Hawaii's culinary tapestry
As a new newspaper dawns in Honolulu, I'm thinking of Advertiser stories I've done over the years that will remain beloved memories, or that taught me memorable lessons. Here, a few:
Birth of a cuisine: I arrived home in the Islands in 1989 just in time to watch the Hawai'i Regional Cuisine movement be born. In 1991, 12 chefs all but two of whom still work here, though in very different enterprises; most were hotel chefs then, most have their own restaurants now decided to do something about the problems they were all encountering. These included a lack of fresh, varied, locally grown ingredients and also menus (often dictated by food and beverage managers and food suppliers) that had little connection to the Islands' multicultural culinary history.
In the past 20 years, I've spent time with every one of those chefs and each has taught me cooking techniques, recipes that have become part of my repertoire, the keys to good restaurant service, how to find and work with new foods. And we've all shared laughs and pleasant times.
What does HRC mean today? Chef Alan Wong (then at the Maunalani Hotel Resort and Bungalows, now a James Beard Award-winning owner of three restaurants, a "Top Chef" judge and known worldwide) says the chefs are mostly too busy to gather all at once, but they have seen their efforts bear fruit (and vegetables and all other forms of food, too).
"I think people look at Hawai'i in a different way," said Wong. "Then, as far as food, Hawai'i was a nonentity. I don't think we can take credit for everything that happened, but look at the farmers markets after we started working closely with them to try different things, look at the way we've traveled and become culinary ambassadors for the Islands. You can find ponzu on menus around the world now. HRC is still alive, it still has a spirit. I think it's a good thing."
In sai babooze: One of my favorite stories about myself is the time I set out to answer a reader request for a type of herb flour used to make a Chinese steamed rice cake called in sai biang (sometimes called lin sai biang), which is served for a spring holiday. The prepared flour is no longer sold here and, through a complicated set of circumstances (including my total lack of Cantonese), I hit upon exactly the wrong herb (mugwort or yomogi), to puree and mix with mochiko to make the flour. The mochi-like steamed dough is pressed into carved wooden forms, steamed again and then released, bright green and beautifully patterned.
But lin sai biang isn't made with mugwort, as one reader had told me; the right herb, which grows on a bush, often along canals and streams, is lin sai (in English, Indian fleabane). Marylene Chun, who recalled the cakes from her grandmother's days, helped me make some cakes from mugwort and they tasted right to her kind of a vegetal, chamomile flavor. But then the phone began to ring and people who found my error either egregious or hilarious set me straight. I had to write a whole new story and admit my mistake. You still can't buy the flour here, and if you want to make lin sai biang, you better find someone with a bush in their yard. (The wooden forms you can find at Bo Wah in Chinatown.) Best thing about the story is it brought me my great friend and Chinese source, Marylene, and we've worked on many projects together since.
Nothing fishy: People had been telling me for years I HAD to go to the United Fishing Agency's fish auction one of only two in the United States. But the daunting hour always kept me away (unloading, inspection and tagging begins at 1 a.m. and bidding at 5:30 a.m. when a ceremonial bell is rung). Then, in 2002, I was assigned to write the annual sashimi supply story for New Year's. Watching the gaggle of buyers at Pier 39 jostling their way down the rows of fish lined up on pallets on the ice-cold floor, the auctioneer mumbling numbers, paper tags flying around, buyers on their cell phones calling their chefs, stores and wholesale houses, I was fascinated.
This has to be one of the best attractions in town and, though it's very much a working environment where if you don't keep out of the way you'll be gruffly moved aside, anyone who loves the sight of expertise at work and of course fish, really ought to get up early, find their warmest clothes, and go watch.
Behind the grocery scenes: In 2005, I did a story about changes in the grocery industry and was allowed to spend a day at Foodland Beretania, trailing buyers, stockers, managers, checkers and the newly hired in-house chef. This business is complex in a way that no shopper truly appreciates: the trick is to keep shelves stocked without overburdening the generally limited storerooms, keep fresh food moving with as little waste as possible, keep customers' myriad requests satisfied without ordering products that won't move. And it's a highly competitive business, too, with a smaller profit margin than you'd think.
Foodland, the Islands' largest and locally owned, locally operated grocery chain and without question the most innovative of the these stores, this year opened Foodland Farms in 'Aina Haina, a hybrid combining conventional grocery goods with fresh, local and prepared foods, plus a beverage bar, a gelato shop, gourmet and natural foods departments.
Foodland chairwoman and chief executive officer Jenai Wall, said the goal is to make shopping an adventure that is both practical and enjoyable. "We will continue to anticipate and meet the changing needs of our customers while offering them a welcoming place to go," she said. Future plans include a new Kapolei store in spring 2011.
Food sleuth: But more than any single story, the work I will always recall with delight was that which I did for you: readers seeking recipes, techniques, food sources and all manner of food-related help. At first, mouthwatering memories of school-kine recipes flowed in and I'm proud of having reintroduced you to Mrs. Tyau's salad dressing, shortbread cookies, corned beef stew and Spanish rice. But I'm sad that so many of those beloved "cafeteria ladies" went to their graves without sharing their creations.
I was often able to find what you needed but there also were dozens of dead ends. I never found the mother lode of Alexander Young, Woolworth's and Spencecliff recipes that were repeatedly requested. So often, people wanted restaurant recipes from places long gone, or that required ingredients or techniques that couldn't be duplicated.
Sometimes, readers would get annoyed; they thought I wasn't looking hard enough, or didn't care. I cared. The day in 2007 when I found Lamb Taranaki for Jan Brown, rooting around by accident in our chaotically disorganized microfiche library after a five-month search, I whooped out loud.
There's one request that has dogged me since June 2004: It was from Michael Long of Punalu'u, who asked for a chocolate bar cookie called a chocolate froggie. "I'd give my left arm for one right now," he wrote.
I'd give my left arm to find it. I've looked for it in every cookbook I've encountered (and I own hundreds) and have searched through hundreds more. I've Googled it online. I've put out repeated calls in the paper. If I ever find it, I'm tracking him down; I've kept his e-mail all these years.
I admit I dreaded the holidays each year with their endless turkey-related questions. I became frustrated with writers and readers who sent recipes that were unclear or made assumptions or who didn't adequately describe what they were looking for. I've tested more than my share of failures (explaining why my cats are so fat). I've begged restaurateurs who flatly refused to part with recipes, or promised but never came through.
My visits to home cooks introduced me to such talented and humble people: Joan Osborne of Kailua, whose dry humor delighted me and whose kama'aina-style curry is the best, bar none; Jim Magoon of Honolulu, who made deboning a turkey look easy (we had to beg him to slow down so the photographer could capture the action); Auntie Alice Lucas Peters of Laupahoehoe, over 90 now, who improved my Portuguese sweetbread technique a hundredfold; the late Sandy "Mama" Kodama, who taught me to make Japanese pickles; Linda Chang Wyrgatsch of 'Aiea, whose stir-fried eggplant remains in my taste memory as ambrosia; Alvin Jardine of the Big Island, a hunter who calls himself "the pig man," and who taught me to make "smoke meat"; Brenda Leong, whose Chinese almond cookies really are perfect.
This column could go on for weeks if I named all of those cooks full of aloha for our Island foodways and willing to spend time to teach what they know to me.
Through it all, my time as a food detective was the most fun of my week an excuse to buy aging cookbooks from the Friends of the Library sale, to visit the School Food Service office (thank you, folks, for letting me see your files), the Hawaiian Electric Co. (which has a whole wall of floor-to-ceiling recipe cards I'd like to just spend the rest of my life in) and to hide out in our library.
To you all, I say mahalo piha. For now, reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or a new Web site I'm building, waa-ourislandplate.blogspot.com
Correction: The new Foodland Farms store is in 'Aina Haina. An incorrect location was given in a previous version of this story.