If you can’t get away, let cooking bring the islands to you
I USED TO SAY I didn’t need to go to Hawaii. “I grew up in Florida,” I would tell my wife. “If I want to go somewhere warm, I can go there and see my family, too.” But I had no idea what I was missing. Hawaii is more than someplace warm. It’s a way of life. And now, like any number of northwesterners, I have heard the siren song of the islands and I’m hooked for life.
It started with a culinary research trip. As the new consulting chef for Canlis I was supposed to go there and find out all I could about Hawaiian food. But from the moment I stepped off the plane and inhaled the flowery tropical air, even inside the airport with its walkways open to the tradewinds, I was spellbound.
In between the meals, I swam at Waikiki, hiked to Sacred Falls and did everything I could to work off some of the calories packed into the Okinawan sweet potatoes and the rich coconut custard called haupia. We walked up the Manoa Valley and body-surfed at Waimea Bay, and all the while, we were practicing Hawaiian words like ono (delicious), wikiwiki (quick) and hummahummanukunuku apua’a (a fish). Just saying words like that made me happy.
One of the culinary high points of the trip was spending a couple of days behind the line in the kitchen of Alan Wong. In 1998, Wong would win the James Beard Award for Best chef of the Northwest. (The James Beard Foundation always lumps Hawaii in with the Northwest).
But when I was there, he was just one of a handful of remarkable young chefs bringing a new worldly and professional perspective to the traditional dishes from the islands. Those dishes – some of which originated in Hawaii and some of which came with the various waves of settlers from Asia, Portugal, the Philippines – constitute what islanders call “local food.”
I watched as the pantry cooks formed bundles of baby lettuces from the Manoa Valley and sashimi-grade ahi tuna marinated in soy and sesame. The line cooks pan-seared foie gras and served it with barbecue-pork on tiny, hors d’oeuvre-sized sandwiches. The pastry cook filled Chinese porcelain spoons with five different flavors of creme brule: Kona coffee, Hawaiian vintage chocolate from the Big Island, coconut, ginger, and lilikoi (passionfruit). At the foundation of these haute dishes were some of the basic building blocks of the local cuisine.
The marinated ahi, I learned, was a form of poke (fish salad), an almost ubiquitous appetizer. The barbecue pork was Wong’s version of kalua pig, slow roasted in a clay-lined pit called an imu, or in a crockpot with a generous splash of liquid smoke. And as for the tropical flavors that permeated the pastry cook’s quintet of creme brules, they were everywhere. Typical of the top tier of Hawaiian chefs, Wong was incorporating the best local ingredients and traditional cooking techniques of the islands with the haute style and ingredients that cosmopolitan diners have come to look for when they travel.
Naturally, I was deeply impressed by Wong’s talent. But I was equally impressed by the more humble offerings of the Hawaiian hearth. I explored the fish market and combed the stalls of Chinatown. I went to the dive-iest, most “local” looking places I could find to uncover what Hawaiians eat.
What makes Hawaiian food unique is, as the real-estate people say, location, location, location. First colonized about a thousand years ago by sea-faring Polynesians, the islands were isolated for hundreds of years before Captain Cook brought his mixed bag of Western civilization, Christianity and disease. Since then, the islands have become a Pan Pacific crossroads with generation after generation of immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia brings its favorite ingredients and cooking techniques.
A tiny roadside stand called Pee Wee’s Drive-in became one of my favorite haunts. From a pass-through window, the proprietors offered sandwiches filled with teriyaki beef and mahi mahi fried in tempura batter. With every sandwich came the creamy elbow-macaroni salad which, I quickly learned, is as Hawaiian as aloha shirts.
As soon as I got home, with a stack of Hawaiian cookbooks weighing me down and visions of my next trip already swimming in my head, I tried to re-create some of the foods I had there. First came Kalua pig. Since I don’t have a clay pit, I did what the books and my Hawaiian friends told me to do: I baked a pork butt in the oven with lots of Hawaiian salt and liquid smoke. (Some locals swear by a crockpot, but I was happy with the oven method.) Soon, I was wrapping my leftover smokey-flavored pork in egg-roll wrappers for lumpia and whipping up Auntie Leilani’s famous Coconut haupia for dessert (a recipe from the Internet.)
One of the best sources I’ve found for local food in Seattle is a little hole in the wall behind Arby’s on the corner of South Michigan Street and Sixth Avenue South in Georgetown called the Kauai Family Restaurant. There, proprietor Peter Buza and his family make Ahi Poke, Kalua Pork, Pork Tonkatsu and Chicken Adobo as good as anything offered in the islands. They even have Spam Musubi and Macaroni Salad.
When I need the basic formulas for making Hawaiian food at home, I often turn to “A Taste of Aloha,” by the Junior League of Oahu. Unlike showier tomes from big-name chefs, this book has the appeal of recipes handed across kitchen tables by generations of kapunas (grandparents). The finished dishes may not be James Beard Award-winning material, but they are original and good. For me, simple dishes like Papaya Salad, Mahi Mahi Chowder and Coconut Chicken with Fresh Fruit transform everyday meals into reminders of tropical getaways.
Another good source is a Web page called the Electric Kitchen, sponsored by Hawaiian Electric. Founded shortly after electric stoves came to the islands early last century, the Electric Kitchen offered Hawaiians instruction in cooking with electricity. Since 1995, the company has published the Web page, which offers Chinese, mainland North American, Japanese and traditional Hawaiian dishes.