Hawaii's 'Local Food': A Fusion of Ethnic Flavors

Chefs talk a lot about how Asian ingredients and cooking techniques are changing traditional European and American cuisine, but there is one place where this fusion cooking is not a trendy concept but an everyday reality: Hawaii.

Over the past several decades, the diverse peoples who reside in the Islands have quietly effected a culinary revolution. Incorporating elements from Polynesia, Japan, China, Portugal, Okinawa, Korea, Southeast Asia, and even New England, they have created a cuisine known simply as Local Food.

Most casual tourists catch only glimpses of this cuisine. A visitor might try a shaved ice topped with tropical fruit syrup or a bowl of saimin (Japanese noodles) or sample haupia (coconut pudding) at a hotel luau. But how many visitors have eaten a plate lunch or a malasalada (Portuguese donut)?

Even newcomers who move to the Islands are often mystified by Local Food as was Rachel Laudan, historian and author of "The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage" (University of Hawaii Press, 1996), which won the Jane Grigson Prize for Distinguished Scholarship at the 1997 Julia Child Book Awards.

"I didn't go to Hawaii to write a book about Hawaiian food," says Ms. Laudan, who spent eight years in the Aloha State. "I went to teach a course on the history of science and technology, which I'd taught for 20 years.

"What baffled me was that I thought I was pretty savvy about food but a lot of this was new," says the English-born author.

So what exactly is Local Food? First of all, it is not Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, the nouvelle cooking developed in upscale hotels and restaurants. Laudan explains that the basic structure of Local Food was established soon after World War II, with rice as the main filler, more meat than Asians usually eat, and fewer fruits and vegetables.

The centerpiece of Local Food is the plate lunch, a hearty meal designed to appeal to working people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, available at lunch wagons and small eateries. Japanese-style white rice is topped with several types of meat, such as beef teriyaki, Chinese pork, or curry along with macaroni salad and some vegetable or pickle, such as Korean kim chee.

Desserts include a variety of mochi, chewy confections made from sweet rice flour. Laudan says, "I now absolutely love mochi. It's not sweet, it doesn't have much taste. It's a texture. But why shouldn't we value texture as much as taste?"

Laudan was surprised by the ways in which people used food. "Never had I seen so much food in public: in the classroom, on the secretary's desk, in the legislature. They were bringing food to all these places and using it as a way to communicate between themselves."

There is no dominant group in Hawaii that sets the cultural tone. One-third of the population is Pacific Islander, one-third is Asian and one-third is Caucasian, and the food is an amalgam of these groups.

Laudan describes Local Food, along with the local pidgin language, as the glue that holds the diverse ethnic groups together and sets them apart from outsiders.

In her book, Laudan traces the development of Local Food back through the various immigrant groups to the original Polynesian settlers. Although many people assume that the Hawaiian Islands have always been a tropical paradise of mangoes and coconuts, guavas, and avocados, she points out that when those first explorers arrived, the islands had virtually no edible plants or animals.

"What's so striking is that everything was brought in," Laudan says, commenting on the sheer labor that went into making Hawaii habitable.

Each new wave of immigrant plantation workers had to adapt their native cuisine to fit not only the available ingredients but also the demands of the plantation work schedule. Laudan writes, "By the time the second generation was growing up, there were signs that a new cuisine was beginning to emerge."

Although the term Local Food was coined sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, this new cuisine is still evolving. "Everyone's interested in the fusion of Asian and American-European cooking and in the cross influence of Asian foods. I think Local Food is going to be recognized as one of the most interesting cuisines in the US," Laudan says.

Tropical Fruit Salad

This salad makes a nice change from the usual fruit salad. Measurements are up to your personal taste and ingredients can vary with the season.

1 papaya, cubed

2 mangoes, cubed

2 dozen lychees, quartered (or one large can of lychees)

1 dozen guavas, flesh cooked and sieved

1 banana or 3 apple bananas, sliced

2 ounces crystallized ginger, finely chopped

Sugar and lime juice to taste

Place all ingredients in a glass bowl, mix, taste, and adjust seasoning. Serve with coconut cream if you like.

Serves 8 to 10.

Green Papaya Salad

Since the arrival of the Southeast Asians in Hawaii, green papaya salad is well on the way to becoming an Island classic. The fish sauce enhances the taste, but soy sauce can be substituted.

1 medium green papaya

1 carrot

1 clove garlic

Fresh red chili pepper (Thai bird's eye chili if possible)

2 tablespoons fish sauce (Thai nam pla or Vietnamese nuoc mam or Filipino patis)

1 lime, cut in wedges.

Grate papaya and carrot into thin shreds an inch or so long. Grind garlic and chili pepper together in a mortar; combine with fish sauce.

Pour this dressing over the salad. Garnish with lime wedges.

Serves 2.

(Note:This salad can be rolled in lettuce leaves and eaten as finger food. Chopped peanuts, sliced Chinese roast pork, or chopped, boiled shrimp may also be added.)

Mango Bread

1-3/4 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup milk

1-1/2 cups ripe half-inch mango cubes, drained

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-by-5 inch loaf pan. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and spices in a large bowl. Stir in egg, oil, and milk. Fold in drained mango cubes.

Pour batter into pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center of bread comes out clean.

Cool for a few minutes; remove bread from pan, and allow it cool thoroughly on a wire rack.

- Recipes adapted from "The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage," by Rachel Laudan.

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