There are those who eat to live, and those who live to eat; in Hawaii we are mostly the latter.
Some call it passion others call it a religion, either way, in Hawaii we take food very seriously.
Who knew a few tiny islands in the middle of the sea could be home to so many unique foods you will never find anywhere else in the world. When deciding to write about comfort food from Hawaii, I was wondering why I was having such a difficult time deciding which foods to write about. As my list of local Hawaii foods grew longer, my stomach growled louder. And then it finally occurred to me, that all food from Hawaii is comfort food. And here’s why…
I specifically say, food from Hawaii or “local food’ to make an important distinction. The traditional and sacred cuisine of the native Hawaiians is not to be confused with the modern culinary creations born in the last two centuries.
The creation of such unique “local” foods dates back to Hawaii’s early encounters with the European explorers and American missionaries. Then, the blending of culture and food took off when migrant workers came from all over the world to work on the sugar cane plantations. Plantation workers from Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, and Portugal all living and working together, was bound to create a melting pot culture that changed Hawaii forever. Not only did this dynamic create a new language called Pidgin, but it crafted a cuisine as diverse as the people.
The local cuisine in Hawaii blurs cultural lines to the point where you’re not sure what you’re eating or where it came from. All you know is that it tastes amazing and you can’t get it anywhere else.
In The Food of Paradise, food historian Rachel Laudan provides perspective on this cultural blending: “In some parts of the world it seems appropriate to look back nostalgically to the past, to an authentic food based on local ingredients, but such a search for past authenticity is moot in Hawaii. My encounters with Hawaii’s food are just one recent echo of the encounters of a long succession of immigrants who have labored to create foods in these distant Islands, to turn a wilderness into a Paradise.”
So with that, here are a few of the local foods that make up the immigrant potluck , depicting Hawaii’s culinary history much more accurately rather than the paltry slice of pineapple pizza mainlanders so quickly associate with Hawaii. Throw a pineapple on it, and now it’s “Hawaiian” they say. No. I say 86 the pineapple slice and give me two scoops rice, mac salad, and MSG.
And for my fellow Hawaii locals living away from home, this one is for you. The foods you immediately craved the moment you set foot off that precious little rock.
Saimin – Hawaii’s Comfort Food Super Star (pictured above)
- Heritage: Chinese, (I like to call saimin the long lost twin sister of Okinawan Soba. China had a large influence on Okinawan culture likely explaining the similar flavors that run deep through this dish.)
- Backstory: Hawaii’s number one comfort food special. The word ‘saimin’ is a contraction of two Chinese words, ‘sai’ meaning thin and ‘mein’ meaning noodle. Like most local foods, this nostalgic bowl of soup was created on the plantations when immigrant workers cooked noodles and topped it with whatever ingredients they had available. Though no single bowl of saimin resembles another, it typically consists of curly and chewy egg noodles served in a dashi broth. The OG of toppings are char sui pork, kamaboko, green onions, fried egg, and slivers of Hawaii’s favorite meat mystery meat – Spam. Though rarely found today, neighborhood saimin stands took off in the 1930s and the legacy of the soup has remained strong in the hearts and bellies of generations of locals ever since.
- Recipe: When the any decent recipe for saimin is a family secret and heavily guarded national treasure or no recipe at all, it’s with great difficulty I present to you Old Hawaii Saimin that will serve as a solid foundation.
Manapua – Try say that name ten times fast…Hawaii’s take on the Chinese bao
- Heritage: Chinese
- Backstory: Manapua is said to have come to Hawaii with the larges wave of Chinese immigrants in the mid- to late-19th century. A perfect hand-sized bun traditionally stuffed with a sweet red char sui pork are Hawaii’s go to snack before hitting the beach. The name ‘manapua’ is the Hawaiian amalgam derived from two known phrases – ‘mea ono puaa’ meaning ‘pork pastry’ and ‘mauna puaa’ which translates to ‘mountain of pork’. Over the years this compact snack has evolved. Steamed or baked, stuffed with char sui pork, chicken curry, or kalua pig…reading the types of manapua apart has become an art as you read the tiny single colored dots stamped on to a soft, fluffy, steamy bun.
- Recipe: Fact – the best local food recipes come from the community cook books that compile all the islands’ tutus, obachans, and manangs put together for a church fundraiser. Trust me, if you ever come by one of those in your parents’ home, do not, I repeat DO NOT, let them throw it away. Here’s a recipe for manapua from Rachel Lauden’s The Food of Paradise.
Malasadas – Hawaii’s Favorite “Doughnut” (I actually cringe when people call it a doughnut because, oh man, it’s so much more than that.)
- Heritage: Portuguese
- Backstory: The word ‘malasadas’ translates in English to “under cooked” and is often described as a Portuguese doughnut. But oh, a malasada is anything but that. Crispy on the outside, hot and fluffy on the inside, rolled in a sandbox of cinnamon sugar and sometimes filled with a gooey sweet filling of Hawaii’s choice. The richness of the malasada can be tied to its Lenten origins. On Fat Tuesdays, the day before lent, Catholics used up all the fats and sugary ingredients in their kitchen creating many doughnuts and indulgent desserts. So I guess we owe thanks to the religious plantation laborers from Madira and Azores islands for bringing this tradition to Hawaii.
- Recipe: For the hard core traditionalist check out this recipe by Hawaii’s favorite grocery store, Foodland (Chef Rick Chang). For you progressive foodies, check out this recipe (from a fellow local Maui girl blogger based out of LA Fix Feast Flair) for a coconut filled malasadas.
Spam Musubi – Hawaii’s Quintessential On-the-go Snack
- Heritage: Japanese
- Backstory: A local favorite actually has a darker past than most are aware of. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, thousands of citizens of Japanese descent were placed in internment camps for the remainder of World War II. That rectangle can of pink meat was cheap and available during the war, for soldiers and people in the internment camps alike. Naturally, the Japanese decided to slice up pieces of spam and create a “spam sushi” of sorts. Placing slices of salty crispy fried meat over white rice and wrapping it with nori (dried seaweed). This food is so iconic there are special molds created for this process. It’s also said that the rectangle spam can was the original spam musubi mold. The spam musubi is truly telling of the times it was created in – a combination of culture, history, and resourcefulness coming together in Hawaii’s most portable snack.
- Recipe: There is no real recipe…Can you believe it?! But here it is broken down into w few simple steps for those of you who are seeing this “bizarre” food for the first time and are brave enough to consume Spam.
- Heritage: Korean
- Backstory: The creation of meat jun is more folklore than historical fact.The history of meat jun is probably the most obscure and lesser known of the local foods in Hawaii. Was it the baby of kalbi and fried chicken? We will never know. I do know that the name originates from the Korean dish “gogijun” meaning “meat fritter.” Traditionally meat jun is typically found in the “fried foods” section of a cookbook as it is thin slices of un-marinated beef dipped in an eggy batter and pan fried. The only difference is that the Hawaii version uses marinated meat and the traditional Korean version does not. As far as concrete evidence, that’s all I got. (If we’re just sticking to the trend of backstories here, I’m sure some one in a little plantation town had leftover marinade and decided it was a good idea to dip the meat in it and then fry it up. But don’t quote me on that.)
- Recipe: If you haven’t figured it out by now, Foodland is my favorite go to for traditional Hawaii recipes. Coming in again with a trusty go to meat jun recipe.