The Hungry Engineer

Hawaii Food Research

25 Jun 2008

At the end of this week, my husband and I will be heading to Hawaii with his parents and sister. In preparation for our trip, I’ve been doing some research to make sure we get a good sampling during the two weeks we’ll be there of the foods that make Hawaii … well, Hawaii. After all, it isn’t all spam, pineapple, and mai tais. There’s a rich culinary diversity in Hawaii that I cannot wait to explore. For starters, there’s the traditional luau food. Naturally given it’s proximity, there’s also a wide range of southeast Asian food. Evidently there’s a pretty significant Portuguese population and their food is fairly widespread as well. There is also Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a movement to use local ingredients in creative and beautiful preparations. Top that off with a variety of crazy local concoctions (loco moco anyone?), and how about the plethora of super-fresh seafood and interesting tropical fruits to field test. Supplement all that with the random food we stumble upon while we’re there, and I’m expecting to be well fed during this trip.

I know the larger ones are as touristy as they come, but one must attend at least one luau while in Hawaii. The luau we’re intending to go to is the Ali'i Luau thrown by the Polynesian Cultural Center. It’s supposed to be the luau to go to, and its menu looks pretty darned good. The PCC serves the wonderful kalua pig - I think this is a required dish for any large luau. You may remember scenes in the travel shows that have you oggling scantily clad Hawaiians lifting an impossibly large hunk of meat wrapped in leaves out of a pit in the ground. That pit is called an imu, and that meat is kalua pork, my friends. I am anticipating a vision of slow-cooked loveliness to rival even the best Memphis pulled pork or Mexican carnitas. However, in case that isn’t enough, there are also a couple different preparations of chicken. There’s teriyaki chicken (which I expect will be a much less pedestrian affair than what normally passes for teriyaki around Texas), and there’s chicken long rice, whose “long rice” is actually more like a noodle. As an odd addition to the meats, there is pipi kaula, which is essentially salt-cured beef done up Hawaiian-style. Another luau item that I’m excited to try is the poke. Poke is basically raw fish tossed in salt and seaweed and a variety of other “stuff” - as I understand it there are over a hundred different types of poke to be found throughout the islands. Evidently the PCC offers up the “more pleasing Tahitian preparation” which as far as I’ve been able to determine is more about lime juice than seaweed. Then of course there’s lomi lomi salmon. It’s a zippy-flavored mix of salmon, tomatoes, onion, etc. that is meant to be eaten with poi. About poi - it is the smashed up root of the taro plant and it looks … less than appealing. My understanding is that poi is to Hawaiians what rice is to Asians, so I will absolutely have to try it. And I really like taro chips, so maybe I’ll like poi too. There are several items on the dessert menu as well, but the one thing I’ve read about that I must try is the huapia. It is sort of a super-dense custard that is flavored with coconut milk. The one thing I found to be missing from this luau (that I understood to be traditional luau food) was the lau-lau. Lau-lau is some sort of meat and seasonings wrapped up in taro leaves (which are edible) which are then wrapped up in ti leaves (not edible) and steamed. Maybe they have it and I’ve just missed it on their menu. That may be okay though, because in going through this list again now, I have no earthly idea how I will actually be able to sample everything I want in a single sitting. Not to worry though – I’m sure there will be plenty of places outside the luau to try all of these things as well.

There is a huge Asian population on the islands, and much of their native culture has migrated with them, including their food. We will have sushi at least once while we’re in Hawaii. I have not yet nailed down where, exactly, so suggestions are certainly welcome. I’m very excited about the Chinatown area of Honolulu. From what I’ve read, it’s not a tourist trap, but rather a Chinaman’s Chinatown complete with a lively market scene. I’m thinking it would be fun to have dim sum here, or possibly drop in at one of the apparently numerous noodle shops. I’ve heard several times that there are fantastic Thai restaurants all over the islands (though I’ve been warned that when they say “hot”, they mean it - no watering it down for the tourists). I’ve read that Vietnamese and Korean cuisines are well represented also. I’m sure the list could go on and on.

One that caught me off guard as I was reading about Hawaii was the prevalence of Portuguese food. There are Portuguese sweet breads and malasadas (sort of like dough-nuts). Apparently Portuguese-style soups are widely served here as well. Portuguese sausage is supremely popular in Hawaii. Evidently it’s hard to find a breakfast buffet that doesn’t include it. The sausage has a unique blend of seasonings, and being fairly paprika-heavy, has a bright reddish tinge to it.

Hawaiian Regional Cuisine was born out of frustration. Twelve of Hawaii’s top chefs decided they were tired of preparing and serving mediocre food products flown in from the mainland, and in 1991 pushed forward a movement to cook instead with the freshest of local ingredients and prepare unique and delicious dishes that made the most of them. These chefs are Sam Choy, Roger Dikon, Mark Ellman, Amy Ferguson Ota, Beverly Gannon, Jean-Marie Josselin, George Mavrothalassitis, Peter Merriman, Philippe Padovani, Gary Strehl, Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi, and their food sounds incredible. Imagine cuisine without boundaries of style or ethnicity made with the freshest possible ingredients by incredibly talented chefs. Though most of the restaurants we’ve found that these folks are responsible for are a tad on the expensive side, I’m guessing that we will eat at several of them over the course of our vacation.

Beyond the likely over-touristy luau and the more esoteric Hawaii Regional Cuisine, there are several more “down home” Hawaii food experiences that must be had. A staple for the Hawaii midday crowd is the plate lunch. It is essentially a couple scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and an entree. This entree could be just about anything: teriyaki, fish, short ribs, you name it, and it could be influenced by any of the ethnicities mentioned in this write-up (and probably many that aren’t mentioned). One fine example of a plate lunch is loco moco. Loco, indeed - it is essentially white rice topped with a hamburger patty, topped with an egg, and then slathered in brown gravy. My arteries are clenching up a little just thinking about it, but I am certain I will give it a go (maybe I can convince Sean to share one with me [yeah right]). From what I’ve read, it seems the place to have loco moco is Cafe 100 on the Big Island. This is where “they” say the loco moco started, and they have many loco moco variants to choose from. Another Hawaii special is saimin. Saimin is essentially a thinner form of ramen noodles in broth, but it’s dressed up by adding all sorts of extras to it. Because of the straightforward base and the ability to add ingredients to suit, it is also highly customizable to your individual dining affinities. And then there is Spam. I have never in my life enjoyed the taste / texture / aroma of this particular product. However, given its status in Hawaii (they proudly tell you they have the highest per capita consumption in the world), I will have to try it, probably in a variety of preparations (Spam musubi, Spam and eggs, Seared Spam, Spam and Pineapple…). Also, given the local production, there exists macadamia nut crusted everything, not to mention chocolate covered macadamia nuts and mac-nut pie. My happiness will be made complete by a daily cup of wonderful Kona coffee. We have plans to tour one of the coffee plantations near Kona, so I’m sure we’ll be able to sample some really fantastic coffee.

I cannot wait to be in the middle of all that crazy tropical produce. We’ve been told that we’re not allowed to come back to the mainland without having tried apple bananas - fragrant and sweet, these are evidently the best bananas we’ll ever have the pleasure of consuming. I’m also looking forward to the freshest pineapples, mangoes, and papayas ever, and if we get tired of those, there are plenty of other fascinating fruits to try (if we find them in season) - guava, passion fruit, lychees, longan, starfruit, dragon fruit, breadfruit - the list goes on and on.

We won’t have long to wait till we get to start partaking of the glorious food in the wonderland that is Hawaii. I hear the scenery’s not bad either. I am open to any and all suggestions for foods I may have unwittingly overlooked and/or recommendations for restaurants that aren’t to be missed, so please comment and let me know. Mahalo and aloha!

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