Foods That Make Hawaii Unique

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - March 10, 2010

My parents brought me up on meat and potatoes - almost literally. Pa Boylan butchered at the Joe Tittle and Sons meat market at 519 Broadway, Gary, Ind. On Saturday nights he brought home the family’s supply of steaks, chops, roasts, luncheon meat and hamburger for the following week.

In her small but serviceable kitchen in a humble suburb called East Gary, Ma Boylan boiled potatoes and heated a can of corn or peas. She added them to an over-cooked chop to make the evening meal.

That was it: meat, potatoes and canned vegetables every night for the 18 years I lived under my parents’roof. For the next few years at a series of Midwestern universities I consumed institutional cafeteria fare that consisted of - you guessed it - meat, potatoes and frozen vegetables. Awful.

Hawaii saved me. If I’d remained in the Great Midwest, I’d still be staring out the window of some roadside restaurant while chewing on a chop and shoveling shriveled peas and mashed potatoes into my mouth.


No. Yesterday it was minute chicken and choi sum cake noodle at Ming’s Chinese Restaurant in Kalihi. Tomorrow it will be shrimp tempura from Gyotaku in Pearl City. At least once a week, there’ll be a trip to Waipahu for the kalua cabbage plate lunch at Kristen’s Inn or pork adobo and gisantes at Elena’s.

But when it comes to adobo and gisantes, I can stay home where Grandma Phyllis and the high-strung Filipina make the best of either that I’ve ever eaten.

Before I get carried away with my gluttonous list, let me simply assert that next to its weather and its people, Hawaii’s greatest attraction for this former child of the Midwest is its food.

And in Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands (Watermark Publishing, $32.95), Hawaii’s food has found its laureate in Arnold Hiura. A product of the plantation town of Papaikou on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island, Hiura provides his readers a detailed history of the development and richness of Hawaii’s cuisine.

He begins with its Hawaiian roots, then turns to the contributions of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Koreans and Filipinos - from watercress soup to sushi rice to kalbi.

Hawaii’s diverse population met on the sugar plantations where Hiura argues the beginnings of a local cuisine took hold. It centered on a bowl of rice and consisted of “what-could-be-eaten-with-rice - especially anything that could be caught, grown or gathered rather than bought.” And when cash-poor plantation women cooked too much rice? Fried rice next day.

World War II doubled Hawaii’s population and Americanized its food. The hundreds of thousands of young men who passed through Hawaii during the war “craved foods familiar to them, like hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream. Sit-down restaurants and coffee shops sprouted on every island, and the post-war tourists helped them thrive.”

Hiura finds “a renaissance” in the contemporary Hawaii food scene, best demonstrated by the talented chefs who’ve brought fame to Hawaii Regional Cuisine: Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy, Alan Wong, Peter Merriman, Jean-Marie Josselin and Chai Chaowasaree - among others.

But Hiura offers far more than history. Kau Kau contains recipes for everything from comfort foods - fried rice, Portuguese bean soup, macaroni-potato salad - to Yamaguchi’s seared spicy scallops with marinated Japanese vegetables. Kau Kau is lavishly illustrated, and Hiura writes beautifully - one might say mouth-watering-ly.

Consider this description of how the Miyashiro family of Café 100 in Hilo makes its famous loco moco. “You have to have an egg. There is a huge, Kilauea Cratersized gap between a plain bowl of hamburger, rice and gravy and a true loco moco with an egg ...

“It is the egg, after all, that sets the loco moco apart from the simply mundane and catapults it into the realm of Kau Kau Hall of Fame genius. You start with a generous bed of steaming-hot white rice. Add a homemade hamburger patty, fried so that the juices are still dribbling out of it. Gently slide an egg onto the burger so its yolk (sunny-side-up or over-easy) does not break until you’re ready to eat it. Cover the whole concoction with brown gravy. Break the yolk so that it oozes down into the hamburger juices and brown gravy. Together, the yolk and juices and gravy cascade down into the starchy depths of the rice, filling every nook and cranny and completing the exquisite symphony of flavors that is the loco moco.”

Now that is some tasty writing.

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