All the goodness of 'ohana
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
The story of Pelekunu's teri sauces isn't just the story of a small Island food company trying to make a go of it. There's a tale behind it, of friendship and family.
This is the case with many of the companies whose products will be showcased this weekend at the popular annual trade show, Made in Hawaii, Friday through Sunday at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall and Arena.
Owners Ted and Michele Kuahine of Ma'ili knew little about food when they bought the company. He is a plumber and she was in health information and technology. "I'm definitely not a chef," Ted Kuahine says with a rueful smile. And Michele admits she's not much into cooking, either.
But they decided to acquire the business from a friend because they wanted to create a legacy for their two sons, TJ, 21, and Tyson, 13. "I didn't want to see them have to move to California or Vegas," said Ted Kuahine. The entire family works in the business.
A CHANCE MEETING
Buying the business seemed meant to be in a deeper, even spiritual, kind of way.
The Kuahines first met Sam "Kamu" Namakaeha, inventor of Pelekunu's teri sauce, at the old Byron's Drive-In by the airport. "I'm a little nostalgic about these old restaurants that are not going to be there forever," said Ted Kuahine. "I always like to take the kids to places so they can enjoy what Dad enjoyed before it's all gone."
Namakaeha was at Byron's, too, on this day back in 2004, and needed to make a phone call. He leaned over and asked the Kuahines, "I can borrow your phone?" They said yes and, said Ted Kuahine, "he really has showed his appreciation ever since."
The family draws Namakaeha into their circle.
When Namakaeha decided last year to move back to his home island of Moloka'i, having had enough of city life, he asked if they wanted to buy the company. He'd done demos, gotten the product into Sam's Club and had great response both from locals and the military commissaries.
It was a risk for the Kuahines; their children were still young and they'd just bought a home. "I kind of prayed on it because it felt like jumping into a big pot of hot water ... but if we don't do it, we'd always wonder could we have (made it)?" said Ted Kuahine.
A REMOTE VALLEY
To understand one reason why the Kuahines made the decision, you have to understand Pelekunu. It's a remote valley on the north end of Moloka'i, near where Namakaeha grew up. His mother wanted her children to learn the old ways and they lived a subsistence lifestyle, feeding off the land and the sea, with a water-driven generator for power and no county-provided utilities.
Namakaeha's family moved to Pelekunu in the 1970s but would go into town by boat every few months for supplies. Among the ingredients they bought was shoyu for teri sauce, which they used to tame the gamey taste of the wild pig and deer they hunted.
The valley, located between Wailau and Waikolu valleys on the roadless "back side" of the Friendly Isle, can only be reached by a two-day hike, or by boat during the summer, when the seas are gentle. It is now a preserve managed by The Nature Conservancy, and all the families who once lived there have left, though they gather periodically for reunions on the sandy beach.
The Namakaeha family home is in Keawanui in the district of Pelekunu, on a bay of the same name, which means "safe and calm."
"Pelekunu is a powerful name," said Ted Kuahine. "I feel like I've got an old soul. And he felt like he wanted to pass it on to me."
People react to the name, the Kuahines said. "Whenever we do demos, we meet up with people who have heritage there. "They'll say, 'I spent summers there,' or 'I hiked there once.' " So the powerful name becomes a powerful marketing tool, too.
The Kuahines bought the business in March 2007, but Namakaeha still visits O'ahu from time to time, bringing venison, smoked meat or fresh fish caught in the waters off Moloka'i.
On the Pelekunu Web site, Namakaeha writes that it took the family years to get the original sauce right. When he decided to move to O'ahu and make the sauce a business, he named it Pelekunu's Backside Special Teri Sauce. "Backside" because he and his brothers used to be called "The Backside Boys" by Kaunakakai's townies when they would appear, wild-haired and sea-sprayed on that small town's streets.
"Special," Namakaeha says, referring to the powerful mana (spirit) of the valley, which is said to have played a role in Pele's journeys around the islands.
And there is something special about this sauce; it's got more to it than the usual shoyu, sugar, water formula. (The ingredient list includes those three things and a few other expected ingredients, but ends with the words "and special flavors from the North Shore of Moloka'i.")
According to "Place Names of Hawai'i," pelekunu is literally translated as "smelly," due to the wet vegetation decaying in the lack of light in the deep recesses of the steep-sided valley. But in the case of the four Pelekunu's sauce flavors ó Backside, Hot & Spicy, Jawaiian Rainbow and a low-sugar/low-sodium version called Island Style's Favorite - the more accurate translation would be "fragrant."
Waft a bottle of this stuff under the nose of any local person and immediately the mouth begins to water.
Kuahine says you can use the sauces in a wide variety of ways: as a marinade for grilled meats or seafood, as a braising sauce, in salad dressings, as a dip, in fried noodles, even with fruit. (They make prune mui with the Backside sauce!)
The best thing about it, says Michele Kuahine, is it's easy. You can pour it over meat and slow-cook it, or you can stir-fry some meat and vegetables, add the sauce and you're done. "Just sit down and eat," she says.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.