Saimin is one of the definitive dishes of Hawaii, perhaps THE definitive dish. Although the name is Chinese - the word means "thin noodles" - it has its roots in plantation life when Hawaii was the primary producer of sugar and pineapple for the world and attracted laborers from all over the world. The noodle itself is very similar to Japanese ramen, although to me, saimin has a slightly different texture, maybe just a bit more glutenous than ramen. When the different ethnic groups came home from a long day, different things went into a soup pot, like Korean won bok, Chinese char siu and wonton, Japanese dashi, maybe green onion from a Filipino garden, eggs from a Hawaiian hen house, Portuguese sausage (although this is rarely an ingredient in saimin now). As the dish evolved, Spam became a standard ingredient. Saimin is ubiquitous - even McDonald's has added it to their menu in Hawaii.
While Zippy's saimin is probably eaten the most - and it is very good - my favorite is still Shiro's Saimin Haven in Waimalu, just past the Pearlridge Mall on the way to Pearl Highlands. Owner Shiro Matsuo is now 90 years old, and is still in good health - not doubt because of the health benefits of saimin. Known as “Mistah Saimin,” the former tenured professor turned restaurateur serves up a perfect bowl of saimin.
When I first began eating at Shiro's 25 years ago, the restaurant was a definite hole in the wall, with that old fashioned 60's look. Shiro is a poet/philosopher, and many of his sayings graced the wall in plain paper, usually with the salutation "Dear Hearts...." Here is his description of the restaurant:
"The place with a song in its heart and dedicated to the proposition that the hard working people must be taken care of with invigorating, nourishing, soulsifying food that is not too skimpy, plenty tasty and geared to the pocketbook."
Several years ago, the restaurant received a complete makeover, and now has a bright, attractive interior. Shiro's musings are still on the walls, only now framed and with Local Hawaiian pictures and prints in the background.
Shiro's has a huge menu: there are 60 varieties of saimin (Shiro likes to say that while Baskin-Robbins only has 31 flavors, he has nearly twice as many). There are also standard Local Hawaii style coffee shop items, but in a quarter century of dining there, I have never had anything but saimin.
The saimin choices differ in the kind of garnishes you order. The standard is a bit of char siu, won bok, carrot, and green onion. You can get roast duck added to the saimin (broadcaster Joe Moore's favorite, No. 59), you can get a hot dog, tripe stew, laulau, pork adobo, or even scallops. No. 60 is always reserved for a local celebrity's preference. These days, it's Linda Lingle saimin: one beef teri stick to accompany a standard wun tun min.
On this visit with my family, Becky got wun tun min and the girls got got one order of keiki saimin for both of them, which was plenty. All enjoyed theirs.
For the benefit of my blog readers, I got No. 58, the Dodonpa, the specialty of the house: 10 different garnishes (in addition to the basic ones) including one deep fried shrimp served on the side, Chinese Roast Pork, imitation crab, egg pancake sliced into a cake, roast beef, luncheon meat, mushroom, wun tun (the local way to spell wonton if it goes into saimin), mushrooms, and of course, Spam. It is served in a huge Chinese style soup bowl, like when you serve several guests at a banquet. I haven't had one in years, but it is still terrific: the broth is subtle but just right, and all of the ingredients really do work. If that wasn't enough, I also had a side of kimchi, made the local Hawaii style: a lot of ginger and not too much garlic.
One of the best things I love about Shiro's is that you can order the noodles three different ways: rare, medium, well done. As someone definitely from the al dente school of preparing pasta, I appreciate the option of having my noodles with a shorter cook time, so that they remain firm and chewy throughout my meal. There is not much worse than soggy noodles (Koreans even have a specific word for it, which sounds something like puh-duh-suh). Becky also ordered her noodles rare, and really enjoyed them as well.
Shiro's is definitely a local hangout. What you will come to notice is that many locals will eat saimin in a distinctive way. I remember my friend Val (the Punahou foodie) being on the mainland, and someone asked her how long had it been since she moved from Hawaii. She asked, "How did you know I was from Hawaii?" The reply was, "The way you eat noodles."
The local way to eat saimin (also adopted by some non-local longtime residents like me): dip the Chinese soup spoon into a dish of shoyu and Chinese mustard and get just a bit; get some broth from your bowl, being careful not to let the shoyu mustard run off into the bowl; top it off with noodles and/or garnish or wuntun; then take the entire spoonful into your mouth. It's a delicate balancing act at times, but it's a delicious way to do it...a burst of flavor, which is more satisfying than slurping some noodles first, then taking a spoonful of broth; or pouring shoyu mustard into the entire broth.
Live long and well, Shiro...you are a living treasure.
Grace and aloha,
P. S. Yesterday we had Holy Communion in church, which is one of the two sacraments (visible signs of God’s grace, or unconditional love, favor, acceptance; the other is baptism) in the United Methodist Church and most Protestant denominations. The Roman Catholic Church has 7 sacraments, which include penance (confession), marriage, and last rites. The Protestant churches have reduced the sacraments to the two “necessary” ones.
Holy Communion has its beginnings in the last supper which Jesus had with his disciples before his arrest, flogging, crucifixion and resurrection; the meal itself was a Passover Meal, one the most important holidays in Judaism, which remembers God delivering the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. At this meal, Jesus said for his disciples always to remember him whenever they ate or drank.
That Jesus chose the most basic of human activities as the way for them to remember him is amazing and utter genius, which probably does not do Jesus justice as a description. Let me share a few excerpts from my sermon from yesterday:
“Why do I blog about food? Because I believe that food is deeply spiritual. Just on the surface when is it that most people pray? When it is time to eat. The most frequent time that most people pray, is at mealtime. Even non-religious people are usually okay about mealtime prayers.
“Food is a gift of grace from God. We even call that prayer at meal times grace: the unconditional love of God.
“In Luke 24:35 is says that ‘he had been made known to [a few of the disciples] in the breaking of the bread.’
“It was in food that they saw glimpses of Jesus…of God’s unconditional love…of the understanding of wonder, joy, and deep satisfaction.
“The next time you eat, I want you to be aware of the gift that food brings…of how it gives us glimpses of God….”
May it be so for you always.