It’s the tail end of brunch service at Koko Head Cafe on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, and the place is buzzing. I order the poi biscuit and gravy, complete with a soft poached egg. It’s my first time trying the mashed taro dish, and it’s delicious. Like many Americans, I've gotten Hawaiian food wrong, seeing it through the kitschy lens tourists prefer when visiting the islands. So I wanted to remedy this and understand what food in Hawaii is really all about. I started by asking some experts to fill me in on what I’ve been missing, and why they think people underestimate Hawaiian food.
“Aloha Natalie, thank you for considering me. Looking at the questions I don't think the questions acknowledge the fact that there is a very clear misconception of what Hawaiian food is,” a chef who preferred to respond off the record told me in an email. “As a culture we have normalized cultural appropriation of food without actually understand the culture first and I cannot enable the furthering of this.”
I was off to a bad start.
Kevin Ching gave me a better idea of how I should be filling the gaps. Ching was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, and has lived around the world, most recently in Yangon, Myanmar, where he is the chef of Port Autonomy and Rau Ram. “I should draw the distinction here between traditional (ancient) Hawaiian food and local food in Hawaii,” Ching said. “The former is a very well-defined, these days often banquet-style cuisine (lū‘aus) with dishes more or less representing what the ancient Hawaiians ate.”
“The latter is a modern day (last century or so) immigrant, fusion food culture, some of which has recently entered the American foodie mainstream consciousness—things like the Hawaiian plate lunch (two scoops white rice, mayonnaise-heavy macaroni salad, and any asian-inspired entree you can imagine. To this day, my favorite is the classic beef stew), poke, spam musubi, saimin, etc. This food culture, arguably just as unique, is what I grew up on, existing alongside and interacting with a whole melting pot of authentic Asian and localized Asian flavors.”
Koko Head chef and owner Lee Ann Wong, a New York transplant whom you may have seen on Top Chef, broke it down further for me.
“Hawaiian food comes in cultural generational stages,” Wong said. “When we’re talking about ancient Hawaiian cultures—and really the way that the Hawaiian people existed before the industrial revolution technology, before they were illegally seized by the American government and so on and so forth—ancient Hawaiian food was all about the food system. They lived indigenously off of the land. Kalo (taro) culture is a huge part of that. Really when you see ancient Hawaiian foods, the methods of cooking were roasting by fire, steaming, cooking in the coals, boiling, really simple things. It was really about what was available.”
When new people started coming to Hawaii, the food culture started to change. The islands were a melting pot of immigrants from Polynesia, Asia, Europe, the US, and beyond. A lot of the food we call Hawaiian reflects that influence. Then there was World War II. “I think Hawaii had a pretty bad rap for a long time in terms of the food, and I think that’s a product of wartime,” Wong said. “You see the presence of Spam, which is a product of war-era here.”
Decades later, a new chapter of Hawaiian food began. “Another type of ‘Hawaiian’ food originated later in the ‘80s and ‘90s: Hawaiian-regional or ‘Pacific Rim’ cuisine as globalized by the Roy's restaurant group and epitomized (in my mind) by dishes like seared ahi with wasabi mashed potatoes,” Ching said. “It tended to appear mainly in fine dining or at the higher price points. However, this strong sense of Pacific Rim or ‘fusion’ cuisine, after going out of fashion for a decade or so, is starting to reappear in new ways in new Hawaiian cuisine without the negative connotations ‘fusion’ has had in the past.”
Part of this wave of new Hawaiian cuisine comes from the rise of farm-to-table cooking. “I'll define new Hawaiian cuisine as something that had to wait until Hawaii's local farming culture took hold,” Ching said. “When I grew up in Hawaii you'd go to the store and find unripe bananas from South America, bitter apples picked too soon from Washington, all this imported, frozen seafood. Seems hard to believe now, but then, Hawaii was sustained almost completely by imports. We still are to a large extent, but at least in the last 20 years we've seen the growth and maturation of a real local farming industry, not just produce, but meat, fish and dairy too. So once we had real, Hawaiian-grown ingredients, a new generation of chefs could come up and evolve a new Hawaiian cuisine.”
“Right now there really is a Hawaiian renaissance happening. There’s a ton of talent,” Wong said. “All of these chefs all over the islands are just really focusing on utilizing, taking old-school Hawaiian ideas and utilizing all of the best that Hawaii has to offer.”
One of those talents is Ed Kenney, the chef behind popular restaurants like Town, Mud Hen Water, Mahina & Suns. “At Mud Hen Water, he serves a dish of pa'i'ai, a mochi-like byproduct of the poi making process, grilled yakitori style and served with toasted nori,” Ching said. “When I first tried it, it was unlike any dish I had had before (I never even had pa'i'ai) yet, having grown up in Hawaii, I could instinctively understand and connect to each of its parts. This simultaneous newness and familiarity is what makes this new Hawaiian cuisine so brilliant to me. It's not the 90s fusion of East and West, it's a fusion of Hawaii old and new which is so much more interesting.”
Today chefs and general consumers can buy hand-pounded paiai and poi from people like Daniel Anthony of Mana Ai, a small company purchasing premium taro from Hawaiian farmers and processing it the ancient way. Manulele Distillers is helping preserve ancient heirloom sugarcane varieties while making KōHana Hawaiian Agricole Rum. There’s so much more to the future of Hawaiian food that doesn’t have anything to do with the culinary appropriation of it as a trendy food on the mainland (aka the onslaught of suburban poke places opening in America).
“I see [Hawaiian food] growing as people realize how flavorful it is,” said Ben Takahashi, the chef at Kukui’ula on the South Shore of Kauai. “Also, as Hawaii becomes more expensive, people are moving to the US mainland. That should continue to bring more Hawaiian food (or Hawaiian fusion food) to cities and towns across the country.”
More exposure will hopefully be a good thing. “I think if more people knew about and experienced what is currently going on with Hawaiian cuisine it would be hard not to sit up and take notice,” Ching said.
“Hawaii's rich, multicultural past and present will be endlessly inspiring for us chefs. And as local farming becomes increasingly robust, we will have more and more colors to paint with. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is some of the most exciting food being cooked in America at the moment and I can't wait to see and be a part of where it goes.”