would take a cold Heineken over a glass of wine.