Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fifty Foods for Fifty Years: Commemorating Hawaii’s Statehood

Hawaii, nearly three thousand miles from the West Coast of the United States, became our country’s fiftieth state on August 21, 1959. Despite the intervening fifty years, much of the Islands’ culture remains unknown to mainlanders. This is particularly true of the food of Hawaii, which has absorbed the varied culinary influences of its population perhaps more than any other U.S. state.

To commemorate Hawaii’s statehood I have compiled a list of fifty foods of Hawaii that will help the uninitiated learn what feeds this beautiful, far-off state.

Fish, of course, has always been a Hawaiian staple. Mahimahi (dolphin fish) is perhaps the most familiar fish to mainlanders. Real mahimahi has been overfished in recent years, however, and much of what appears on menus is a different variety of whitefish. Another local fish commonly found in markets and on menus is ono (wahoo), which is similar to king mackerel but more versatile in its pairings.

Fresh mahimahi (wearing the tail of another fish on its head) in Chinatown

While mainlanders have learned to love sushi, poke (cubed fish salad) remains little known. Traditional poke consists of raw fish, aleae (sea salt), inamona (kikui nuts), and limu (a seaweed and ancient seasoning). Today, poke can be made from almost anything. Ahi (yellowfin tuna) is the most popular poke, found in Island stores raw, dried, or salt-cured, and served in restaurants as a pupu (appetizer).

Poke selection at Tanioka's Seafood & Catering, in Waipahu

One of my favorite kinds of poke uses opihi (limpets), which can come from the ocean or a freshwater stream.

Opihi poke, from Tamashiro Market

(skipjack tuna) is another popular poke fish, and its bones are used in stocks and can even be eaten fried.

Fresh aku in Chinatown

One also finds edible ocean plants in the local diet. Ogo, a type of limu harvested mainly on specialized farms on the island of Molokai, is the most common seaweed eaten in Hawaii, and local groceries carry it both dry and fresh.

Ogo sold in a Big Island Foodland

Sea asparagus, while not as popular as seaweed, is starting to catch on, partly due to its nutritional benefits.

Sea asparagus, from Kapiolani Farmer's Market

Shortly after Captain James Cook landed on the Islands in 1778, Hawaii served as a provisioning stop for European and American sailors. When the Hawaiians feted Cook at a luau (a traditional feast) at Kealakekua Bay, on the Big Island, he was served, among other dishes, kalua pig – salted pork slow-cooked in an imu (a pit filled with heated stones).

Kalua pork lunch plate from Keneke's in Waimanalo

But luau is also a dish made from coconut milk, long-stewed taro leaves – “luau” means “taro” in Hawaiian – and either squid, octopus, or chicken.

Luau squid from Helena's in Kalihi

Taro also features in poi, perhaps Hawaii’s best-known food. Poi is a buoyant, tangy dish in which the tube root of the taro is fermented, baked, and then pounded into a paste. If any food verges on the sacred in Hawaii, it is poi.

Another Hawaiian dish is laulau, which today is found frequently on plate lunch menus alongside rice and macaroni salad. Laulau consists of salted butterfish and either chicken, beef, or pork, all of it wrapped in taro tops and steamed in ti leaves.

And although salmon is not an endemic fish, lomilomi salmon is often served at luaus and in plate lunches. Lomi refers to an Island massage technique applied to salted salmon mixed with tomatoes.

Huli-huli is a sweetly pungent marinade used with rotisserie chicken. Huli-huli chicken is popular at large gatherings and is often sold on the weekends by streetside or parking lot vendors.

Hulihuli chicken in Haleiwa

Chili water is a common household seasoning in Hawaii. Made from hot red chili peppers, crushed garlic, salt, and vinegar, it goes well as a condiment on many dishes.

Although taro is by far the most important local tuber, the ‘uala (purple sweet potato) has long been significant to the Hawaiian diet. It also features in many ethnic recipes, particularly among Filipinos who often eat its leaves.

'uala, or purple sweet potatoes

Cook’s arrival paved the way for others, who inevitably brought with them their own foods and culinary predilections. The Chinese were the first migrant group to appear, arriving in the 1770s to work on local sugar plantations. The Japanese were next, also to become plantation workers, followed by Portuguese from the Azores islands, and then the Filipinos. These groups introduced many dishes that have long been incorporated into the local food landscape.

One of numerous Chinese contributions to local cuisine, but perhaps the most influenced by local tastes, is manapua. These baked, baseball-size Chinese buns are traditionally made with pork, but in Hawaii they come with various fillings. Long rice is another Chinese-inspired dish, though this, too, has been adapted to local tastes. Consisting of cellophane noodles, onions, and usually chicken, this is yet another luau staple.

Manapua stuffed with curried chicken, from Royal Kitchen

The Japanese, too, have contributed significantly to the local diet, and bento boxes, sushi restaurants, ramen shops, and even katsudon restaurants are easily found here. Shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) is a seasoning that has grabbed a foothold in Hawaii. Hawaiian shoyu lacks the alcohol that Japanese shoyu contains, and is also slightly saltier. Shoyu chicken, shoyu pork, and shoyu-based dressings are all popular in Hawaii.

Portuguese food also holds great importance in Hawaii. Laborers from the Azores brought with them a European cuisine, but their most widely consumed contribution is the malasada (deep-fried doughnut).

Malasadas from Tex Drive In, Big Island

When the first Filipino immigrants arrived, in the decade preceding World War II, they introduced a unique cuisine that was different from anything the Islands had seen. Local people embraced it, and one commonly finds adobo (stewed chicken or pork) and pork guisantes (stewed pork with peas and tomatoes) at many food outlets.

More recently, Korean cuisine has made headway into the Hawaiian food scene, especially on Oahu. Kim chee (spicy pickled vegetables made with garlic and red chili pepper) is widely available, and kalbi (thin slices of grilled beef marinated in Korean soy sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger, and sesame oil) is a popular plate lunch item.

Another local favorite is musubi. Wander into any convenience store, farmer’s market, or local grocery, and you’ll find musubi. Musubi is usually a slab of Spam atop a brick of salted rice, held together with dried seaweed. Spam, however, can be replaced by hot dogs halved lengthwise, or it can be dressed up, for example, with teriyaki sauce.

At the Hilo Farmer's Market, all the Spam musubi you could dream of

Spam is also eaten in saimin, a plantation-era noodle dish that typically includes omelet shreds, chopped green onions, fish cake (oden), and char siu (Chinese barbecued pork) in a savory fish broth. Nobody is sure whether the Chinese or Japanese in Hawaii developed the dish, but its popularity is indisputable: many local McDonald’s have it on their menu.

Char siu shop, Chinatown

Loco moco is another signature local dish. Hailing from Hilo, on the Big Island, this breakfast dish is not for the weak of heart (medically speaking). Loco moco is often made from two or more hamburger patties, two or more fried eggs, scoops of white rice, macaroni salad, and topped with thick gravy.

Loco moco from Nico's Pier 38

Snacking is big in Hawaii, and a world of small bites is easily found. Pipikaula (salted, dried beef often marinated in soy sauce) has been around since the mid-1800s, and was a common hip-companion of the pañiolas (Hawaiian cowboys). Another snack, although primarily consumed by tourists, is macadamia nuts. Native to Australia, and a relatively new commercial crop in Hawaii, they are also manufactured into healthy cooking and salad oils.

Helena's famous pipikaula

And Hawaii is a paradise for sweets. From andagi (Okinawan fried doughnuts) to shave ice (flavored syrup poured over finely shaved ice), sweets are ubiquitous. Mochi is a Japanese contribution. This short-grained, glutinous rice is cooked, pounded, and made into cakes that can be enjoyed plain, flavored, or filled with sweet pastes. Then there are desserts based on the Islands’ exotic fruits. Examples include haupia (a firm coconut milk pudding) and the various forms that lilikoi (passionfruit) takes: syrups, jams, sauces, drinks, fillings, frostings, cookies, and cakes. While crack seed is not a dessert per se, these colorful dried fruits are favorites among kids.

Another fruit is the Ohelo berry. Native to Hawaii, it grows particularly well in volcanic soil at high elevations. The Big Island is home to many Ohelo berry orchards, and also to the Poha berry, which is tarter. Both are used in jams and glazes, and the latter especially in ice creams.

With all this lip-smacking food, you’ll want something to wash it down with. Hawaii’s famous Kona coffee should do the trick. The high elevations in the north and south districts of Kona, on the Big Island, are best suited for growing Kona coffee beans, and its rarity in the marketplace results in a high price.

Ripening Kona coffee beans along a Big Island highway

More than almost any other U.S. state, Hawaii’s history can be read in its food. Like the geologist who studies the substance and history of the earth, along with the processes that shape it, an open-minded eater can learn much about Hawaii’s past and those who have helped make the Islands a paradise – of abundance, of flavors, and of diversity.

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  1. Hi.. glad to see you are posting back again! :)

  2. Hi Sapuche, your post is really revealing. I enjoyed to read every word and learn more about an island on the other side of the world. thanks for sharing. Anja from Germany

  3. What a great summary of Hawaiian foods on a great occasion! I would love to come back to Hawaii sometimes soon and enjoy all these wonderful specialties!

  4. There's Hawaiian food all over the net this week! Oh, please to have that manapua!

  5. Hey Sapuche, long time no hearing from you,..Are you okey?
    We missed your beauties of fine posts!

    This post was very usuful & informative!! There is a lot of food that I don't like but the sea asparagus, mahi mahi & the manapua stuffed with curried chicken look sublime!!

  6. Selba: Well, not exactly back. At least not yet. I actually wrote this a long time ago and just now decided to post it. :) Thanks for not forgetting me or my blog!

    Anja: I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed this post, and I appreciate the kind words you left for me. By the way, you're a genius with your camera!

    5 Star Foodie: Thank you! I hope you and your family make a trip to Hawaii soon. There's more than enough wonderful food in the Islands to make you happy. :)

    Duo Dishes: I guess Hawaii's all over the Net because of the 50th anniversary. Whoo-hoo! Hawaiian food! Thanks for returning to my blog even though I've been out of action for a while... :)

    Sophie: I'm glad to see you're still visiting my blog! I've been offline for a long time, it's true, but hopefully that will change soon. I'll be back...I just don't know when. Anyway, I'm sorry you don't like a lot of the food I mentioned, but I'm glad a few things caught your interest! It was fun collecting all this information and trying so many different foods.

  7. Hi Sapuche, I missed you, hope everything is okay, this post was really nice, filled with delicious treats.

  8. What a great post this is! So many delicious foods. I hope to take an extended trip to Hawaii one day and try some of these for myself. The loco moco sounds crazy! So heavy and rich.

  9. What an excellent post! I am so glad to see a more culinary side of Hawaii. We haven't been there, but you are so right in your comments that mainlanders don't know much about the depths of the culinary history. Hawaii is always three things - pineapples, Kona coffee, and macadamia nuts. It is so nice to learn about all this wonderful food!

  10. Thanks for this interesting article and the great photos. I learned a lot!

  11. He's back, and with a heck of a bang too! What a wonderful informative post, I confess to checking airline tickets to Hawaii by the end because some of the food you described was so tempting. This post is a fantastic tribute to Hawaii's culinary scene!

  12. It's great to 'read' you again! Hope all is well with you and your wife. 8-)

    What an amazing array of Hawaiian foods! I can barely claim to have tasted a half dozen of these; I've had some of the others but not in the islands. I was rather surprised to learn recently and read on this post about the influence of Portuguese immigrants - now I want a dozen of those malasadas!

    Have you tasted all of these? Which are your faves?

  13. Wow, I’m humbled by the response to this post, especially since I’ve been off the radar for quite a while. Thank you, everyone, for your blogging friendship and interest in how I’m doing.

    Anna: Thank you! Everything is…okay. Or it will be soon. I think. What makes me happy right now is that you read my post and enjoyed it. As I’ve said before, please give me another month or so before I’m back to my old blogging ways. :)

    Reeni: I’m glad you enjoyed this post about Hawaiian food! Yes, it’s hard for me to look at the photos because they make me want to go out and eat. The loco moco is definitely crazy – the photo doesn’t do it justice. Loco moco can be a very basic dish, but it can also be super colorful and snazzed up in really interesting ways. By the way, I ate that entire loco moco in one sitting…even though I was planning to divide it into two separate meals. It was that good.

    Lori: Thanks! I know that you and your husband travel quite a bit, and I hope Hawaii ends up on your itinerary soon. Like you said, very particular images pop into people’s minds at the mention of Hawaii – which is understandable considering that Hawaii promotes very particular aspects of its natural and cultural heritage. But there’s so much here to explore, and it’s all really ono. :)

    Susan: Ah, you’re welcome! Thanks for taking the time to read my post and commenting on it! But with your interest in all things Hawaiian, I’m sure you’ve tried most of these foods already. Can you get Hawaiian food in Oregon?

    OysterCulture: Hahaha. I worried that it would sound more like a whimper than a bang, but I’m glad you enjoyed it. You know what’s crazy about tickets to Hawaii right now – it’s cheaper to fly between Japan and Hawaii than between the mainland and Hawaii. I hope you can find a reasonably priced seat!

    Tangled Noodle: Ah, thank you – it’s great to be read again! :) I’m guessing that two of the abovementioned foods you’ve tried are adobo and pork guisantes? Unfortunately, there aren’t many Filipino restaurants around town, though Chinatown has a decent concentration of them. And malasadas are hugely popular here—and for good reason. But yes, I was surprised, too, when I learned about the influence of Portuguese immigrants here. Before, whenever I thought about Hawaii, I only imagined the various Asian cultures that have come together here. To answer your questions: the only things I haven’t tasted from my post are kikui nuts, crack seed, and saimin. As for my faves (plural, thank you!), I’d have to say malasadas (from Leonard’s), loco moco (it’s surprisingly satisfying), luau squid (it tastes so much better than it looks), pipikaula (great with beer), huli-huli chicken (it’s unreal good in Haleiwa, on the North Shore), and a version of char siu that’s served with ramen at a local ramen-ya called Gomatei (one of these days I’ll review them). You’ve made me hungry just thinking about all these foods again!

  14. After reading this post I truly,truly miss Hawaii. My husband and I lived in Mililani for 3 years while we were in the Army, and I know of all these fabulous places and great tastes. What I wouldn't do for a malasada from Leonard's! One of our favorite foods to make is Kalua pork -- sooo good! Thanks so much for sharing. ~Mina

  15. I love this post on local Hawaiian foods. Of course, I haven't tried them all, but I love laulau.

  16. Sapuche, welcome back. You've done a wonderful job of explaining Hawaiian food. I had not realized the diversity and richness of Hawaiian food. I'd like to try the kona coffee beans; especially since they're rare in markets. Happy anniversary Hawaii!

  17. Hey - great to read you again... I'm embarrassed to say that, even though I've been to Hawaii once, many years ago (just to the Big Island), that I managed to miss most of these foods - except the mahi mahi and coffee I think. Let's just say that if I should ever get the opportunity to go back there, I would be going armed with a copy of this post and it would be a very different experience!

  18. Sapuche! You've returned! Hope you had a good break. I bet you've been busy writing.

    You certainly returned with a bang! This is a wonderful post. I always learn so much reading your blog. The asparagus seaweed is so dainty. I love its shape. I love seeing ingredients that I've never heard of.

    I wish I were coming back to Hawaii, too, now. I know I will one day and I'll track down all of these delicacies.

  19. Epicurean’s Market: I’m sorry to make you pine for Hawaii more, but I’m glad you enjoyed my post. :) If I ever leave Hawaii, I’m sure I’ll miss Leonards’ malasadas, too, along with dozens of other local grindz. It’s great that you and your husband make Kalua pork at home. I’m sure it’s nice being able to conjure up some Island flavors in your kitchen!

    Sugarlens: I’m glad you liked this post! And I can understand your love of laulau. I guess that’s not something you can easily get where you live?

    Mediterranean Turkish Cook: Thanks for welcoming me back! Except I won’t be fully back for a few more weeks… :( I appreciate your kind words about my post! Until I moved here – and I’d visited here twice before – I never realized the diversity and richness of Hawaiian food, either. I feel really fortunate to have discovered both things this time around. I wonder if you can find Kona coffee where you are – the problem is that it’s so expensive!

    Daily Spud: Ah, thank you! It’s great having you read me again. :) Don’t feel embarrassed for missing most of the foods I wrote about – I missed most of them on previous visits, too! If you ever make it back here, I’d be more than flattered if you thought to take a copy of this post with you. And I’ll be eager to read your posts on all the great food discoveries you make here!

    Kim: Thank you for your nice comments! And yes, I’m slowly making my way back to writing about food. Hopefully I’ll be back to my old ways soon. :) I agree with you totally about the sea asparagus – it’s beautiful until you cook it (though it doesn’t have to be cooked), at which point it loses its luster and becomes dark like spinach. It keeps that cool shape, however. I’m glad to hear you plan to visit Hawaii again soon. When you do, I hope this post helps you decide what you want to eat while you’re here. :)

  20. Did you say many local McDonald's have char siu in their menu? Gosh, we don't even get such yummy stuff in our local McDonald's!

  21. You have an interesting blog writing about different foods from all over the world. It was a great read. Keep on writing about food. Regards.

  22. I've had the huli huli chicken in Haleiwa - it was perfect to stash along with goodies in our cooler and spend the day up in North Shore!

  23. Me gusta kaslik!