Wednesday, January 28, 2009


There was no Fun Fact for my hula class last week; another food-related event tore me away. I was off at a Dungeness crab dinner put on by the Portland Culinary Alliance, of which I am president. I do love my hula class, but I would never pass up an opportunity to eat one of my favorite foods, the sweet delectable meat from a local specialty here in Oregon, the Dungeness crab. Yum.

But the following weekend I did attend a practice session that a handful of hula sisters participate in every Saturday. And there, at the Aloha Bally's, we saw our kumu hula, Lisa Chang, who was just finishing up her morning aerobics class. I apologized to her for missing two hula classes in a row. She just smiled and said, "Bring your 'ukulele to the next class." Oh oh.

Our hula class is apparently going multi-media by incorporating live music, as played by hula sisters who have been studying 'ukulele. There are three of us now in the "advanced" class. Our kumu, Lisa, started out with our class but had to drop out because of the many demands of running the halau. Now she's starting all over again with the beginners' class.

The main song we're supposed to practice in order to play with the class is the classic tune "Hawai'i Aloha," written in the mid-1800s by a missionary to Hawaii, Lorenzo Lyons, who became fluent in Hawaiian and was known to his flock as Makua Laiana (Father Lyons). "Hawai'i Aloha" is sung at public gatherings before everyone disperses. Lisa apparently intends to give our occasional public performances more of a Hawaiian flavor by adding this special farewell as our concluding performance.

It's a good thing, then, that I have been practicing. And now, in addition to my Sunday afternoon 'ukulele class, I've been going to the monthly gatherings of the Portland Ukulele Association, or PUA for short. Pua, by the way, is the Hawaiian word for flower.

PUA is a convivial and talented group. I've got a long way to go before I dare perform during their open mike events, but it's good for my confidence to see that I can at least play along and know how to play most of the chords.

I discovered PUA last June when I bought a ticket for one of their two concerts that concluded several days of workshops at Reed College led by top musicians from all over the country. I had no idea it would be such a fabulous concert, but all the people lined up in front of Vollum Hall begging for tickets to the sold-out show should have given me a clue.

The show started at 7:30 and lasted till almost 11 p.m., though I never looked at my watch until it was over. I was totally captivated, enthralled and delighted by the marvelous 'ukulele players, solo and in groups, who entertained the crowd after teaching workshops all week. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen. I've heard since then that PUA's ukulele festival is considered the very best in the country -- and believe me, there are a lot of ukulele festivals out there!

PUA's annual concerts will be held Friday, June 19, and Saturday, June 20, this year. I'll try to make it to both of them and will be in line for tickets as soon as they're available. Wouldn't miss this for anything . . . maybe even Dungeness crab!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hawaiian Food

Last night I missed my hula class because I was a guest speaker at Diane Morgan's food writing class. I offered tips of the trade to 17 aspiring food writers. Although food writing is just one area of my varied career, I was able to give them a glimpse into the life of a newspaper and magazine writer, dealings with editors, hassles over contracts, pay, etc. I told them I'm not a recipe writer, but I approach the topic of food as a journalist, looking for business, travel or cultural angles.

Because of my fascination with all things Hawaiian, I have naturally taken a great interest in the food. Which is not to say I'm a huge fan of it. As cuisines go, Turkish food is still at the top of my list.

What I remember most about the food from my first visit to Hawaii is the fruit -- all sorts of tropical varieties I'd never tasted before -- and the coconut syrup I poured over pancakes. I never attended a luau, so my introduction to traditional Hawaiian fare didn't come until after I'd joined my hula halau. Occasional potlucks or catered Hawaiian meals are part of the group activities. A class potluck gave me my first taste of foods that are near and dear to the hearts of my classmates who were raised in the islands.

My first impression of the groaning tables heavily laden with Hawaiian foods of all sorts was that it sure was brown and there sure was a lot of meat. Somehow I expected more colorful fare, more produce and more seafood. And once I tasted it, I was somewhat overwhelmed by how bland some dishes were and how extremely salty others were. By now, I've developed more of a taste for Hawaiian food, but I would never choose it over French, Italian or (my favorite) Middle Eastern food.

Here's a brief summary of the traditional dishes that I have encountered at Hawaiian parties.

Kalua Pig -- When I was told the name of this shredded pork dish I assumed the word was Kahlua and that I was about to sink my teeth into meat flavored with the sweet coffee liqueur. Not a chance. Kalua refers to the method of cooking the pig in an underground oven, called an imu. The flavor is smoky and salty. Kalua pig is pictured above.

Chicken Long Rice -- Fooled again. I kept looking for the rice. Turns out, that's what they call Chinese cellophane noodles, which are cut into manageable (but still long) lengths, softened and served with cooked chicken that's been marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, minced ginger and garlic.

Huli Huli Chicken -- Huli huli means to turn, and this chicken is turned on the grill and basted frequently with a sauce made of ketchup, soy sauce, brown sugar, sherry, garlic and ginger.

Lau Lau -- Fish, beef, chicken or pork wrapped in ti (taro) leaves and steamed. It's pictured above at the top right.

Lomi Lomi Salmon -- Salted fillet of salmon is shredded with the fingers and mixed with chopped Maui (sweet) onion and tomato. Lomi lomi means massage, and you're supposed to massage the ingredients together with your fingers. It's pictured above in the little cup.

Poke -- This is one of my favorites. It's like a Hawaiian ceviche. Raw ahi tuna is diced and mixed with minced onion, soy sauce, sesame oil, pepper and Hawaiian salt. It's pronounced PO-kay.

Macaroni Salad -- This simple salad is ubiquitous. It really surprised me to see how popular it is. A heaping mound of it accompanies just about any dish, along with a scoop or two of white rice. (Gotta get those starches!) Both are pictured above on the left. In the Hawaiian version, the macaroni is cooked way past al dente until the pasta is very plump and soft. Then it's mixed with loads of mayo and seasoned with salt and pepper. There are variations, with other ingredients added, but it's usually plain.

Spam Musubi -- This was another shock to my senses. There's a huge Japanese influence on Hawaiian cuisine, so I'd come to expect seeing sushi on the potluck table. But sushi with Spam? At first I thought it was a joke -- I've been to Spam parties before where everyone's supposed to come up with a creative and possibly comical way to use the stuff. But this appetizer has become common fare. It's sticky rice in the shape of a Spam can, with a slab of Spam at one end, wrapped in nori (seaweed).

Haupia -- This coconut pudding is the most common dessert I've seen. It's made with coconut milk, whole milk, sugar, cornstarch and vanilla, cooked till thickened, chilled till firm, then cut in squares. Another one of those bland foods I've acquired a bit of a taste for. But I wouldn't walk a mile for it.

Poi -- Last but not least. It's a Hawaiian staple, made from pounding the taro root. Of course, I'd heard of poi, but I was surprised just the same, first by its color (light purple) and then by its taste (not bad). Not good either. Again, I wouldn't go out of my way to try it.

Has this description of Hawaiian food made you hungry?
Me neither.

But if you'd like to try preparing any of these dishes, here's a handy web site. Better yet, visit a Hawaiian restaurant. In Portland, my favorite is Ohana Hawaiian Cafe, at Northeast 63rd and Sandy Boulevard.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Lonely Guy the Great

The Fun Fact I delivered to my hula class last night was about Kamehameha the Great, who united the Hawaiian Islands in the late 18th century and early 19th century. He was the first in a line of monarchs who reigned over the islands until 1893, when Queen Lili'uokalani was overthrown.

There was a lot about this king's story that really amazed me. First of all, his name. He had a reputation as a fierce warrior who spilled rivers of blood in his quest to rule the entire island group. So you would think his name would denote all sorts of righteous qualities, such as bravery, leadership or even skill on a surfboard (the sport of kings -- Hawaiian kings, that is).

No. Kamehameha translates as Lonely Guy. So this fearsome monarch was Lonely Guy the Great!

Of course, as soon as I shared that Fun Fact, one of my hula sisters broke into song: "Hey there Lonely Guy," sung to the tune of that 1970 hit, "Hey There Lonely Girl."

There were more amazing things to come. Turns out, Kamehameha's life story shares events that also occurred in the lives of Jesus, King Arthur and Mark Twain!

According to legend, a comet was supposed to light up the night sky when the future unifier of the islands was born. Sure enough, when little Lonely Guy was born in 1758, Halley's Comet soared over the island of Hawai'i. (Mark Twain was born under similar circumstances 77 years later when Halley's Comet returned.)

I'm guessing his was the only birth among the ali'i (royalty) that night, so the people figured he was the long-awaited unifier. The king who ruled Hawai'i Island at the time wasn't exactly charmed by this story of the little baby who would grow up to be a great ruler, so he ordered that the baby be killed. Sound familiar yet? Baby Kamehameha was taken into hiding for about the first five years of his life.

Here's where the King Arthur part comes in. As you may recall, King Arthur proved his exalted destiny by pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone. Kamehameha banished any doubt about his destiny by hoisting the 5,000-pound Naha stone. The immense chunk of lava had sat undisturbed for eons. Only the person who would one day unite the island would ever be able to move it. Kamehameha was said to have performed this amazing feat when he was only 14.

By 1795 he had gained control over all the islands but Kaua'i and Ni'ihau. This he had accomplished through bloody warfare. But by 1810 he had apparently mellowed enough to try his hand at diplomacy. The last two islands decided then not to fight him but to join him.

Having accomplished his destiny, Kamehameha retired from the royal court in Honolulu to his home island of Hawai'i in 1812. He died in 1819 and was succeeded by his son, Liholiho, who took his father's name, becoming Kamehameha II, or Lonely Guy No. 2.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A New Year, A New Class

Our abundant December snowfall, coupled with the holiday season, kept our hula class from meeting for several weeks. We'll gather again on January 8. Hugs all around, I'm sure.

Once the snow melted on the last weekend of December, our 'ukulele class was reunited, also with hugs all around. After being confined to our homes by huge snowdrifts, it was fantastic to see some fellow humans (other than the ones we live with). We met again last Sunday and even had a little spiked eggnog to go with the strumming.

This week another class began for me, the continuation of the Hawaiian language class I'm taking as distance learning adult education from Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu. This is my second course; my first was in November. There was actually an introductory class before that, which I missed. But from the Hawaiian I learned in two one-week intensive classes from a teacher visiting from Honolulu, Tuti Kanahele, I was able to keep up.

I really enjoy the online language class and all the multimedia aspects of it. There are lots of background articles, photos, videos, songs, as well as interactive quizzes and games to make learning Hawaiian even more fun. On top of all that, Kamehameha Schools rewards people for finishing their classes with lovely gifts! From my efforts in November I received a green A'o Makua (adult education) T-shirt, which I wear to the gym; a children's book about the life of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the Hawaiian princess who was the founder of Kamehameha Schools; and my favorite gift, a Hawaiian Word-A-Day calendar. Today being IƤnuali 6 (January 6), the word of the day is 'alani, which means orange (the fruit and the color).

Can't wait to see what my reward for finishing this month's class will be!