Me: "I'm going to Hawaii to visit my family for a few weeks."
Person I'm Talking To: "Really? That's so great -- are you going to be sitting on the beach every day?"
Person: "But you'll be drinking Mai Tais and eating everything with pineapple on it, right?"
Me: "Not really. I'll be eating a lot of stuff, but most of it doesn't really have a lot of pineapple."
Person: "No tropical drinks or pineapple on everything? What the hell is wrong with you? Isn't that what everyone does over there?"
Me: *rolls eyes*
This exchange has lessened over the years. Maybe it's because I've had it enough times with people to where they stop asking the same questions about Mai Tais and beaches, but I'd like to believe it's because folks realize that when you go to Hawaii, it's not a cheesy postcard, but a pretty well-established and unique food culture. Yes, there's plenty of pineapple, but there's much more than that. Hawaii has a sizeable number of talented home cooks, so cookbooks are not only popular there, they're very well-used. A new book to make note of is Flavors from a Plantation Town.
|Wan Jah Juhn, Korean hamburger, kimchi slider-ized! - Photo by Wasabi Prime|
You're not going to find this book on Amazon or on the shelves of any major bookstore, so stop Googling/Amazon Prime-searching. You'll have to go right to the source, ordering directly from the folks who produced the book. Flavors from a Plantation Town is an independently-published cookbook that just came out in November, put together by volunteers by the Friends of Waipahu Public Library, with all proceeds of the book going towards the Waipahu Public Library. It's a charity cookbook full of over 175 recipes, including a history of the city of Waipahu, on the island of Oahu, which started off as a sugar plantation town, much like many of the cities throughout the islands in the 1800s. Fast forward a century or so, and it's a busy, thriving city, with a library that, like many other libraries around the country, could always use a little support to continue its programs. The book is $10, available at the Waipahu Library if you're visiting or living in Hawaii, but if you're like me, Mainland-bound, there is an order form you can fill out and get as many books as you like. I posted a Word document of the form on GoogleDocs, if you want to download it here.
|Tasty items from a new cookbook you have to buy several copies of. Do it -- right now! - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
Hawaii has a unique cookbook culture, with schools, companies and organizations putting together books of collected recipes, someone gets a printer to donate services, and a big spiral ring-bound book is made and sold around town and at book fairs to help raise money. It's been going on for decades -- if you know anyone who worked at the Hawaii Electric Company, you may have a collection of the last twenty years of HECO cookbooks that get put out every year. The featured dishes are usually everyday favorites, family recipes, and they're about as local to Hawaii as you can get. The dishes aren't the things you'd get at a fussy four-star restaurant along Waikiki, these are the things people have been making for years, the local favorites that people crave, some recipes span several generations, reflecting the cultural bento platter that makes the islands so unique and special. If you're looking for a real taste of Hawaii, these locally produced cookbooks are the way to go -- for $10 it's a pretty reasonable price for a very unique gift, so consider this on your list of what to give your food friends this year.
If you get the book, you can make something like the Korean kimchi sliders you see, which were a bit of a jazzed-up version of one of the book's recipes, a Korean Hamburger (Wan Jah Juhn), where ground beef is heavily seasoned, marinated and then dipped in egg before pan-frying, so you get this great crispy outside and a tender patty. I made mini-burgers and got a package of small dinner roll-sized buns. I topped the burgers with kimchi and mixed some of the pickling juice with mayonnaise and smeared that on the bun before stacking everything together and eating with abandon. I also made the classic Potato Macaroni salad, using one of the recipes in the book. It's similar to my mom's recipe, except that this one uses shredded crab and it's seasoned with powdered Ranch dressing mix. This is resourceful, flavorful cooking at its best. Two scoops, please.
You're wondering what's my connection to the book -- I have one recipe I donated, a slow cooker spicy barbecue pork sandwich, done up in a Vietnamese bahn-mi style (p. 114) -- but my main connection is my family is part of the Friends of the Waipahu Public Library organization. My aunt and uncle live in Waipahu, they're involved in the community, they raised their children there and I just appreciate the fact that there's such a big effort to keep libraries and their programs alive and well. And my cousin Dawn Yoshimura did the artwork for the cover -- she's an amazing artist and she did an absolutely beautiful job. Everyone donated their time and effort to this book, especially the folks who collected and edited the book, gathering so many different recipes and organizing it in a way that's easy to browse and cook from. Bravo, Friends of Waipahu Public Library!
|Local crowd favorites from Hawaii - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
Back to the food culture of Hawaii -- I don't want to burst anyone's bubble about pineapple. It's okay, you can have it every day if you want, but don't expect it to be sprinkled on everything. When I explain that "Hawaiian Pizza" is not really what the locals eat, it's like I've just said Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are all secretly working for the CIA, collecting information on little kids to be used against them in adulthood. Which, according to Agency rules, they cannot confirm nor deny, but still, you get a lot of sadfaces about the pineapple thing. On my last visit to Hawaii, I was reminded of all the everyday comfort foods that are nearly unheard of on the Mainland, but I hope visitors to Hawaii will sample and enjoy as much as the locals do. My dad likes his Hamburger Steak, which is basically beef patties covered with gravy and onions, served with rice -- throw a fried egg on it, and it's a Locomoco. It's a staple at local restaurants, like mac n' cheese, but probably seems weird to most folks. I think my cousin was quietly aghast when I said you couldn't just pick up a Chocolate Dobash Cake at any old Mainland grocery store bakery. It's this chocolate-rich, yet delicately spongey layered cake -- yet another boon from the Portuguese immigrants who brought their pastry knowledge to the Islands. Why isn't this getting as much cool, hip love as macarons? And yes, the ubiquitous Spam Musubi and Saimin -- I adore them, but when I'm on the Mainland, I feel like my love of Spam is like an illicit love affair, whispered among cult-like members who share the same food-love. There should be a secret handshake.
|Tropical fresh, from farmers markets to the home gardens (and even on the roadside) - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
Of course, the ease of super-fresh tropical produce never fails to amaze me when I visit Hawaii. I was visiting around the season of fresh ginger, so the markets were selling bundles of the young pink and white root, barely any trace of that woody, tough skin you usually have to peel off. On morning walks with my mom, we'd pick the little wild guava growing along the side of the street, snacking on the way back to the house. And I did enjoy pineapple in the best way -- straight out of my aunt and uncle's garden in Kaneohe, where they lop off the tops, shoves them into the ground, and a few months later, the fruit starts showing up. They don't live on a farm, it's just a house in the middle of the suburbs, but this is how a lot of people roll in Hawaii. They take advantage of the rich soil, things grow well, and home gardens supplement what they get from the stores or catch from the sea. It's a nice lesson in being more self-sufficient and making use of what you have. This is the same mindset that went into a lot of the recipes in Flavors from a Plantation Town, as much of the heritage recipes in the cookbook are ones created out of necessity, blended with neighboring cultures, and using whatever ingredients the Islands could provide. Get the book, try the dishes out, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with these Hawaiian melting-pot recipes.