Hawaii, the United States’ backyard paradise, is one of those places that is almost impossible to define in terms of its cuisine and culture. The indigenous people were devastated by disease and fighting when Captain Cook settled on the islands. Since then, people from China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, the Philippines and points beyond arrived and contributed their influence to the cuisine and culture. So much of what is found is probably more than the sum of its parts; this is fusion at its finest.
A Bit of History
The first people to discover these islands were ancient Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands who crossed the Pacific in canoes (Hawaii being over 2,000 miles from its nearest neighbor). They brought items essential for their survival: pigs, dogs, chickens, taro and sweet potato; the seeds and saplings of coconut, banana, sugar cane, and other edible and medicinal plants. They arrived in Hawaii around 700 AD, preceeding the Vikings who settled in Iceland by 175 years. The migration of Polynesian settlers was temporary, and by about 1100 AD they were left to their own devises to develop their own distinctive culture. That is until the 1700’s…
In 1778, Captain James Cook and his crew were the first Westerners to discover the islands, and Cook’s diaries was the impetus of many other missions to discover this lush paradise; sealing Hawaii’s fate that it was never isolated again. He also named these islands, the Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich. Cook’s arrival coincided with a period of political wars in Hawaii during which Kamehameha took control of the main islands, and by 1795 the island chain was under his rule. Kamehameha exploited the Western technology to vanquish his enemies – wooden spears and clubs were no match for cannons and muskets. However, he also understood the seductive qualities of Western culture and the danger they posed to his people. Under his reign, strictly controls limit foreigners’ interactions with natives.
Around 1820, the first American Protestant missionaries arrived, and these determined pioneers had a huge impact in the islands. In addition to introducing Christianity, they also recorded the Hawaiian language and assisted its transformation from an oral tradition to a written language. Overtime, many missionaries and their descendants became businessmen, and they eventually controlled most of the local economy.
Arctic whalers wintered in Hawaii, and supporting the whaling fleet became the crux of the economy. The whalers did not take to local delicacies, such as fish and poi, so new farms and ranches sprang up to support their requirements. This movement started the careers of the paniolo (cowboy) and spurred the development of the first water transmission pipes to supply the whaling ships on their voyages.
Another industry which replaced whaling was sugar, and many companies that had initially supported the whaling successfully made the same transition as well. In the 1920s, yet a new industry bloomed – tourism, which took off and there was no looking back.
Hawaii has more endangered species per square mile than anywhere else in the world. In part because as people came to settle on the islands they brought with them grazing animals like cattle, sheep and goats which devistate the local fauna and flora, and dramatically reduced the forests. Hawaiians themselves caused serious damage as they cashed in on Chinese demand for sandalwood. Trade was controlled by a few who made fortunes denuding the forests they controlled. [source: hawaiihistory.org]
When you put a variety of cultures together on an island, with not single majority you’re bound to get some blending of the cuisines, especially when many of the cultures share common food stuffs such as rice and soy sauce.
Americans – Following the Europeans, this group came in first as Missionaries and then businessmen; taking advantage of food scarcity as a result of the civil war.
When the Americans came, they brought mainland American classics with a twist – Dried apple pie, anyone? Ginger cake is an obvious choice as spices would have traveled well. Hamburger joints followed after World War II as the influx of mainland Americans had a pent up demand for food from home, other foods included hot dogs, SPAM, canned fish such as tuna, salted meat.
Chinese – Over 150 years of Chinese culture has made its mark on Hawaiian life and food. The original settlers came to work on the sugar plantations, but soon sought their fortunes in other areas such as growing rice to fill the void by the Civil War which cut off supplies from the South. Their restaurants proved incredibly popular give that they were fast, tasty and affordable.
Foods they added to Hawaiian cuisine: Char Siu (sweet BBQ or roasted pork), Chow Fun (wide rice noodles stir fried with meat and veggies)
Japanese – As the Chinese moved away from the sugar industry, the Japanese backfilled their spots. They continued to focus on agrarian industries and took up many of the rice farms and fishing production bringing with them ideas from Japan. At their peak between 1885 and 1924 they made up 40% of the population.
Foods they added to the Hawaiian cuisine: Soy sauce, tofu, miso, sake, tempura, teriyaki
Portuguese – This group was brought in to backfill the Japanese in the sugar plantations. Their preference for bread over rice ensured traditional Portuguese breads to the plantations, and their love of foods cooked in wine and pickled with vinegar gained acceptance in their new home.
Foods they added to the Hawaiian cuisine: bacalhau (salted cod), malasada (sweet fried pastry rolled in sugar), vinha d’alhos (dish made of fish or pork in vinegar and garlic)
Korean – like the settlers before them, the Koreans were seeking better lives and arrived in Hawaii to make a new life.
Foods they added to the Hawaiian cuisine: Bi Bim Koo Soo (thinly sliced veggies over cold noodles), Kalbi (BBQ short ribs marinated in shoyu and sesame sauce)
Filipino – This group made their initial arrival around the turn of the last century. Hoping to make a better life for themselves, they were unfortunately taken advantage of and their luck did not improve for some time.
Foods they added to the Hawaiian cuisine: adobo (meat simmered in vinegar and garlic marinade), Dinuguan (pork cooked in pork blood and vinegar), Halo Halo (desert made with coconut milk, ice and fruit), Pancit (egg or rice noodles)
The Hawaiian Way
Haupia – coconut milk pudding
Loco Moco – rice toped with hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy
Poke – (a personal favorite) raw fish and various ingredients such as onions shoyu, chili peppers, nuts and sugar
Saimin – local noodle soup
Eating the Hand You Are Dealt
Given the remoteness of Hawaii – it is an island in the middle of the Pacific after all, and regular access to imported foods was a challenge. Sure anything salted, dried, canned or pickled lasted longer, but really, how much of that stuff can you eat? Supplementing these products with what could be farmed or caught proved just the impetus to get the gastric juices forming.
Just as I was developing this post, Watermark Publishing contacted me to take a peek at a book that they had recently published. This sort of coincidence is downright amazing, and I can recognized a signal/sign as well as the next person, so of course I agreed, and they sent me a copy of Kau Kau – Cuisine & Culture of the Hawaiian Islands by Arnold Hirura.
Kau Kau I found hard to classify; it is not a cookbook, or a cultural guide. Rather its a mishmash of all many genres: cookbooks, history book, cultural primer. I mean mishmash in the best possible way, because the recipes, history lessons and stories are intertwined creating a very personal experience. I enjoyed learning about traditional dishes accompanied by stories of people who grew up eating that food, explaining why it was significant to them. It provided the reader a perspective that is often lacking in books of this genre. Having read some hefty tomes on the spice route, I appreciated how easy it was to pick up the book and not having to backtrack to ensure nothing was lost in the lapse. The book logically breaks into six sections:
Life on an Island – Arnold recounts the history of Hawaii, with a food perspective in mind, giving examples of foods that the missionaries would have commonly cooked such as dried apple pie, ginger cake and a few other options, that even though the recipes are over 130 years old, they still sound tempting. He elaborates on the history of the lu’au and includes some classic recipes.
From Distant Shores – Tells the impact of sugar plantations and the resulting demand for food stuffs as a result of gold rush and the onslaught of people flocking to the western US. This was a time that Hawaii’s population was at a low, having been devastated by disease and so plantation owners looked for other sources of cheap labor, and you guessed it they looked primarily to Asia, specifically China, the Philippines, Japan, Korean, but also Portugal and Puerto Rico.
The Seeds of Local – The early plantations housed workers along ethnicity, and there are two opposed lines of thought on this practices 1 – to prevent workers from unionizing across ethnic lines, and 2 – it was a natural development given that workers from different countries arrived in different periods. Regardless of the true reason, it allowed these immigrants to retain much of their ethnic traditions and identities. Arnold describes lunch time, or kau kau, where everyone shared a bit of their meal, and the rituals around that tradition which exposed different cultures to new preparations of food.
American Pie – This section focuses on the mainlands influence starting in World War II. With the onset of the war, people streamed in from the mainland craving food that was familiar to them such as hot dogs and ice cream. About this time SPAM® was introduced to the locals, and quickly incorporated into some favorite foods. The wars brought the disparate cultural groups together, growing “Victory Gardens” to support the troops overseas. This same uniting in culture proved greater than the sum of its parts.
The Hawaiian Renaissance – Starting in the 1950’s tourism hit Hawaii in a big way – jet service commenced creating a tie to the mainland that proved irresistible. About the same time familiar names such as Dairy Queen, McDonald’s and KFC made their presence known. About this time, the food prepared in restaurants tweaked to appeal to the visitors tastes became distorted, some would say monstrous versions of reality. Arnold gives the example of the recipe for a Tuna Delight Salad that calls for canned pineapple in syrup, canned tuna, lime gelatin, mayonnaise, MSG and evaporated milk. Thankfully this misrepresentation of reality paved the way for a local food revolution.
A Boundless Buffet – Tells of the loss of mom and pop stores and the homogenization of parts of Hawaii so that it can be indistinguishable from the mainland with shared stores and restaurants such IHOP, Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen and what these and other changes mean to the new generations of Hawaiians. Recognizing the importance of maintaining ties with its culture, the Hawai’i Regional Cuisine movement is nurtured by some of Hawaii’s passionate chefs and food industry folks to bring forth the best of what this state has to offer. Witness the rise of the farmer’s markets and lavender farms. The transfer of tastes also spread to the mainland. I can certainly attest to the popularity of tiki bars here in the Bay Area along with Hawaiian BBQ joints, and I recently saw a Hawaiian/Mexican fusion restaurant.
This book is not for everyone. If your ideal visit to Hawaii involves the splendor of a hotel beach, or focused on catching the waves on Kauai without venturing into the cities or countryside, then this book would probably not hold your interest. If you have ties to Hawaii, such as family or having lived there, this book is ideal as it captures the essence of what makes this state remarkable. The same is true if you are one of those travelers who absorbs what a place has to offer with all five senses – this book allows you you to recapture what made the trip special and sustain the island feel at home.
Arnold Hirura, the author of Kau Kau graciously agreed to a bit of Q & A, and answered what I hope were some probing questions.
Q&A with the Author – Arnold Hirura
You speak of Hawaii as a collective, but what island best typifies Hawaii?
That’s a provocative question, especially since most people from here would likely argue that his or her home island best typifies Hawaii. I guess it’s not unlike the debate that would arise over which part of the country dishes out the best American food….
On a grand (and much safer) scale, I believe that all of the Hawaiian Islands are generally similar in climate and culture. They share common patterns of settlement—starting with the islands’ original inhabitants, to Western sailors and missionaries, followed by immigrants from Asia and elsewhere.
You are correct, however, in suggesting that each island also harbors certain unique characteristics, starting with those attributable to natural reasons. The ports of Lahaina, Maui, and Honolulu, Oahu, invited the busiest seafaring trade, for example, and most reflect the impact of overseas influences. The introduction of cattle to the Island of Hawaii, combined with its ample acreage, gave rise to the Big Island’s proud paniolo (cowboy) legacy. Soil and social conditions blended to form Kona’s famed coffee industry. Ultra-wet Hanalei Valley on Kauai has produced taro and rice during various periods in its history. And so on…
How do the islands differ in culture and food?
Today, every island is known for certain specialty foods, and visiting a neighboring island is likely to include plans to eat something or someplace special, not to mention buying popular food items as gifts (omiyage) to share with those back home.
Over 70 percent of the state’s population lives on the island of Oahu, making it the most populated and urbanized island by far. Consequently, it is home to such gastronomically interesting places as Chinatown, Waikiki, and a number of big shopping malls, along with the widest assortment of dining options to be found in Hawaii.
The other islands are a lot less populated and tend to feature more small town fare, such as the Farmer’s Market in Hilo, Hawaii, Hamura Saimin in Lihue, Kauai, and Sam Sato’s in Kahului, Maui. Take home gifts vary from Tasaka Guri Guri, a creamy sherbet found in Kahului, Komoda Bakery crème puffs from Makawao, mochi from Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo, and macadamia nut shortbread dipped in chocolate from Big Island Candies in Hilo, to name just a few.
Most people think of poke, lu’aus and Spam when they think of Hawaii, what are we missing?
While poke, lu’au and Spam provide a good start, diversity probably best characterizes Hawaii’s food scene. For starters, both residents and visitors alike are increasingly aware of Hawaii’s reputation as a fine dining destination. Hawaii regional cuisine, Pac-rim, Eurasian and Pacific fusion are some of the names that are used to describe the distinctive culinary style organic to the islands. A number of fine dining establishments are located at Hawaii’s high-end resorts, while others are operated independently by celebrity chefs such as Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy, Bev Gannon, Chai Chaowasaree and George Mavrothalassitis.
One of the hallmarks of this cuisine is the use of locally produced ingredients, resulting in dishes that rival the finest that can be found anywhere in the country. Farmers who fuel the growing locavore movement produce an ever-expanding variety of fresh food from gourmet greens, mushrooms, tomatoes, hearts of palm, goat cheese, wine, macadamia nuts, cocoa, coffee, range-fed beef, and a wide variety of fish, shellfish, and fruits.
Adventuresome travelers should also explore the colorful assortment of small local eateries that feature a wide variety of ethnic and regional specialties. Hawaii’s everyday food bears a strong Asian influence—in part because of the number of immigrants who arrived in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, and in part because of more recent immigration. There seems to be a noodle shop, sushi, yakiniku and dim sum place almost anywhere you turn—especially on Oahu. The booming popularity of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants have augmented long-popular Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican and Korean establishments.
One of the interesting things about Hawaii is how freely all of these traditions coexist and intersect. Rather than searching ethnic specific districts to find certain foods, in Hawaii they exist side-by-side almost anywhere you go. Even supermarkets, convenience stores, coffee shops, and lunchwagons serve an assortment of tasty, economical and filling local food.
What are the biggest misconceptions that you would like to clear up? Do misconceptions differ between mainlanders and foreign travelers who visit?
There are still a few people who associate Hawaii with grass skirts and grass shacks—a stereotype that is probably more prevalent amongst U.S. mainlanders rather than foreign visitors thanks in large part to old Hollywood movies. In the same vein, for decades travelers assumed that the food served to visitors accurately portrayed what locals ate. In reality, however, hotel food in the past was created by chefs who hailed from Europe and the U.S. mainland to fit tourist palates and their expectations of what “Hawaiian food” was supposed to be. Thanks to contemporary chefs and the regional cuisine movement, however, no longer is Hawaii associated solely with grated coconut and canned pineapple on baked chicken or ham, served with a sweet tropical cocktail topped with a paper parasol.
What do you think people would be surprised to know?
Some people might be surprised to realize how Americanized Hawaii’s food is in many ways. In the postwar period, for example, local youth eagerly tried to adopt an American lifestyle, donning blue jeans and driving hot rods. They went to drive-in movies and hung out at drive-in restaurants (some replete with carhops), where they downed hamburgers, hot dogs and fries, and sipped on shakes and Cokes.
Others might be surprised to learn that the converse is true as well—i.e. some traditional American institutions have their own distinctly local twist here. “Barbeque” in Hawaii is usually thought of as the Asian, sugar-and-soy-based grilled meat, rather than the smoky, tomato-based barbecue served across the mainland. Bento lunches, manapua buns, pork hash dumplings, and Spam musubi are sold at 7-11. And a Portuguese sausage eggs and rice breakfast and saimin noodles are big sellers at all McDonald’s statewide.
You’ve included a lot of great recipes in your book, do you have a favorite?
I’d have to say that my favorites are based on sentimental reasons. My mother’s sushi rice and my father-in-law’s all-purpose teriyaki sauce are classics—simple, yet versatile—that flavored many a family get-together. Which reminds me: if there are themes that emerge from the book, I hope that folks stop to consider the idea that simpler can sometimes be better, that there can be as great or greater satisfaction in enjoying “poor man’s food” as there is at an elegant, five-star restaurant. Like every other place in the country, Hawaii is what it is today because of generations of people who did the best with what they had, and for whom “sustainability” was a way of life rather than a politically correct buzzword. There are some important life lessons—however simple—that we can learn by understanding the background of what we eat and why.
On a final note, Watermark Publishing has graciously agreed to give a copy of Kau Kau to a lucky reader. Unfortunately this contest is limited to readers in the US, as shipping costs for a big book is prohibitively expensive.
Here’s the rules:
State if you would like to participate and if you have visited Hawaii, describe a favorite memory, and identify a food you tried that you may not have had before.
If you have never been to Hawaii, either why you would like to go, or what you learned that you did not know.
Congrats to Greg of Sippity Sup for winning Kau Kau. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.