The foods and drinks of Hawaii, along with all the many incredibly delicious Hawaiian-inspired things, are trending again big-time. And we're not talking pineapple pizza, tiki bars and the like. This time around—after a brief heyday in the ‘90s when chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong brought Royal Hawaiian Cuisine and macadamia-crusted fever to the mainland—expat chefs are intent on preserving traditional flavors.
Their inspirations are as diverse as the island culture itself—which includes Polynesian, Spanish, Portuguese, Filipino, Japanese and Chinese influences, to name a few. But their results are all equally broke-da-mouth tasty. The Feast chatted with Hilo native (and part Hawaiian) chef Jordan Keao, who trained at Roy’s Hawaii in La Jolla and the Michelin-starred La Folie in San Francisco before opening up his modern Hawaiian restaurant ‘āina. Here, Keao gives us a primer on some of the key Hawaii-inspired dishes to look for at his restaurant and a growing number of mainland eateries.
1. Kalua Pork
Arguably the best-known food of Hawaii, Kalua pig (pronounced the same as the liquor) is the centerpiece of any traditional Hawaiian luau, where it is cooked low and slow in an imu, or underground oven. At ‘āina, Keao recreates the same taste profile and texture of traditional kalua pork in a conventional oven without an imu. He begins by curing pork belly for two days and then smokes it with kiawe wood, a native wood from Hawaii that has a smoky flavor. He then cooks the smoked pork belly with banana leaf in a combination oven that roasts, braises and steams it much like it would cook in an imu. The final presentation is thoroughly Californian: For summer, he’s serving his Kalua pork belly (pictured above) with sous vide eggs, shaved squash, arugula, pickled red onions, squash blossoms, fennel purée and a housemade chicharron. Photo courtesy of ‘āina.
2. Loco Moco
A traditional island snack-shop staple, loco moco is Hawaii’s answer to hot dogs and hamburgers, explains Keao. As a kid growing up playing baseball, he and his buddies would refuel over this humble stick-to-your-ribs plate, typically made up of two scoops of sticky rice, a hamburger patty, sunny side eggs with pan gravy. You can find delicious, straightforward versions at stateside joints such as Marination, the Hawaiian-Korean restaurant and food truck in Seattle, as well as fanciful iterations such as the foie gras and Spam loco moco at Animal in Los Angeles. At ‘āina, Keao elevates his childhood dish by jettisoning hamburger for Korean-style kalbi (short ribs) topped with kiawe-smoked honshimeji mushroom jus and accompanied by a salad of hearts of palm that he imports fresh from Hawaii to balance out the richness. Photo courtesy of ‘āina.
Although SPAM is a quintessentially American invention, the Army-issued canned meat holds a special place for anyone who grew up on the islands. But while the original formula is riddled with unwelcome ingredients, pedigreed chefs are making it from scratch and presenting their versions in a variety of ways from sliders to musubi to agnolotti. At ‘āina, Keao presents it as a Korean ssam, wrapped with kimchi, short grain rice and shaved salted egg yolk furikake. Meanwhile, at Lilholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco, Oahu-born chef Ravi Kapur, who is of Hawaiian-Chinese-Indian descent, presents his homemade SPAM two ways: in an upscale fried rice dish dotted with uni and shrimp and a more down-home presentation over rice, garnished with spicy mayo, furikake and pickled cucumbers (pictured above).
4. Lau Lau
One of the hardest dishes to replicate in a modern restaurant is the native Hawaiian dish known as lau lau (rhymes with cow-cow). The classic version showcases pork, salted butterfish and taro mash wrapped in a taro leaf and cooked in an underground imu oven. Nonetheless, you’ll find a smashing version at Miss Thing’s, a tiki-inspired bar in Toronto serving classic Pan Asian and Polynesian cuisine, including Hawaii classics such as loco moco, Spam Pintxo and poke; the full-on lau lau platter (pictured above) features pork shoulder and salt cod wrapped in a banana leaf and served with taro mash, steamed pancakes, lettuce wrap, pickles and a housemade hoisin sauce.
Poke (pronounced PO-kay, not pok-EEE, which means “cat” in Hawaiian) is a fish dish that's ubiquitous on the islands and is currently taking the States by storm. But don’t be fooled: Not all chopped raw fish seasoned with a splash of sesame oil and soy sauce is poke. “That’s just tartare,” points out Keao. Traditional poke predates the Asian influence on the islands, when native Hawaiians lived simply off the sea and land. What makes poke poke is that it’s seasoned with seaweed for saltiness, and with kukui nut, an oily nut similar to a macadamia from the candlenut tree (the official state tree of Hawaii) that gives the mixture a pleasant crunch. At Noreetuh, a modern Hawaiian restaurant in New York City, chef and Per Se alum Chung Chow (who grew up in Hawaii) serves a traditional-style big eye tuna poke (pictured above) seasoned with macadamia nuts, seaweed and pickled jalapeños.
Saimin (pronounced sign-MIN) is a uniquely Hawaiian noodle dish that reflects some of the many cultures of Hawaii. Inspired by Japanese ramen, Chinese lo mein and Filipino pancit alike, it dates back to Hawaii’s plantation era when Chinese, Japanese and Filipino migrant workers would pool together their disparate home lunch items into a communal meal. Ma’ono Fried Chicken and Whiskey, a West Seattle restaurant known for its Hawaii-inspired fried chicken, also serves next-level saimin (pictured above). Unlike at most island lunch dives, where the hot dashi broth is simply topped with green onions, a bit of barbecue meat and a hard-boiled egg, chef Mark Fuller, whose mother is from Kauai and spent time growing up there, ups the ante, presenting a groaning bowl of housemade pork-and-ham shoyu broth, topped with crispy five-spice pork belly, yolk noodles, fish cake, salted gai choy, scallions, crispy sesame-toasted nori and an perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg. Photo courtesy of Ma’ono Saimin.
7. Taro Sweet Bread
The taro plant is one of the most versatile plants in Hawaii. It’s mashed into pai’ ai (a hearty paste that the Native Hawaiians used to survive on while they navigated through the Pacific), pounded with water to make poi, made into chips, and even milled into flour for baked goods. The pounding action crushes the starch molecules in the taro, causing it to ferment and giving the food its signature sweet, tangy flavor. While many of these native Hawaiian dishes are an acquired taste to non-locals, it’s hard to argue with the taro Portuguese sweet bread at Punalu’lu Bake Shop on the Big Island. Keao grew up eating the stuff and now gets it delivered to his restaurant so he can make his decadent French Toast (pictured above); fat slices of the sweet brioche-like bread get soaked in a custard made out of coconut milk and coconut sugar and cooked to order. He tops them with a macadamia nut crumble, strawberries and bacon. Photo courtesy of ‘āina.
Portuguese laborers from Madeira and the Azores who came to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane plantations also left their indelible mark on the local cuisine. In addition to sweet breads and Portuguese style sausages, there's the fried delicacy known as malasada, a yeast-leavened doughnut hole enriched with eggs, butters and fresh or evaporated milk. These were originally mostly eaten on Terça-feira Gorda (aka Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday) as a way to use up all the butter and sugar before Lent. At Leonard's Bakery in Honolulu, which claims to be the original malasada bakery in Hawaii, the fritters are served ungarnished or filled with various custards or fillings such as coconut-flavored haupia pudding. Closer to home, you can find malasadas at Macao Trading Company in New York City, where they're stuffed with crème anglaise, and at ‘āina, where Keao entices newcomers to the unfamiliar confections by filling them with drool-inducing guava-flavored custard and rolling them in coconut sugar for a sweet crunchy finish (pictured above). Photo courtesy of ‘āina.
Mochi, the soft and chewy confection made from pounded rice, is such an essential snack in Hawaii that you’ll find it in candy stores, bake shops and even drug stores. Keao explains it’s so fundamental to the culture that “every second grader learns how to make mochi in school.” In addition to its candy form, you’ll often find it at places like Bubbies Homemade Ice Cream parlor in Honolulu, which sells it wrapped around balls of various flavors of ice cream including lychee, green tea and guava; its products are now also available at various Whole Food stores in the U.S. At Noreetuh, you’ll find crispy mochi waffles (pictured above) with macadamia nuts and whipped peanut butter on the dessert menu, but the chef manages to weave it into savory dishes such as the mocha-crusted halibut with pole beans, Chinese bacon and fermented black beans.
10. Shave Ice
Shave ice is one of the most popular ways to beat the tropical heat. Unlike American-style snow cones featuring crushed ice, the Hawaiian version is made out of ice shaved so finely to resemble snow (just don’t make the rookie move and call it shaved ice). At the Hawaiian-inspired ice cream parlor chainlet Brian’s Shave Ice in Los Angeles, you can customize your cone with an array of classic tropically flavored syrups such as guava, pineapple, passion fruit, coconut, and POG (the Maui-based fruit drink made of passion fruit, orange and guava soda) and toppings such as condensed milk, azuki beans and li hing mui powder (a salted plum powder). At ‘āina, bar manager Jason Alonzo take a few more liberties, reimagining shave ice in the form of a low ABV elixir called The Smoked Swizzle (pictured above), in which crushed ice is topped with muddled sage, mint, strawberry jam, lemon juice and amaro, along with soju that’s been smoked over traditional kiawe wood. Photo courtesy of āina.
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