Chef Howard Hanna’s love of food, family recipes and traditional cooking techniques initially blossomed during a trip he took at 26 to the Polynesian island of Samoa in the South Pacific.
Returning to the birthplace of his mother, Atina Amosa Hanna, the executive chef of the Rieger realized that good food not only nourishes the body, it renews and sustains relationships when many gather around the table to share a meal. And his Samoan heritage continues to inform his choice to use the best in-season ingredients.
“My mother was born in the small village of Faleapuna, and my father, Jerry Hanna, fell in love with Samoa and my mother after becoming a Peace Corps volunteer,” Hanna says. “They were married under a tree in Samoa in 1971, and then that next summer, moved to Manhattan, Kansas, where my two sisters and I were raised.”
Even though both of Hanna’s parents have died, the importance of family and food stay with him. His recipe for Ota I’a is a common snack in Samoa, made from fresh seafood and eaten out of cups outdoors.
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“Ota I’a is a lot like ceviche in Latin America, in that it uses the acid in the citrus to ‘cook’ the fish, but includes coconut milk in the Samoan version,” Hanna says. “It’s a dish that can vary greatly based on availability of seafood and personal taste but can be made with the addition of any crunchy vegetables or bright herbs.”
Tuna, snapper, marlin, shrimp and oysters can be used. “Samoans love all kinds of seafood, so living here in the Midwest, I’ll sometimes throw in very non-Polynesian fish like salmon and bay scallops,” he says. “To me it’s still Ota I’a, but the important thing is that whatever fish you decide to use, it is super-fresh and of excellent quality.”
As the fish marinates, the acid in the juice denatures the proteins, much like heat does during a sauté. The texture of the fish firms and its appearance turns opaque.
“Most Samoans eat Ota I’a with a spoon, but it can also be served over butter lettuce leaves, on slices of cucumber or on crackers,” Hanna says. “It’s not traditional, but I also love it with hot sauce.”
The older Hanna gets, the more he recognizes his Samoan side. “My mother wasn’t afraid and was very supportive of my career choice,” Hanna says. “Samoan men have both a toughness and tenderness; both are equally important when you run a restaurant and feed people for a living.”
▪ The Rieger, 1924 Main St., 816-471-2177, theriegerkc.com
Samoan Marinated Seafood Salad or Ota I’a
The freshness of the fish is imperative for this dish. Chef Howard Hanna of the Rieger buys his fish from Broadway Butcher Shop, 3828 Broadway. Call Stuart Aldridge at 816-931-2333 to order or check availability of fish.
Makes 4 servings
1 (1-pound) fillet nairagi (Hawaiian-striped marlin) or kajiki (Hawaiian blue marlin)
3 large lemons, squeezed (1/2 cup juice)
3 large limes, squeezed (1/2 cup juice)
1 (1-pound) fillet ahi tuna
1 small red onion, minced
3 mini cucumbers, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon salt, divided use
4 green onions
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Using a sharp knife, cut nairagi (or kajiki) into uniform 1/2 -inch pieces and place fish into a medium-sized glass mixing bowl. Pour freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice over fish, ensuring every piece is submerged in liquid. Set aside and allow fish to marinate in citrus juice while preparing other ingredients.
Using a sharp knife, cut ahi tuna into uniform 1/2 -inch pieces and place in a separate, clean glass bowl with lid. Place in refrigerator to allow tuna to remain cold.
Place onion and cucumbers into a fine mesh sieve, place over a clean bowl. Sprinkle vegetables with 1/2 teaspoon salt, which will draw water out of vegetables. Wash green onions, trim roots and 2-inches from green tops, and slice into thin rounds. Combine green onion and parsley in a small mixing bowl and set aside.
After about 20 minutes, the denaturing of the nairagi should be complete, changing the rosy hue of the fish to an opaque color and becoming firmer in texture. Stir tuna pieces into bowl, ensuring fish is submerged in citrus juices. Allow fish to marinate 3 minutes more.
Pour contents of bowl into a colander placed in the sink, draining citrus juices. Pour fish back into bowl and set aside.
Using a paper towel, lightly press sieve filled with onion and cucumber, squeezing out any excess moisture, and then add to bowl with fish. Gently stir in green onions, parsley and coconut milk. Season with salt and pepper.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and, after chilling in refrigerator for 30 minutes, the dish is ready to be served. Spoon onto plates and enjoy immediately.
Per serving: 503 calories (45 percent from fat), 26 grams total fat (21 grams saturated), 93 milligrams cholesterol, 18 grams carbohydrates, 54 grams protein, 669 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.