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So Ono! On Hawaiian Food

Giovanni's Shrimp Truck - Kahuku, HI

Giovanni's Kahuku Shrimp Truck by imgdive on Flickr (Creative Commons)

It’s difficult to think about the flavors of Hawaii without going on a global meander. There are so many delicious — ono —  things to eat in the islands and so much cultural diversity that it’s difficult — for me — to define what, exactly, Hawaiian food is. Fresh fruit is a critical part of it — my first stop when I arrive in the islands is typically for a mango smoothie. Seafood is critical — a dish of fresh poke (marinated raw tuna) is an essential stop on your exploration of island grinds. Taro (kalo, in Hawaiian) shows up at the luau buffet and in any number of place, sometimes made palatable for the malahinis (visitors) by incorporation into dinner biscuits. And there’s some barbecue, the classic pig in a pit, or huli huli chicken, coated in a sweet sauce of sugar, ginger, and soy sauce — depending on who’s recipe you use.

The traditional native Hawaiian diet was a less commodified variation on all those items — produce, fresh seafood, some poultry, maybe a pig on a special occasion. But what’s Hawaiian food now? There’s something called Hawaii Regional Cuisine in which local ingredients are reinterpreted by chefs — I had the honor of experiencing this style of food at Chef Mavro’s in Honolulu during a dinner we are still talking about, five years later. But I’ve also eaten very local style — chicken katsu and Portuguese sausage — at CCs in Honoka’a. Chicken katsu is, at the most simplistic, Japanese fried chicken, and Portuguese sausage… well, that’s Portuguese. And there’s Spam, of course, in musubi, in eggs, in sushi rolls. Hawaii can thank the US military for Spam’s arrival on Hawaiian shores, but they have only themselves to blame for its tenacity.

The Portuguese also gave Hawaii the malasada — fried dough — and sweet bread. The Japanese brought mochi, a rice flour sweet that’s filled with bean paste or sesame or even peanut butter. There’s haupia — a sort of coconut jelly pudding that is traditionally Hawaiian, and plenty of good ice cream — Dave’s, Lappert’s, Roselani — which is not traditionally Hawaiian at all but comes in Hawaiian flavors, with mango and mac nut and coffee, of course. Thanks to the Japanese (again) you can get shave ice (leave off the “d”) in either the most simple form, covered in sticky sweet syrup, or you can get it with bean paste and condensed milk, but I draw the line there.

So what is Hawaiian food? It’s garlic shrimp from a North Shore truck, eaten on a picnic bench across the street from the beach. It’s mac nut encrusted halibut with pineapple salsa, grilled and served under a banyan tree at a fancy Maui hotel. It’s take out bento and breakfast burrito with grilled mango and conveyor belt sushi and Thai food at the mall. I like to think about it not because I’m striving to define it, but because it is so varied. And so very ono!

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pam Mandel, Sheila Scarborough. Sheila Scarborough said: ZOMG must have poke! RT @nerdseyeview: nom: hawaiian food primer on holoholo wale: http://bit.ly/asuOKO […]