Old days, new ways
Historian Arnold Hiura’s new book traces Hawaii’s food trends from plantation fare to modern meals
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 15, 2014
Food as a social phenomenon has always been front and center in Hawaii. More than just breaking bread together, sharing food for local folks means sharing something of oneself and receiving the same from others.
No doubt the food craze that extends well beyond Hawaii shores adds another layer of interest, with its myriad new ways to experience eating. But for food historian Arnold Hiura, there’s something disconcerting about the manner in which people are participating in this new wave of interest in food.
“I go online and I’m amazed at the volume of blogs — and at how critical they are. That’s not the spirit of food. At its very basic, food is sustenance,” he said.
Hiura spent the past year researching food trends for his latest book, “From Kau Kau to Cuisine: An Island Cookbook, Then and Now” (Watermark Publishing, $29.95), which illustrates some of the ties between Hawaii’s basic fare, rooted in our plantation history, and the contemporary cuisine created by Hawaii’s professional chefs. It will be in stores by the end of January, though pre-orders are being taken now at bookshawaii.net.
“When you see how food is changing, it’s an exciting, interesting time. There’s food trucks, pop-up restaurants, social media where everyone takes pictures of their food. There’s vegetarian food, organic, gluten-free and on and on and on,” Hiura said. “I thought this was a good time to look at tradition, what’s happening now and where we’re going. We could maybe draw some lessons or at least make observations.”
Hiura has a wide breadth of knowledge on the topic. The book is a sequel to his award-winning “Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands,” which was released in 2009. Hiura calls “Kau Kau” a “historical overview of what we eat and why we eat like we eat in Hawaii.”
The sharing of sustenance was one way plantation workers forged a local lifestyle, he said. They packed their meals in a “kau-kau tin” (lunchbox) of multiple tiers. One tier was filled with rice, the other, “okazu,” a main dish such as adobo or chicken hekka.
“Everyone put their okazu in a circle and shared what they brought. This is a great exercise for us in learning to share whatever we have and to eat what someone else offers,” Hiura said. “You don’t want to hurt another’s feelings. You don’t want to be picky. It’s an emphasizing of commonality instead of differences.”
The seeds of the latest project came after Hiura worked on chef Alan Wong’s “The Blue Tomato” in 2010, which gave him insight into the contemporary Hawaii food scene.
“From Kau Kau to Cuisine” examines the wide swath of local history through Hiura’s narrative and the work — and recipes — of two men, Jason Takemura and Derek Kurisu. Takemura provides contemporary dishes rooted in classic local dishes, while Kurisu offers a lineup of traditional plantation foods.
Takemura, 36, executive chef at both Pagoda Floating Restaurant and Hukilau Honolulu, has spent his career using the inspiration of the past to fuel new ideas for his menus. At the Pagoda, the chef is currently beefing up the menu.
“It’s been such a local place, but nothing there was local — even produce and fish were frozen from the mainland. The first thing I changed was to serve ‘Nalo Greens, fresh local fish and Big Island beef,” he said.
Takemura enjoyed cooking from an early age, when as a youngster in Aiea he played Nintendo against his brother.
“Loser cooked, whether it was saimin or pizza from English muffins,” he said. “I found I liked cooking. I’d add furikake and egg to the saimin. And then even when I won, I’d still go cook.”
In college, Takemura lived in Kaimuki with his grandparents, who prepared plantation food and told him about plantation life. Later, away at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., and homesick, he turned to some of those dishes for comfort.
It was the beginning of his exploration of local ingredients and flavors. Takemura built his career in California, in the kitchens of such restaurants as Roy’s in Pebble Beach. In 2003 he returned to Hawaii to work at Chai’s Island Bistro. He took the helm at Hukilau Honolulu in 2007 and joined Pagoda in 2011.
Kurisu, 63, is executive vice president at KTA Superstores on the Big Island. His expertise in cooking began when he was a child of “about 10.” His father worked on a Big Island plantation, and when his mother took a job, young Kurisu decided he would take on cooking duties. There was a formidable learning curve, he recalls.
“In the old plantation days, there were no recipes. Everything was ‘oyoso,’ approximations. I struggled but you watch and learn. I liked to eat, so I knew what something should taste like,” he said.
What governed the cooking of the era, and still guides Kurisu, is economy. Plantation dishes employ the basic supplies in a typical local pantry — soy sauce, salt, sugar, vinegar, miso, garlic and ginger — along with whatever’s in the fridge, including leftovers.
“You utilize what’s available and you never throw away anything,” he said.
Today Kurisu regularly visits Big Island senior centers to demonstrate easy recipes. His motivation is the memory of his father asking him why he was doing “a wahine’s job” when he cooked for his mother.
“I remember that macho mentality, and some of our customers have wives who are sick or have passed away. I gotta get these men to know how to cook, or at least to use a microwave and cook rice,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, he encourages youths to learn about plantation cooking from their elders.
Hiura himself has a few words of advice for young foodies, based on the inclusiveness plantation workers cultivated.
“The key is to embrace it all,” he said. “Don’t turn your nose up at anything. Don’t exclude people. It’s all good. There’s a place for everyone.”
Home recipes get upscale treatment
In “From Kau Kau to Cuisine: An Island Cookbook, Then and Now,” recipes are presented in pairs, a traditional recipe from Derek Kurisu followed by a contemporary one by Jason Takemura. Many of Takemura’s recipes are from his menu at Pagoda Floating Restaurant.
Besides bearing the distinction of home cooking and restaurant-caliber dishes, the recipes reflect changes in the food scene over the eras. Kurisu’s kabocha and ebi (dried shrimp), for instance, calls for an entire pumpkin flavored by a small amount of shrimp. The dish was practical and economical because most folks grew their own vegetables. In contrast, Takemura’s Roasted Kabocha Risotto “makes the kabocha the star of the dish,” he said, because vegetables today often cost more than meat.
KABOCHA WITH DRIED EBI
1 medium kabocha (Japanese pumpkin)
3 teaspoons vegetable oil
10 pieces dried ebi (shrimp)
2 cups water
2 tablespoons shoyu
2 tablespoons sugar
2 aburage (deep-fried tofu, optional)
6 shiitake mushrooms, sliced (optional)
Remove skin, seeds and stringy bits from kabocha and cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes.
In deep saucepan, heat oil and brown kabocha and ebi. Add water and bring to boil. Do not cover. Lower heat and simmer until liquid is reduced by half.
Mix shoyu and sugar and add to pan. Cut aburage into 1/2-inch pieces if using.
Add salt, aburage and shiitake if using, and over medium heat, continue to simmer uncovered until kabocha is soft. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including salt to taste but including optional ingredients): 180 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 21 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 11 g sugar, 12 g protein
ROASTED KABOCHA RISOTTO
1 kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) or butternut squash
3/4 cup uncooked Arborio rice
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup white wine
8 cups chicken or vegetable stock, as needed
1 cup asparagus
1 cup fresh spinach
1/2 cup diced tomato
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Split squash in half and scoop out seeds. Lightly rub flesh with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on parchment paper-lined sheet pan, flesh side down. Roast about 45 minutes. To check for doneness, prick outer skin with fork or skewer; it should easily penetrate. Use large spoon to scoop out flesh; puree in food processor. Set aside.
In saute pan, add raw rice with vegetable oil. Saute, stirring constantly and being sure to coat each grain of rice with oil. Deglaze with white wine. Using wooden spoon, continue stirring rice. Once wine has cooked out, add 1 cup stock. Season with salt and pepper and continue stirring. When nearly all the stock has been absorbed, add another cup. Continue this process until the rice is almost al dente, about 15 minutes. You may need additional stock or not use all of it.
When the rice is cooked, fold in asparagus, spinach and 2 cups kabocha puree.
To finish, fold in tomatoes, butter and cheese. Season again with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 2 to 3.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (using 8 cups stock and not including salt to taste): 690 calories, 27 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 4,100 mg sodium, 89 g carbohydrate, 10 g fiber,
9 g sugar, 18 g protein
Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.