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.

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