Our dearest Hawaiian food institutions, the ones we take our out-of-town guests to when we want to show them “real Hawaiian food,” are not owned by Hawaiians. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given that Native Hawaiians are a minority. But still, discovering this is like going to Mexico and finding Chinese people cooking all the Mexican food (which is, in fact, what happens in my half-Mexican marriage). Ono Hawaiian Foods: owned by Okinawans. Helena’s Hawaiian Food: Chinese. Highway Inn: Okinawans. Young’s Fish Market: Chinese. Only Haili’s Hawaiian Food differs: It was started by a Chinese woman married to a Hawaiian.
In some cases, making Hawaiian food was a differentiation strategy.
“In those days (the ’40s), there was already a lot of Chinese food—Hawaiian food was different,” says Elaine Katsuyoshi of Helena’s. When her mother, Helen Chock, a first-generation Chinese, started Helena’s (she added an “a” at the end to make it sound “more Hawaiian”), she served breakfast, Chinese and Hawaiian food. Eventually, she pared down the menu to the most popular items, the Hawaiian ones.
Monica Toguchi of Highway Inn thinks maybe her grandfather didn’t have a choice. Before Seiichi Toguchi was interned in California and Arkansas during World War II, he learned to cook Hawaiian food while working in a Hawaiian restaurant. When he returned to Hawaii, cooking Hawaiian (and some American foods he picked up in the internment camp mess halls) “was the only thing he learned how to do,” Monica says. “For us [the generations after], we kind of understand it as something he thought was worthy of perpetuating.”
Lorraine Haili Alo says her mother, a full Chinese married to a full Hawaiian, started a Hawaiian restaurant—Haili’s—because Hawaiian ingredients were abundant then. “Fish and poi—everything was just here,” she says. “Everyone could go down to the beach and pick limu, catch fish. It was plentiful and the waters were clean.”
But what originally may have been fueled by business decisions has preserved a culinary culture, one breathed new life in recent decades by the Hawaiian Renaissance. And that may mean Hawaiians are returning to the restaurants.
The Waiahole Poi Factory’s history in some ways parallels the story of Hawaiian food in the last century. The original factory, founded in 1905, was first owned by Chinese, then Japanese—immigrants making the food of Hawaiians. In 1971, Liko Hoe’s parents took over the lease: his father is Hawaiian-Chinese and his mother is from Minnesota. They turned it into a Native Hawaiian art space and rented out the kitchen. One of the tenants sold Hawaiian food one day a week and another milled poi. Three years ago, Liko reclaimed the kitchen and started selling Hawaiian food daily. He now offers machine-milled poi as well as hand-pounded. Why his sudden interest in devoting the kitchen to Hawaiian food?
“It’s all part of the cultural revival that started in the ’60s and ’80s,” Liko says. “Language and hula have grown. Kalo and the eating and preparation of Hawaiian foods in general are growing with that. For Hawaiians, kalo is so central that it almost has to be a part of that for the picture to be complete. A lot of the focus in the last 30 plus years has been on the language and the music, and I think now, some of that is being focused on the main food—kalo. I think as it comes back, it fills out the life of Hawaiian culture.”
Daniel Anthony is probably one of the most prominent people in food bringing back traditional Hawaiian cultural practices—namely, hand-pounded pai ai, the thick, sticky precursor to poi. But, though he looks the part, pounding pai ai wearing only a malo, he isn’t ethnically Hawaiian—he’s Japanese, Austrian, Hungarian, English, Tahitian and Fijian.
Anthony and his wife, who is Hawaiian, sell pai ai through their business Mana Ai. “Poi is a recipe,” Anthony says. “Nobody looks at it like a recipe because they think it’s a single ingredient. But so is canned tuna and sashimi, and they’re two different things.” He wants to change your perception of what poi can be, take it out of the tourists’ refrain: “watch hula, drink the mai tai and complain about the sour poi.”
But it goes beyond taste—pounding poi has turned him into an evangelist: “I’m not in this for the business. I’m in this for the awakening of the community. We talk about sustainability but we talk about it while serving it on two scoops rice.”
The whole malo thing? “I shave my head, strap on the malo. People looking. That’s by design. Now they looking, we gotta teach people how to feed each other. Whether you like me or not, it’s hard to grumble on a full belly.”
He thinks he’s the perfect analogy, as a nonethnic Hawaiian raised in a Hawaiian family (his father married into a Hawaiian family). “Whether you’re Hawaiian or not, it doesn’t matter—you live here, on an island. We’re an island, we should start acting like we live on one.”
Toyo Shimabukuro doesn’t want to talk about Ono Hawaiian Foods to me. “It’s my mother’s wishes,” he says. She was humble and didn’t want to talk about her story to the media. It’s been 48 years since Ono opened, and “everything is good. I don’t want to change anything. I gotta follow her wishes, or from heaven, she’s going to scold me.”