Real Hawaiian

By Kaui Philpotts

Published on January 23, 2007

I live in the new Hawaii. The one with million-dollar houses along once-modest streets and multi-million-dollar resorts along every stretch of white sand beach. The one with seared ahi tuna and mango salsa on every restaurant plate.

This is not the Hawaii I grew up in. I spent my earliest years on a sugar plantation on Maui, where, on nights with a full moon, I'd climb out my bedroom window and lie on the coarse elephant grass near the avocado tree to watch the moon and clouds collide. I didn't eat "Pacific Rim" cuisine. I ate easy fried rice—leftover rice cooked in a huge cast-iron skillet with bits of fried egg, green onion, and fresh ginger—prepared for us by Dolores, from the detention home for wayward girls, whom my mother had brought home to live with us and help with the chores.

I ate impromptu picnics of fried shoyu (soy sauce) chicken neatly wrapped in waxed paper and musubi (perfect triangles of seaweed-wrapped white rice, like giant sushi) with my friend Lei on the steps of the VFW Hall in Wailuku after hula class. I ate tripe stew and day-old poi (the steamed and pounded corm of the taro plant), saimin noodles with bright pink fish cake, "plate lunches" of beef stew and chicken cutlets with sticky rice, and the Portuguese fried doughnuts called malasadas. I ate Spam, for heaven's sake, with musubi, eggs, or rice. (Hawaii leads the nation in per capita Spam consumption.) I ate real Hawaiian food—local food, the kind people who live in Hawaii actually eat every day.

This food is more than the pit-roasted pig and coconut pudding of the traditional luau. It's also more than the diet of the early Hawaiians, which was largely based on fish, poi, sweet potatoes, and tropical fruit. Local food is a multicultural style of cooking—one of the original fusion cuisines—much of it derived from the cooking of the immigrant laborers from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores who came here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work the sugar cane and pineapple plantations that stretched across the islands. It is modest, down-home food—but full of exotic flavors.

Somewhere along the way, my diet changed. I gave up the tasty saltiness and fat of the dishes I'd always known for a more sensible way of eating, lighter and healthier. And when I started working as a food writer, I suddenly found myself sampling sophisticated restaurant cooking, traditional at first and then innovative and contemporary. I ate well, in both senses of the word—but somewhere along the way, I lost touch with local food. And when that happened, I lost touch with some vital part of my native Hawaii.

I recently went looking for my culinary roots.

The Waipi'o Valley, which opens onto the Hamakua coast on the northeast side of the Big Island, is narrow, deep, and lush. Descending into it—by four-wheel-drive vehicle, for this is rugged terrain—is like traveling back in time. The valley is its own tiny ecosystem, rich in flora, irrigated by freshwater streams and waterfalls, fragrant with the scents of wild ginger, ripe guavas, fresh rain. Inhabited for centuries and long a center for traditional agriculture, it is also said to have a particularly dense population of spirits.

John Vincent, a native Hawaiian raised in the valley, worked hard here as a young man, planting and pulling different varieties of taro from their watery patches for sale in the towns above. Now he lives in the nearby village of Kapulena, and works as a maintenance engineer at the Ritz-Carlton Mauna-Lani resort on the Kohala Coast. As a part-time business, Vincent supplies taro root and other food products from the valley to the Ritz-Carlton and other restaurants and stores on the western side of the island. He has offered to show me around the valley, and we are now passing through opulent jungle—damp, intensely green, promiscuously overgrown. (Much of it would seem strangely familiar to mainlanders: Parts of the valley could almost be a museum of American house plants.) Along the way, we meet Ted Ka'aekuahiwi, a Hawaiian farmer, who in his youth transported taro out of the valley with mules and who still farms crops here. Now retired from a job with the state, Ka'aekuahiwi spends as much time here as possible. He finds everything he needs to live in the valley, he tells us—taro, lotus root, edible pohole ferns, wild watercress, freshwater shrimp and crayfish.

On the way back up the side of the valley, Vincent points out wild guava trees, luminous pale green kukui plants (which yield oil used for lighting), noni and olena plants (both medicinal), and profuse white ginger, whose blossoms will "freshen your house".

It is raining, as usual on this side of the island, and above the valley, along the highway leading to Hilo, we stop at Tex Drive Inn, a local landmark. Tex's is known for its Portuguese bean soup and other hearty fare, but most of all for its malasadas, hot, yeasty, sugar-dusted doughnuts—one of Hawaii's favorite confections, and just the thing for this weather.

The next day, I stray precipitously close to the Pacific Rim: I visit one of John Vincent's friends and best customers, Amy Ferguson-Ota, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani. Ferguson-Ota is from Houston by way of Paris and two other Hawaiian resorts (the Kona Village and the Hana-Maui). She presents her food in an attractive, European-inspired manner—but she uses an encyclopedic catalogue of local ingredients, and loves local food. This has a lot to do with the fact that she is married to Franklin Ota, who was practically the first local she met when she got to the islands. He was the bell captain at the Kona Village, which had hired her as food and beverage executive in 1985, and he escorted her to her room when she arrived. Five months later, she asked him out—and in two more years, they got married.

Today, I sample some of Amy's specialties, examples of the way she borrows dishes from island kitchens and then dresses them up for the hotel's upscale clientele: Reef fish, like red mullet, with lemon grass sauce; her version of lomi-lomi salmon, with thin taro chips; and an onaga (red snapper) caught early this morning by Frank—who is known as one of the island's best spear-fishermen. The onaga is stuffed with vegetables and Chinese sausage, then wrapped in the large, tough, shiny green leaves of the ti plant for steaming. ("Ti leaves are the Hawaiian foil," says Amy.) When the leaf package is opened, the fish is flaky and white, streaming with juices, and fresh with the mingled aromas of the accompanying ingredients.

'Opihi, or limpets, that Frank gathers with his knife at low tide along the Kona coast (a dangerous pursuit, considering the strength and unpredictability of the surf), are tossed into a salad with pohole ferns, onions, ogo seaweed, and tomatoes, and dressed with sesame oil and soy sauce. The 'opihi are sharp with iodine, chewy and crunchy at once, and the ferns are bright as grass. The combination is crunchy, salty, and green- tasting; it's almost like eating a living salad. Finally, taro from the Waipi'o Valley, supplied by John Vincent, is peeled, steamed, and grated like a potato, then mixed with chopped fresh ahi tuna, shallots, lemon juice, cilantro, and salt, bound with egg, and fried into taro cakes. These are unexpected in flavor, at once substantially comforting and tangy, and absolutely delicious. Amy will serve these cakes this evening in the Ritz Carlton dining room, with some subtle sauce or other—if we leave any behind.

Think local food in Kona, further south on the island, and you think Sam Choy's Restaurant. Sam Choy has cooked local-style all his life. He started as a kid, helping his dad put on Saturday luaus on the North Shore of Oahu for as many as 800 people at a time. When he finished school, he worked a series of kitchen jobs in an assortment of resort hotels, ending up as executive chef at the Kona Hilton. In 1991, he opened his own place, in a light-industrial area outside Kailua-Kona—where he promptly became a culinary star.

Sam Choy is a large, generous man, spilling over with good will. You know instantly that at his table you can count on bounty, warmth, and flavor. These qualities have endured his celebrity. At his core, Sam Choy simply loves to feed people, any people—construction workers, fishermen, retired couples from the mainland, pretty young local girls, anyone who happens in to sample his bright saimin noodle soup and other specialties. Once, Julia Child visited Choy's restaurant and he donned chef's whites out of respect. None of his regulars would speak to him: It was as if they hardly recognized him, he says.

Sam Choy cooks from memory, with the pure joy of tasting. He remembers that his Chinese father always had a steamer going on the back of the stove, so that fresh fish or dim sum could be ready to eat in an instant—and he still loves to steam food (for instance, a three-fish laulau, wrapped in ti leaves). One of his sauces, made with pineapples and papayas, is no more than the echo of a jam once put up in every island home. He has taken the popular island dish poke (cubes of raw fish mixed with seaweed, chiles, and kukui nuts), and transformed it into quick-seared fried poke and poke musubi.

"People always want a name for what I do," says Choy. "Is it nouvelle cuisine? Hawaiian traditional? Pacific Rim? I don't know. I just love to cook. I get in a kitchen, put my head down, and the next thing I know it's tomorrow."

Up the Haleakala Highway from Wailuku, in the cool upcountry district of Kula on the island of Maui, stands the recently restored Holy Ghost Mission, built by Portuguese laborers in 1894. You smell the fresh bread here even before you reach the church hall, where the ovens have been going since 2:30 a.m. The women of the Holy Ghost parish began making the bread in 1991 to raise money to restore the church. Every Monday and Thursday, they now bake 200 to 300 loaves a day, while chatting happily. They make a kind of Portuguese-style sweetbread, originally a special-occasion item, now enjoyed all the time— toasted and buttered, made into French toast, or to accompany Portuguese bean soup. (In the church gift shop, I overhear two Portuguese women arguing about this soup. One of them always uses head cabbage, the other insists that kale is the only proper "cabbage" to use.)

I return to my car with several loaves of still-warm bread, and head out back down the side of Haleakala, to the town of Makawao, where I can't resist stopping at the legendary Komoda Bakery, famous throughout the islands for its cream puffs—old-fashioned puff pastry filled with a creamy custard suggesting cornstarch and canned milk.

The cream puffs are still made by hand every morning; so are extraordinary hamburger and hot dog buns, so good you're tempted to eat them as rolls. When the bakery makes cream pies, there's a standing waiting list of customers to call.

Back on the west side of Maui, at the Terrace restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua resort, executive sous-chef Jeffery Vigilla has been briefed to show off his best cuisine for us. A bright "local boy" from Hilo, Vigilla started his culinary career as a grill cook at McDonald's, and worked his way all the way from there, via a number of Hawaiian resort kitchens, to an apprentice post at the three-star Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. But I want local food, not haute cuisine. Vigilla's face lights up when I tell him that. "You really want local food?" he beams. "Yeah, I really do," I assure him.

Within minutes, heads are turning in the dining room, as plates piled high with noodles, crispy vegetable tempura, and fried ahi in shoyu sauce topped with green onion pass on their way to our table. Sticky white rice sprinkled with fishy furukake (seaweed mixture) flakes comes next, the low-key piece de resistance. It is superb. Vigilla has come up with a delicious meal of local food on the spot, using the best ingredients available to a Ritz-Carlton chef. All he had to do was switch gears mentally, and pretend that he was cooking not international cuisine for tourists, but local food for family and friends.

When I came back to the islands from college on the mainland in the early 1960s, I found the old Hawaii already disappearing at an alarming rate. Cement trucks instead of pineapple and cane trucks rumbled by. Kiawe trees were toppling, to be replaced by air-conditioned blockhouse hotels with false fronts of bamboo and palm thatch. We got freeways. I didn't want to get gobbled up along with the kiawe trees, so I moved forward myself, modernized, learned to appreciate the new Hawaii.

If I stopped to think at all about the way Hawaii used to be, it was with a sense of nostalgia, and a sense of loss. But what my little expedition in search of local food reminded me was that some of the best things about Hawaii haven't been lost at all. Hawaii's precious hospitality—the true spirit of aloha, extended by unpretentious people with generous hearts—still thrives. So does a way of eating that derives from this hospitality and from the simple joy of plain good food—one that celebrates the cultures of Hawaii, both ancient Polynesian and more recent Asian and European.

I went in search of real Hawaiian local food. What I really found was my own way back home.