No doubt about it, the foods in Hawaii are a wonderful mix of tempting taste-bud treats, whether starring ethnic specialties or joining diverse ingredients and cooking methods from those specialties with older “comfort food” standards. Fusion, the word used often in Pacific rim menus, comes to mind. This year’s ever popular and successful “Taste of Hawaii” — once again sponsored by the Rotary Club of Kapaa with proceeds going to benefit the Kauai community — reminded me how the discoveries came for me as a new island transplant, when I began my exploration of new tastes.
Growing up in India and Burma and eating savory curries and delicious combinations of vegetables and spices and tropical fruits early on, I had my taste buds whetted. During the years in Australia, when the fare was my paternal grandmother’s cooking – bland and uninteresting, with mutton too often — I often begged off eating much, was consequently “in trouble” a good deal. Even my single parent mom’s quick meals were tasty: she could create small magic with some eggs and cheese, and even her kippers-on-toast mashed with onion and catsup were a treat. After World War II, the school’s affordable lunches in Manley, near Sydney, were billed as “Oslo lunches.” They consisted of a small bottle of milk with bread and butter generously slathered with peanut butter, baked beans or chocolate, or thinly spread with the famous “down under” meat or meat-substitute spreads, salty Bovril or Vegemite.
I wonder how Mrs. Obama would have viewed those! Anyway, I quite liked my Oslo lunches; they got me through the day and I was an energetic child who liked active playground games and stayed fully awake in class. My grown kids still tease me about liking Vegemite sandwiches (and give me jars of it). However, long ago they told me I shamed them at their schools by occasionally packing lunches of buttered brown bread and baked beans, the likes of which Ohio kids had never seen. Be assured, though: I never did go the chocolate sandwich route with them.
In Southern California, I worked at becoming an “American kid,” ignoring my British-Indian-Aussie background. When the first MacDonald’s opened in San Bernardino, nearby, all of us high school friends piled into an available car and went to the grand opening of the Golden Arches. Would you believe five hamburgers (with one pickle slice in the middle plus a teaspoon of minced onion and dab of catsup) for $1? 1950s’ prices, definitely. A favorite San Bernardino drive-in also boasted its “torpedo burger,” a blend of tender beef-in-bbq-sauce on a long bun, served with an enormous pile of waxed-paper wrapped fries — just what the doctor ordered. Then there were the Mexican foods we gravitated toward: tacos, burritos and tamales. And the fabled “grinder” sub sandwiches in Riverside, near UCR, taken out to devour in the shade by a park lake. These were a godsend on a day when So Cal temperatures reached 110 in the shade, with no AC in our apartment kitchen.
Back to Hawaii foods, though, I have a vision of the first time I attended a big, local fundraiser party in the annex rooms of the Kauai War Memorial. I was overwhelmed by the long tables laden with restaurant chafing dishes of beef, tomato, broccoli, chicken and veggies, shrimp, fish, pork tofu, not to mention the sushi and salad plates — and the array of tempting desserts in their paper frills. It was an Eddie-Sarita-for-Council night, and the Sons of Niihau were starring, including Iz. What a great memory of first entry for a haole woman!
It was after my first hike to Hanakapiai that my middle-school son and I were introduced to a local campers’ luau in Haena. A freshly caught uhu (parrot fish) had been stuffed with tofu, sweet onion and tomato with ginger and garlic and pulehu’d over the grill. Tender as butter. Taste ecstacy. And then, the tangy smoked meat, the two-finger poi. Our eyes were rolling with pleasure as we explored the new tastes.
I asked my husband what new foods he discovered here that became favorites. He came up with: (1) spiny lobster, fresh caught/steamed; (2) oxtail soup; (3) Chinese-style steamed fish; and (4) Hanama`ulu ginger chicken. Then I listed mine: (1) coconut shrimp; (2) crispy gau gee min or summer rolls (these are tied for secnd); (3) shoyu chicken; (4) kalbi ribs. And we didn’t even get to the desserts, the Kekaha Center bibingka, the pumpkin crunch, the dobash cakes, and (to die for) the lilikoi pie. Gosh, we both are getting hungry thinking about all these mouth-watering dishes. Ono, as I’ve learned, means “tasty, delicious, savory” in the Hawaiian language. It also means “to relish, crave.” As for the descriptive, “ono-licious,” please pardon the language fusion.
• Dawn Fraser Kawahara has been a Kauai writer and promoter for 30 years. Born in British India, brought up in Australia and California, she found her home and heart on Kauai in 1984 when the fourth of her children was almost raised. A former writer and department editor for The Garden Island, she launched and continues to run her TropicBird Press and TropicBird Weddings & Celebrations–Kauai as part of DAWN Enterprises.