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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 28, 2002

Cultures add distinctive flavors to Thanksgiving in the Islands

 •  Thanksgiving keeps Honolulu airport busy
 •  Stuffing mix scarce for feasts of bounty
 •  What's open and closed today

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Clinton Lee appreciates Thanksgiving in Hawai'i all the more because he has spent time away. The Kaimuki-born Lee has settled in Torrance, Calif., but has come home for the holidays in the past few years.

For Thanksgiving, Josie Flora will serve a tray of bibingka, a dessert made with mochi rice, coconut milk and brown sugar. The mochi rice requires eight hours of soaking and four hours of baking in a slow oven, she said.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

At first glance, what makes the experience quintessentially Island-style is the food. Gastronomically, Hawai'i has ventured far, far beyond simple Pilgrim and Native American fare.

"It's the local dishes, consisting of chow mein, katsu, kalbi, teriyaki ..." he said.

You can get those things in greater L.A., he said, so there must be something more. Is it the laid-back atmosphere? Lee found it hard to explain, perhaps because Thanksgiving in Hawai'i is hard to pin down. It encompasses the full variety of ethnic traditions — the foods, the breezy, outdoorsy style of socializing — loosely blended with elements of the national celebration. And it's different from just about any place else.

Oregon-born Suzanne Kim fondly remembers the more formal gatherings of her childhood but embraced the local way soon after her arrival 10 years ago. That first Thanksgiving with her future in-laws, however, remains an indelible memory.

"I was just amazed at the number of people and the menagerie of things on the table," she said. "Some traditional, some Korean things. Mom doesn't care for turkey, so we're doing a smaller thing this year."

Her mother is happy with that plan.

"A simple ham and vegetable menu, no turkey," Iris Kim confirmed. "We don't quite enjoy turkey, and this year we've been so busy, we thought, 'Ah, let's skip it and have ham only.' "

Even in multicultural Hawai'i, skipping the turkey is a little unusual. Most local families yield at least that much to the Western tradition — pumpkin pie nearly always makes an appearance, too.

Beyond that, folks who set the groaning local holiday tables see no reason to stick with a rigid menu. Why not include the cornucopia of dishes, every meat from beef to goat, sweets made from sticky rice as well as squash, bowls of kim chee alongside corn on the cob?


Iris Kim, holding kim chee, and her daughters-in-law and grandchildren will chow down on ham and vegetables for Thanksgiving.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

nd why must it be laid out on a table, where everyone sits, immobilized, gorging themselves until they pop? Here, Thanksgiving feasts sometimes move to the back yard, the garage or even the beach, partly to accommodate an expanded guest list. And it often finds members of extended families bouncing (heavily) from meal to meal, making sure that homage is paid to all echelons of the clan.

Of course, the universal essence of Thanksgiving is something easy for everyone to embrace. Pele Toomata last week helped organize an early holiday feast for the needy at the Ko Olina Community Association, where he works. His own kin loves the celebration, too.

"Samoans will find any reason to have a family reunion," he said with a laugh. "The first thing is, Samoans like to eat. And second, they like all to be related."

Many have lived here long enough to acculturate to different foods, and quite happily, Toomata said. "They will have a turkey, but guess what? We will still have Samoan food," he said, and thought a moment when prompted for examples.

"Fasipovi!" he said. "It's beef that's boiled, with salt.

"At a Samoan gathering, you've got to have Samoan food: breadfruit, taro, banana ... and ask someone what 'Samoan pie' is," Toomata added, a dreamy note in his voice. "I tell you what, girl: You'll never make it home again!"

The abundance and variety of desserts is a hallmark of Thanksgiving in Hawai'i. Koreans enjoy pumpkin at home (their own harvest festival is celebrated in October), and so the American pie is popular, said Janis Koh, a committee member working on Korean centennial plans.

Wearing their dress blues, Maj. Marc Axelberg, far right, and 1st. Sgt. Keith Gavin, both of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, served Thanksgiving meals to their troops at Schofield Barracks yesterday. The event was held on the eve of Thanksgiving so that the soldiers could spend Thanksgiving Day with their families.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

But additionally guests are sure to find assorted Korean sponge cakes and holiday drinks, she said, such as the cinnamon-spiced sujung gwa or a rice beverage called dan ful.

Filipinos indulge their love of sweets at this time of year, too. Josie Flora has to prepare her contribution, a panful of the delectable rice cake called bibingka, a day in advance. The glutinous mochi rice takes eight hours of soaking and four hours of baking in a very slow oven, she said.

She also typically brings an offering of pancit, the Filipino noodle side dish.

"We only cook the turkeys for the kids," she said. "I don't care for turkey that much. I'd rather eat bibingka."

This year, Flora and her friend Ernesto Ugale are joining in with a potluck event that's been scaled back just a bit. Usually, Ugale helps with the task of slaughtering and preparing a goat for barbecuing. Everyone is a little time-crunched this year for the task, which Ugale said takes even a full crew four hours to complete.

It's not for the faint-hearted, either: The goat's throat is cut right in his sister's back yard, where the group then must burn off the fur and scrape the skin clean. There's an elaborate seasoning process, and nothing is wasted: A $180 goat yields enough for 20 people.

"Time didn't permit this year," he said. "This year we're going to be doing turkey and chook, Filipino style; that's rice soup with chicken meat and coconut milk."

Thanksgiving ranks high on everyone's list of favorite holidays, but for people who are far from home — folks with Hawai'i roots who've been transplanted someplace else — it's acquired an especially nostalgic glow.

"I have many German families that join us for Thanksgiving that we celebrate on the weekend since they are all at work on that Thursday," said George Cabral, who lives in Bamburg and replied to The Advertiser's query by e-mail. "It's all made by my wife, who is a German but boy! Can she whip up the local foods!

"But I think my 'ohana here in Germany have the main ingredient, which is aloha."

Reach Vicki Viotti at 525-8053 or vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com.