Chinatown With Chef Chai Chaowasaree


Chef Chai of Chai's Island Bistro shops in Chinatown's colorful Sun Chong Grocery.

John Heckathorn

We can hardly get inside Sun Chong Store. Along Hotel Street are bushels of bright-red mountain apples, almost blocking the door. Bunches of longan hang in the entry. Chinese lion dolls festoon the ceiling. 

Near the door there's a large cardboard box full of something, some sort of salted silver fish. "Oh, you won't like those," says the store's Shirley Lam. I take her word for it.

Biting Commentary is here with Chai Chaowasaree of Chai's Island Bistro, for a forthcoming episode of Honolulu Magazine's Biting Commentary with John Heckathorn.

Chai is on the hunt for exotic ingredients for us to cook together. If exotic is what you want, Sun Chong has got it.

There are dried fruits of all descriptions, all the kinds you've heard of and some you haven't. Shirley feeds us a spicy dark brown fruit that's supposed to be good for sore throats. Chai and I think it's a dried kumquat. "No, doesn't have English name," says Shirley.

Chai is drawn to a large glass jar of salted dried sea cucumbers, $39.99 a pound. "Have you ever had these?" he asks. "My mother use to make. They're really good sliced up in salad."

I am spared dried sea cucumber because it would take three days to prepare properly.

Shirley pulls another dried item out of a bag: long, tan and tough looking. "What's that?" says Chai. 

"Deer tendon," says Shirley.

That's a little exotic even for Chai. We settle on one of my favorite Chinese ingredients, dried scallops, which when soaked release powerful, sweet flavors. Chai promises me that he will teach me to make dried scallop and egg white fried rice.

Then he buys a can of Calmex abalone. "The best, a whole abalone, already cooked," he says. It better be good. It costs $90 a can.

From there, we buy produce from Kekaulike market, which reminds Chai how his mother used to send him out to buy ingredients for his parents' Bangkok restaurant. She'd scold him if he didn't get the freshest bitter melon in precisely the right size.

It's time for some fun, some look funn with char siu from Ying Leong, which we eat walking.  Some manapua from a bakery and a stop for roast pork at Nam Fong, where Chai and I discuss the relative merits of chicken and duck feet.

After that, we hit his kitchen. To see what we prepared, stay tuned for an upcoming episode of Biting Commentary on TV. We'll let you know.

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