Hawaii’s ‘Local Food,’ a Rich Mix That Isn’t Strictly Hawaiian

In Honokaʻa, on the north side of the Big Island of Hawaii, the firefighters and paramedics at Station 8 can’t predict when the alarm will blare, but they know that if Maikaʻi Piʻianaiʻa is on duty, they’ll eat well.

In the station’s small kitchen, he has made Japanese curry, steaks seasoned with oyster sauce, Portuguese bean soup, mahi mahi meunière and pork and peas the Filipino way. One evening, Mr. Piʻianaiʻa, a former professional cook, asked his fellow firefighter Ricardo Garza to teach him how to cook pinakbet, the Filipino pork and vegetable stew.

“He will put his twist on it,” Mr. Garza said.

Mr. Piʻianaiʻa thought about how he might slip in some pork belly and cook the tomatoes and onions in the rendered hot fat, or let the bitter melon steam on top of the stew to reduce its bite.

Like the pinakbet, the dishes he prepares have a wide array of cultural roots, but a collective belonging in Hawaii — cooking that anyone raised on the islands would describe simply as “local food.”

“It is a cultural mosh pit of stuff,” Mr. Piʻianaiʻa said. “But if you’re from here, you know what is local.”

Even if you aren’t, you’re probably familiar with beloved local dishes like poke made with tuna and soy sauce, or gravy-glossed, egg-topped loco moco.

Local food is a distinctive reflection of the various groups who settled on the islands: the enterprising Polynesians; British colonizers; sugar-cane plantation workers from Asia, Puerto Rico and Europe; and Americans. As they worked, ate and endured together — like the firefighters at Station 8 — they created a cuisine all their own, in which authenticity lies in the merging of cultures, not the siloing of them.

The cuisine continues to evolve, as home cooks riff on local food classics and chefs introduce new techniques and flavors. And as it grows, some cooks are highlighting the role of Native Hawaiian cuisine, context that the feel-good story of local food has often brushed aside.

“We borrow from each other’s culture,” said Sheldon Simeon, a chef on Maui and the author of “Cook Real Hawai‘i.” “When it comes to local food, the thing that’s great about that is the blurred lines.”

Last summer, Mr. Simeon took over Tiffany’s, a neighborhood institution in Wailuku, and overhauled the menu with playful takes on local food. He infuses traditional oxtail soup with the flavors of pho, adding burned ginger, cinnamon and cloves to the broth, which is usually fragrant with dried orange peel and star anise. To Hawaii’s fried chicken canon, alongside mochiko chicken and chile chicken, he presents his own entry: a chicken that’s steamed, then fried, and sprinkled with a powder flavored like sinigang, the sour Filipino pork stew.

Despite the laid-back approach many Hawaii residents have toward what makes a dish local, some who grew up dining at Tiffany’s have been critical of Mr. Simeon’s menu revisions.

He understands the resistance. “Nostalgia is a big thing,” he said, “so I’m learning about when food has this moment of memory.”

But others, especially his peers in the restaurant business, admire his spins on local food. “So long as it’s ‘ono, right?” he said, using a Hawaiian word for delicious. “That’s all that mattered.”

Local food can be hard to define. When laborers from China, Japan, Okinawa, Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Portugal and Spain began arriving in Hawaii in the 1850s, they would share midday meals known as kau kau time. Sitting in a circle, they’d hold on to tins of rice and pass around meat, vegetables or fish prepared in the style of their homeland.

Over time, this collaborative way of cooking and eating led to fusion dishes like the noodle soup saimin, which is thought to derive from Japanese ramen, Filipino pancit and Chinese chow mein. It inspired distinct variations on a culture’s dishes using ingredients available on the islands, like Japanese musubi loaded with griddled Spam. And it included wholesale adoption of culinary pillars like Korean kalbi, eaten alongside two scoops of rice and mayo-heavy mac salad.

But in interviews, chefs and home cooks — and particularly opinionated Hawaii residents within earshot — offered a much simpler definition of local food: It’s what you grew up with, and it’s what’s around you. Local food is what local people eat, and there is pride in that.

Mark Noguchi, a chef and educator at the Punahou School in Honolulu, keeps his saimin simple: wontons folded by one of his daughters, broth and squiggly noodles, and toppings of kamaboko, char siu, crepe-thin eggs and slivered green onions prepped by another daughter. Nothing more, nothing less.

“That’s how we preserve part of our culture,” he said. “We’re super proud of where we came from. And I think that’s where Hawaii continually finds itself in a state of tension.”

Tension stems, in part, from how certain local dishes have been forced to fit mainland palates when they cross the Pacific. But it also lies in how local food’s rise has overshadowed the culinary history built by the Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians.

When the Polynesians settled on the uninhabited Hawaiian islands likely between the 10th and 12th centuries, they brought goods like taro, sugar cane and pigs, birthing Hawaiian staples like poke made with reef fish and kalua pig roasted in an underground oven.

But the arrival of British and American colonizers disrupted established foodways, dismantled the Hawaiian kingdom, suppressed its culture — and attracted an influx of immigrants to work on plantations.

The term “local” rose to prominence in the 1930s, when Thalia Massie, a white woman living in Mānoa, falsely accused five young men of rape. They were described as “local,” which was “a term of abuse to refer to this group of largely Asian and very mixed ethnic groups,” said Rachel Laudan, a historian and the author of “The Food of Paradise.”

But as the case went to trial, people in Hawaii embraced the term. Once Hawaii became a state in 1959, locals began to gain political power. “That’s the point at which local food congeals,” Dr. Laudan said.

Hiʻilei Julia Hobart, an assistant professor of Native and Indigenous studies at Yale University, said the formation — and celebration — of local identity obscured Native Hawaiians’ identity as the Indigenous people of the islands. “You just become subsumed into the category of the local,” she said.

Relle Lum, a nurse practitioner and food blogger on Maui, feels that conflict of identities whenever she creates recipes for her website, Keeping It Relle.

“I am Native Hawaiian, but so much of who I am and where I come from are forgotten,” she said. “When the foreigners came, Hawaiian was abolished. You were not allowed to dance hula or practice the culture. The bits and pieces we have left I think are very important to perpetuate.”

On her blog, she showcases traditional Hawaiian recipes like squid luau with stewed taro leaves, as well as local dishes like mochiko chicken, which she calls “a blend of Japanese karaage and Southern fried chicken.” Search engine optimization research recommends that she labels the local recipes as “Hawaiian,” but she uses that as an opportunity to explain the difference.

When she began blogging, it was difficult to find online recipes for local dishes, and Native Hawaiian dishes were even harder.

“It’s scary, the thought of how Hawaiian was almost wiped out of this world,” she said. “We want to keep the little that we have, and that goes with local food, too. Musubi is not Hawaiian, but is it important to us here? Absolutely.”

Cooks on the islands see room for both cuisines to grow — together. At Tiffany’s, Mr. Simeon offers a Wailuku saimin, brimming with pork belly and choy sum, in addition to the traditional local version. Mrs. Lum shows her followers how to make kalua pig in the Instant Pot, and tops nachos with poke.

At Napua at Mauna Lani Beach Club on the Big Island, the chef Keoni Regidor, along with the restaurant’s co-owner, Brandon Lee, combine European food traditions with their Native Hawaiian and local roots. The results include pigs fattened up with macadamia nuts à la acorn-fed Ibérico pigs, and coppa cured with gochujang.

“Hawaii’s food is the food of the future,” Mr. Lee said. “As we slowly lower our boundaries of what food is supposed to taste like, we’re more open to the different flavors the world has, and we just start meshing them together. That’s what Hawaii does. We change flavor.”

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