Monday, June 10, 2013

FoodTrek: My Pidgin Kitchen

In Hawaii they speak a form of Pidgin English, which is basically a language mish-mash of the different cultures that make up the islands today. There are Native Hawaiian words, Japanese, Chinese, etc., all tossed together with English and smashed together... well, like a big loaf of Spam. And that's just what the food culture in Hawaii is like, a mish-mash of different cuisines that all manage to work well on the plate, even Spam. Especially when it's in fried rice.

Sweet chili chicken with Spam fried rice - ono kine grindz! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It wasn't until I started a food blog that I realized how strong an influence Hawaii has on me -- and I'm not even originally from there! But the rest of my family is, and once my parents moved back and I was making regular visits to the islands, I was reminded how strong that spiritual sense of Home meant. For all the gourmet selections in the world, I always find myself returning to the foods my mother cooked. I'll give up a meal of fine dining any day to sit for a meal my family cooked up. Simple, Japanese-style farmer food, with a lot of that pidgin-style local cuisine that throws in kimchee from Korea, dumplings from China and baked goods from Portugal. The meals are flavorful, maybe even exotic to some, but never boring.

Wasabi Mom is always saving me news clippings, and she saved one piece from the Honolulu Star Advertiser about a Los Angeles chef with Hawaii ties, Roy Choi, whose love for Spam became vindicated when he visited Hawaii as a teenager. Spam wasn't a mystery meat of shame on the Islands, it was enjoyed, revered and about as common as a side of bacon on most menus. It wasn't about coming to terms with a guilty pleasure food, it was a confirmation of cultural identity, that you can take something that maybe others may not understand, and make it wonderful. Roy Choi has been developing recipes for Spam's parent company, Hormel, which has all his recipes on their site.  The recipe I had been keen on trying was his Black Pepper Spam Fried Rice, which featured the new black pepper Spam (yes, they come in flavors!), and I was very pleased with the result. The Spam does indeed have a strong black pepper flavor, which works well mixed up in a fried rice. I think it might be a little strong to have it on its own, even in a Spam musubi, but mixed with garlic, ginger and green onion, tossed with rice, it's perfect. My version used brown rice, but any day-old, cold rice would do. Fried rice is perfect to make when you're stuck with a bunch of plain white rice from Chinese takeout.

Spiced-up Spam and some sweet-savory chicken -- DIY Aloha - Photos by Wasabi Prime
My latest Spam fried rice adventure was accompanied by sweet chili chicken wings. I still had the latent local food cravings from my last trip to Hawaii, more specifically, the sweet-savory Korean chicken from Kawamoto's bento shop in Hilo. While my at-home version isn't exactly the same, it was basically cornstarch-dredged chicken wings, pan-fried in a wok until crispy, then tossed with a spicy-sweet sauce that was a combination of honey, brown sugar, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and garlic/chili paste. A total UnRecipe moment, but the sauce would be pretty easy to throw together, doing about a tablespoon of each ingredient to make a sauce to coat two pounds' worth of chicken wings. You can lean more towards the sweet or savory side, depending on your taste. Even if the glaze is a little thin, it just needs to coat the wings and give it a minute or two to soak in. It won't be crispy, but much like most crisp things in Hawaii -- they don't stay crunchy for long in that humidity!

And who says you can't make Spam fried rice into a classy meal? I was chatting with wine blogger and podcaster Jameson Fink of Wine Without Worry fame, and he was nice enough to suggest a wine pairing to go with Spam fried rice -- a Riesling with a little sweetness. A brilliant choice, as a nice, crisp wine with some acidity and a touch of fruit sugar would stand up to the saltiness of the Spam and all the spices. I think a Riesling would go well with these chicken wings, too, if no one minded my greasy fingerprints all over the wine glass. Party foul!

I had a nice food flashback moment from this meal, sprinkled with a little sadness, a reminder of how far my family is, and how limited my visits are. My last trip felt like it zipped by in a flash. The first couple of days feel like time stretches thin, like a rubber band, and then it suddenly snaps back for the remainder of the days, and before I know it, I'm back in Washington, looking through my photos on my phone -- just like I'm doing this very moment!

Local sights and beauty... and majestic lawn ornaments - Photos by Wasabi Prime
There's plenty of natural beauty... and even a few obscure treasures, like the majestic dolphins that apparently grace the entrance of a house in my parents' neighborhood. Maybe their homeowner's association is full of Flipper fans.

Home cookin' and picklin' - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I had plenty of Wasabi Mom's awesome cooking, even if she insisted on making dinner for Mother's Day. Grumble.Wasabi Mom rules the kitchen like a Tiger Mom, but at least she let me help with the dumplings. Wasabi Dad keeps busy with tasks like shoving giant Meyer lemons in jars with salt and letting the sun turn them into deflated footballs. No, seriously, it's really a thing. And yes, you eat them.

Local eats in Hilo-town, along with home-made feasts - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We didn't make my poor mother work herself to death, we went out to eat a few times at our usual spots: Noris for saimin, Kawamoto's for their epic bento box which we manage to eat a surprising amount of, and lunch at 'Imiloa Astronomy Center's restaurant, which I know sounds strange, but they really have good food, as evidenced by how quickly their dining area gets filled up around lunchtime. And of course the best meals out are always at friends' houses, which are always potluck and the dinner is amazing, since Hawaii is the land of fantastic home cooks.

Big doings in Hilo-town - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I got caught up on all the latest news and gossip -- news flash: Zippys opening in Hilo! Not until June, but had to see it for myself at Prince Kuhio Mall. I tempered my excitement with a locally-raised beef burger from Hilo Burger Joint -- I had their Hilo Bay burger that was topped with goat cheese, arugula and... beets! Don't knock it till you try it. And O-to the-M-to the-G, my parents got a new car! They were looking for a while, they happened to make the big purchase when I was there. When we were going to their insurance agent's office to update their paperwork, I saw actor Jason Scott Lee, who's been in some recent Hawaii Five-O episodes. He lives right outside of Hilo, so it wasn't that unusual to see him around town, but that was my momentary brush with a local celeb. I once shook Damon Lindelhoff's hand at the Honolulu Airport, like a crazy Lost superfan, so I'm clearly destined for fame. And the most surprising news of all -- when the heck did barracuda start lurking around the fish ponds at Queen Liliuokalani Park?? Guys who were fishing in the park said they caught it that morning; I had to look in their fresh catch bucket to see for my own eyes.

Hilo Farmers Market browse - photos by Wasabi Prime
I never miss a chance to browse the Hilo Farmers Market, which is year-round, although the best days to come are Wednesdays and Saturdays, when all the vendors are there. I was surprised to see cacao pods this time, but I didn't want to wrestle with those since they require oven-roasting to prepare and it was hot and muggy the whole trip. But I did load up on bundles of warabi ferns, which I hand-carried to Oahu for the final part of my family visit.

Visiting the local flora, fauna and geckos - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I visited my aunt and uncle in Kaneohe, as well as their great backyard garden. There's a steady stream of salad greens, papaya, pineapple, tomatoes, chili peppers and eggplant to keep them from having to buy much fresh produce. The good soil and garden-friendly weather is a plus, but it lends credence to the notion that if everyone planted just a few things in their yard, cutting down some of the grocery produce consumption, it could minimize individual carbon footprints by a fair bit. As for me, I remain envious of the fact they can just grow pineapple in their backyard like it's no biggie.

Bringing weird stuff home and the last Aloha cocktail hour - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Despite bringing plenty of stuff to family from the almighty Trader Joe's, I still manage to come home with a full suitcase. And it's always full of weird stuff that no one would think to bring home, but whatever, this is my ohana Hawaii experience, dammit. If I'm bringing Filthy Balls, cans of Spam and rice puffs home, that's my business. And I made sure not to miss out on one last Aloha Plenty cocktail on the flight home: POG-tini with Passionfruit/Orange/Guava juice mixed with Maui's Ocean Vodka. I felt like one of the lemons my dad shoved in a jar -- well-pickled until my next visit to the 50th State. Mahalo.

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