Hawaii On A Plate
1 April 2016
From China, Japan, and Korea, to Portugal, Philippines, and Puerto Rico, Hawaiian cuisine is a delicious melting pot just waiting to be sampled, writes Tatyana Leonov.
The air is steamy, but no one seems to mind. Robin Lee, tour director of Hawaii Food Tours (hawaiifoodtours.com), wipes the beads of sweat forming on his temple and grins like a kid who’s just been handed a lollipop. “The manapua you are about to try is an Hawaiian take on Chinese buns, usually filled with sweet pork called char siu,” he says, beaming at the group. “Traditionally they are steamed, but here at Royal Kitchen they’re baked.”
It’s the first of many stops on the Hole-in-the-Wall Tour of Honolulu, and minutes later everyone is hoeing into fresh- baked manapuas, mumbling to each other in between mouthfuls about the bun’s fresh-out-of-the-oven taste. I opt for a char siu manapua and the fork-tender pork filling is sweet and sticky. Then we share a few coconut manapuas, enjoying the sugary coconut filling and ignoring the fact we’re eating dessert at 10am.
After a stroll through bustling Chinatown, the group heads to Ying Leong Look Funn Factory. Originally from Hong Kong, Fu Ying Chee managed his rice noodle factory for over 50 years. since his passing, his son, Daniel Chee, and his wife Alice are at the helm. It’s the only place in Chinatown (if not Honolulu) where rice noodles are still crafted by hand.
The workers’ hands move as if they are dancing, lithely oiling pans, folding sheets of rice dough and cutting them into thick ribbons of noodles. After watching for a while the congregation ambles outside to sample freshly made noodles alongside a tangy vegetable stir-fry and crisp bite-sized chunks of Korean barbecue chicken (from Chinatown’s Maunakea Marketplace).
Food tours work remarkably well on an island so attuned to its history and culture. Every dish has a story; traditional feasts are for sharing and a modern foodie creation is born as often as a wave hits the shore.
The culinary scene is a reflection of the people – a diverse jumble of cuisines influenced by the many ethnicities living in Hawaii today.
During the 19th century thousands of immigrants journeyed to Hawaii seeking employment in the sugar and pineapple plantations. They came from far and wide – China, Japan, Portugal, Korea, Philippines, Puerto Rico – and they brought their traditional foods and culinary practices with them.
“The food scene is often described as a melting pot,” says Matthew Gray, founder and owner of Hawaii Food Tours. “But I prefer to describe it as a salad bowl – because all the various cultures and their amazing flavours co- exist, keeping their individual identities.”
In China, for example, food vendors often peddled as they walked. When Chinese settlers came to Hawaii they hoisted buckets of steamed buns attached to poles (slung over their shoulders) and roamed the streets. The locals fell in love with their pork buns and called them manapua (loosely translating to pork cake).
For the love of pork
The Hawaiian love of pork is seen everywhere. When the Polynesians voyaged to Hawaii in the third or fourth century they brought pigs, along with chickens and dogs. Pigs quickly grew to become the largest domesticated animal in Hawaii – and the most important one in Hawaiian culture, too.
The traditional kalua pork is a must-try (kalua translates to cooking in an underground oven). Although other meat is also cooked this way, pork is most popular. The best place to taste this smoky, slow-cooked dish is at a luau – a larger-than- life celebratory feast.
In ancient Hawaii a luau was held to commemorate special occasions, such as an infant surviving its first year or the inauguration of a canoe. Today some hotels host luau nights especially for tourists.
The gathering often starts with unveiling of the centerpiece (where muscular bare-chested men in palm leave skirts wrench the massive slow-cooked pig from the ground) and then a lavish buffet-style dinner follows. It’s a wonderful way to sample the feted kalua pork and other traditional foods, like poi (mashed powdered taro root), poke (raw diced fish in a salt, sesame oil, seaweed and soy sauce dressing) and luau stew.
Although not the most attractive-looking dish, luau stew is one of Hawaii’s tastiest and heartiest meals. It’s a comfort dish for many residents, with recipes passed down through generations. One of the best places to get your dose of local comfort food (if you can’t find a willing grandmother) is at Mission social Hall and Café (missionhouses.org/visitor- information/cafe), about 15 minutes’ drive out of Waikiki.
Chef Mark Noguchi explains luau stew is not just a delicious dish, but also a story. “It’s usually made with shrimp, but we use pork,” he says. “The pig is very important in Hawaiian culture; taro was brought over by the Polynesians and is still considered to be one of the most important plants, and the seaweed and salt come from the ocean. So you have pork, seaweed and salt – all these meaningful parts of Hawaiian culture,” says Mark.
Spamming it up
Hawaiians also consume millions of kilograms of spam each year. The quantity of flavours available at supermarkets is overwhelming and they’re crazy for musubi, a ready-made sushi snack available at every corner store (a nod to the Japanese influence, it’s pretty much spam on rice wrapped in a sliver of seaweed). There’s even an annual spam festival that sees weirdly-dressed fans (some people dress up as spam) descend on Waikiki for all things spam – think spam wasabi curry, spam and cheese toasties and spam ice cream (you need to see it to believe it).
Catch of the day
On the other end of the scale on Oahu, Hawaii’s culinary superstar, are the many fine dining restaurants found in bustling Waikiki. Although pork is still king, seafood gets plenty of airplay here, too.
For a seafood meal with a great view, The Royal Hawaiian’s beachfront Azure Restaurant and Bar (royal- hawaiian.com) is lush. Request a table overlooking the beach and feast on the daily catch while watching the passing parade of beachgoers. The Royal Hawaiian is one of the island’s oldest hotels and there’s something magical about strolling through the grounds pre- or post-dinner.
Morimoto (morimotowaikiki. com) at elegant, contemporary hotel The Modern Honolulu, is another must-try. Celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto, of Iron Chef fame, and his team artfully prepare sculpted sashimi and imaginative Japanese-Western culinary handiworks (yellowtail pastrami, wagyu carpaccio and the like) for discerning diners.
Out of town
Although Waikiki is the heart of the action, some of the best restaurants are out of town. About 15 minutes’ drive from Waikiki, Mud Hen Water (mudhenwater.com) is celebrated Hawaiian chef Ed Kenney’s third restaurant and the farm-to-table menu is both unexpected and impressive.
Ed has always supported local sustainable agriculture. “Our fishermen bring fish to the back door when they catch it, the farmers come with crates of whatever they’ve got, and we design menus around whatever arrives each day,” he explains.
The result is a clever synchronisation of ingredients and flavours. Baby beetroot might arrive as a veggie take on poke, earthy mussels might come with fragrant rice, or fish seared in a banana leaf.
“The servers tell the story – how it’s prepared, what farm it comes from, even the farmer’s name if diners are interested.”
It’s an apt representation of Oahu’s culinary scene. sure, you can enjoy a diverse range of tasty food and walk away content. But if you take your time and chat – with staff, chefs, food truck vendors and farmers – you’ll walk away enlightened about the why and how. And it’s these stories that makes the food taste even better
Must-do foodie experiences in Oahu
Food tours: Book this tour for the start of your holiday, as you’ll want to try the restaurants the tour leaders recommend. skip breakfast as there’s a lot of tasting involved and it’s unquestionably worth sampling everything offered. Hawaii Food Tours also offers foodie tours in Maui, Kauai and The Big Island. hawaiifoodtours.com
Food trucks: Hawaii’s first food truck was the “Manapua Man” (Hawaiians love these buns). Today you can find a much broader variety of food on wheels, with everything from garlic shrimp to crepes on offer. Just outside Haleiwa on the North shore there’s a cluster of food trucks, while Honolulu’s monthly Eat The street event sees over 40 vendors gather on the last Friday of every month. eatthestreethawaii.com
Poke: Hawaiians love their raw fish cubes (yellowfish tuna, or ahi in Hawaii, is most common). If you want a varied selection head to Foodland, where you’ll come across a surplus of interesting flavours, such as ahi spicy poke, ahi wasabi poke and ahi sesame poke. foodland.com