The long-standing joy of saimin

Newspaper columns often spring from many sources.

Some of mine, for example, have been inspired by current events, newspaper headlines, and even friends and relatives who suggest stories they think I might enjoy writing and readers might enjoy reading.

Some of my favorite columns began as ideas from longtime TGI employee (and my daughter-in-law) Yukie DeSilva, who is the one who persuaded me to start writing for The Garden Island again.

By far, though, the majority of my TGI columns reflect cherished memories I have accumulated over the years, including the three-plus decades I devoted to the newspaper I love.

Some of these are nostalgic, some touch the heart, some are heartbreaking, some are just plain funny. What ties them all together and turns a few into “Kauai Reflections” is this: They are stories I want to share.

This week’s column began in a family discussion about saimin, of all things, meandered around from subject to subject before finally deciding what it wanted to be about.

(Columns are like that sometimes, you know, they just kind of write themselves.)

Saimin, as everyone knows, is a noodle soup, with a tasty broth and garnishes that make it special. It was developed in China, not Japan as many believe.

When immigrants arrived in Hawaii during the plantation era, many adapted and developed saimin even further, using products from their own countries, like Japanese ramen, Filipino pancit and Chinese mein as noodles.

They added kamaboko (fish cake), char siu (roasted pork), nori (seaweed), egg, and green onions and even sliced Spam, which all soon became standard and popular garnishes. Today, many restaurants have also perfected their own dashi or broth. Some are closely guarded secrets.

My family and I used to enjoy steaming hot bowls of saimin at a tiny Kapaa restaurant a long time ago. Fuji Cafe was located just outside the south end of Kapaa. They may have served other dishes there but only thing I remember is that their saimin was delicious.

Fishermen who launched their boats at Waikaea Canal (Lihi) often wrapped up a day of fishing with a bowl of saimin at Fuji Cafe.

Saimin is recognized as a traditional state dish in Hawaii, according to Wikipedia, the open content, free online encyclopedia. It is also one of the top-selling dishes at McDonald’s in Hawaii, a unique and successful pairing brought about in the late 1960’s by then-Foodland Super Market Ltd. owner Maurice J. Sully Sullivan.

He purchased Hawaii’s first McDonald’s franchise in 1968, opened it and several more. For 12 months, McDonald’s Hawaii was the highest grossing group of franchises in the world. Certain it would be a booming success, Sullivan wanted to add saimin, his favorite meal, to the MacDonald’s menu and convinced McDonald’s owner and executive, Ray Croc to expand McDonald’s menu to include a local ethnic dish for the first time in its corporate history.

In typical fashion, Sullivan then set out to make sure the addition was done right. He hired researchers who worked closely with a popular saimin enterprise to develop a recipe for McDonald’s Hawaii.

He then struck deals with a saimin noodle factory, fishcake supplier and Ajinomoto to create a special soup base. The rest is history.

Sullivan, who died in 1998, is still revered and remembered by longtime Foodland employees, who say he was a fine and decent man who cared about his employees and the communities that supported his supermarkets, creating several programs that benefited schools and ultimately students.

His daughter, Jenai Wall, took over as President of Foodland in 1995 and as CEO the year her father died. She is following in his footsteps and has established the same kind of rapport and relationship with her employees. She makes frequent trips to Kauai to see how the stores at Waipouli and Princeville are doing and touch bases with the staff.

“I don’t know how she does it,” said one employee. “She has thousands of employees, yet can call many of them by name.”

Of course, there is a difference between the saimin you get at a fast-food restaurant and the kind you get at restaurants like Kauai’s famed saimin “star,” Hamura’s Saimin in Lihue, which has been written about many times.

In addition to Fuji Cafe, there have been many others over the years in towns around Kauai, all deserve their moment in the spotlight. If anyone out there had a favorite saimin place we haven’t mentioned, please share them with our readers in a comment to this column.

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Rita De Silva is the former editor of The Garden Island and a Kapaa resident.

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