Monday, August 03, 2009

Hawaiian Food, Part 2: Local Style

Now we get into what is confusing for many people about food in Hawaii. Saying simply "Hawaiian food" should refer to what I described in the last post: food traditionally prepared by indigenous Hawaiian people. Local style food from Hawaii refers to the following:

1. Food that has been adopted or adapted from other places. A lot of this originated in the ethnic mix that resulted from the workers from many places to work the plantations, the largest and most common being those plantations owned by sugar companies. I would highly recommend a visit to the Hawaii Plantation Village, which preserves buildings and history from that bygone era of Hawaii's history.

The different groups (Hawaiians, Japanese, Okinawans, Portuguese, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, and others) lived among each other and both preserved their culture and also shared it. Food became a common denominator.

Nowadays, you see the evidence of that. To name just a few: Japanese teriyaki (a sweet and savory preparation for beef, chicken, and fish) and chicken katsu (breaded chicken deep fried and served with a special sauce), Korean kalbi (short ribs) and kimchee (usually spicy pickled cabbage), Okinawan sweet potatoes (the purple kind, easy to prepare: just boil or bake and slice), Portuguese sausage (the first successful commercial brand was Gouvea's in 1933, and some of the original company's family members attend Kailua UMC - the brand is now owned by a different company), Filipino lumpia (kind of like egg rolls but longer), Chinese gau gee (also like egg rolls, but longer and bigger), saimin (noodles in broth), oxtail soup, etc.

Rice became the dominant starch, and not only because many of the plantation workers were Asian. Rice was and is a staple that is simpler to prepare and has a longer shelf life than potatoes. With potatoes, the quantity of cooked to uncooked product is basically the same; you also have waste water as most of the cooking water is not used. Cooked rice absorbs all of the cooking water and becomes larger in quantity than uncooked rice. Plantations looking for a cheap way to feed the workers soon preferred rice over potatoes.

This led to the widespread development of the ubiquitous macaroni salad, which is the traditional accompaniment to any plate lunch. Potato salad was made, but again with the problems of storage, shelf life, and extra cooking steps (boiling, cooling, chopping). Sometime along the way, someone figured out that macaroni, a dry pasta with a longer shelf life and that also increases in size with cooking, would be cheaper and easier than potato salad.

2. Local style food also evolved from the realities of living on the most remote island chain on earth (the Hawaiian islands are the furthest from any continental land mass) and from the use of Hawaii as military installations. Canned food was prevalent because it could be shipped on boats safely and for long periods.

The best known of these is Spam, Hormel's celebrated and reviled "SPiced hAM," but actually made mostly from pork shoulder.

Spam makes its way to many local dishes, such as an accompaniment to eggs and rice for breakfast, a garnish for saimin, and in Spam musubi, rice formed into an oblong shape with a slice of fried Spam on top, all wrapped in a sheet of nori, which is made from seaweeed.

3. Some local dishes were apparently an invention of necessity. Loco moco is a legendary dish in Hawaii: a bed of rice, a hamburger patty, eggs (for me, over easy), and brown gravy poured all over (absolutely delicious, but yes, heart-stoppingly rich). There are many different theories as to how it was invented. Wikipedia credits the Lincoln Grill for the invention. Loyal to my family, I contend that the idea was conceived by my wife's uncle, who worked at a restaurant until late at night. When work was pau (finished), he wanted something to eat and what was left was rice, hamburger, and eggs. He had the cook put brown gravy over it, and there was the first loco moco, although he didn't name it that.

However the actual origin, there is no debate that it was invented on the Big Island of Hawaii, and most agree that the Cafe 100 in Hilo made loco moco popular. Apparently, the name was invented because the dish was described as crazy, and loco is the Spanish word for crazy. The moco part was added for rhyming reasons, without any idea what that meant.

When I talked about this dish with one of the members of my church who spoke Spanish and was from Texas, he was absolutely mortified. He said, "Do you know what loco moco means? It means "crazy [mucous]!!" Oh well, gross name, great dish.

You can get good loco moco almost anywhere. In Kailua, the best are from Cinnamon's and Times restaurants. If you had to ask me, however, which one is my favorite, it would probably be the one at the Like Like Drive-in on Keeaumoku Street in Honolulu. But it's definitely a personal thing and there are different opinions as to whose is best.

Grace and aloha,


P. S. Another thing I love about Hawaii is the ethnic diversity. There is no majority group here, and although prejudice is still present in some forms, there is definitely much more understanding and respect for different cultures and ethnicities than just about anywhere else. I think this is on the right track to what God had in mind when all of the languages of earth were understood by the people at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Who knows, maybe it had something to do with the food...just a little later on, the people were all eating and sharing together. Maybe it was a big potluck and eating each other's food was a great way to connect. Thank God for diversity and food!


Kari said...

I have to say I am not hugely fond of local food. It's so hard to get anything (except our famous sticky rice!) without meat alongside or mixed in.
Having never had a loco moco (taste reasons rather than lack of opportunity) I must say most people who have had it, love it!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm! I have to admit that your blogs are awesone! I'm sure that Wendall and Michael would agree on your Loco Moco restaurant choice.....they too, seem to be experts.
Until our next Sunday escapade (in search of fine food) I bid you all good night!!