Lucky You Eat Hawai‘i

If you had to list all your favorite Hawai‘i foods, what would they be?
Middle American in ingredients, Zippy’s chili chicken plate still captures an Island approach to food.

It was a great question: "If you had to leave Hawai’i for a long time, and then came back for a visit, what would you have to eat?" I had to come up with something fast. And something good, because listening in on my answer was a national radio audience.

Asking the question was Lynne Rossetto Kasper. The audience was the 600,000 people who tune into her hour-long Splendid Table program every week on public radio. Her cookbook of the same name won the grand twofer of cookbook awards, both the James Beard and Julia Child in the same year.

Unlike other food celebrities I’ve met, who tend to take themselves extremely seriously, Kasper is so normal I forget she’s famous. During her visit, my wife and I took her and her husband to dinner at Hiroshi’s, where she went nuts over the crispy-skin moi and had an animated wine discussion with master sommelier Chuck Furuya.

Furuya, ever the joker, knew that one of her local fans was at a table next door at Vino. While he diverted the customer, he got Kasper to sneak through the kitchen and tap her on the shoulder.

“This woman, she’s a rock, nothing bothers her,” Furuya later told me. “She turned and saw Lynne and burst into tears. The minute Lynne left, she called her daughter on her cell phone.”

All Kasper said when she got back to our table was: “It’s nice to be reminded that there are real people at the other end of the microphone.”

I was trying not to forget about all those real people, but I felt so comfortable with Kasper that I just blurted out the first thing that came to my mind.

If I left Hawai‘i and came back for a visit, the first thing I’d want would be, drum roll please, a chili chicken plate from Zippy’s. I know, it would be more classy to say I’d eat foie gras at Alan Wong’s, which I would eventually. Chili chicken first.

Just imagining being stuck on the Mainland made me hungry. One favorite Island dish led to another. We taped for half an hour, a lot of which won’t make it on the air. So here, for posterity, is my list of must-haves and some reflections on why we eat the way we do in the Islands.

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It’s the Rice: I’ve never figured out why, like almost everyone else on O‘ahu, I’m crazy about Zippy’s chili. It’s an industrial product, turned out in 300-gallon batches somewhere in Waipi‘o. I doubt anyone in Texas would even consider it real chili.

In fact, it always reminds me of the chili my middle-American mother used to brew up—ground beef, kidney beans, chili powder, canned tomatoes. If you read the nutritional analysis, it’s clear, in the grand tradition of local food, that Zippy’s slips in some sugar.

Internet buzz insists Zippy’s uses secret ingredients. I think the secret ingredient is obvious: It’s the rice. It’s an incredible frustration to return to the Mainland and be served chili sans rice, by people who have never even seen a rice cooker. To add insult to injury, they hand you a cellophane pack of saltines. Spend any time in Hawai‘i and you know chili was born to be eaten with rice.

The other secret ingredient: You can get it with a side of chicken. You can find deep-fried chicken all across America. But I think the culinary inspiration behind combining chili with chicken, just like the idea of eating it with rice, is essentially Japanese.

Japanese food, with its sparse variety of ingredients, relies far more than Western food for contrasts in texture and temperature, look and feel. Chili’s soft, the chicken’s crunchy. You have to eat chili rice with a fork, you pick the chicken up with your fingers. Hot and meaty, the chicken’s the yang to the chili’s yin.

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Best Foods: When I was Googling Zippy’s chili, I was surprised by the number of local people who claim there’s mayonnaise in it. I was skeptical, but I checked with Island food expert Joan Namkoong.

“Mayo? I doubt it,” she e-mailed back, “though my guess is that folks might put some on top. I was amazed recently when someone had their Portuguese bean soup with a dollop of mayo. We do love our Best Foods!”

We get most of our mayo in macaroni salad. In the benighted rest of the United States, mac salad is potato salad’s poor, homely cousin. The Splendid Table crew laughed when I said I liked it.

Mac salad no doubt arrived in the Islands via some mess hall cook or school cafeteria supervisor. But it stuck around because mayonnaise works great with Asian flavors. If you doubt me, go order a plate of glazed walnut shrimp at any Chinese restaurant. The secret ingredient? Mayo.

I never eat mac salad on the Mainland, but in Hawai‘i you have to, because Best Foods works wonders on the same plate with chili, teriyaki or spicy Korean marinades. It soothes and extends the flavors.

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In Hawai’i, when we say bar-becue we usually mean Korean kalbi, always served with a choice of namool and plenty of kim chee.

The Asian Food Buffet: We’re so fortunate in Hawai‘i that we hardly notice it. Living in Honolulu is like living in the middle of the planet’s best Asian food buffet. You don’t have to go looking for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, even Laotian or Malaysian food. It’s just there, it’s not expensive and, like Italian food in New Jersey, it’s never bad and often staggeringly good.

Of these, the one I’d miss most on the Mainland is Yummy Korean Barbecue. Yes, out of the whole range of Korean food, Yummy has commercialized it down to a plate lunch with a choice of four side dishes. If you wanted a more authentic Korean meal, you could go to Sorabal or Mikawon.

But if you’re jonesing for that blend of shoyu, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, green onions, sesame oil and hot peppers—if you want vegetables as spicy as the meats—it’s nice to know it’s almost instantly available somewhere near you.

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Dim Sum: We’re also fortunate O‘ahu teems with dim sum. Even the Neighbor Island guys envy us. Away for any length of time, I’d make a beeline for Mei Sum, which has dim sum all day every day.

Pile the baskets off the cart onto my plate: the shu mai, the har gow and never forget the mochi rice. Dotted with pork and lup cheong, wrapped in pale green lotus leaves, it’s soul food.

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Drinks and Snacks: Haute Japanese food comes in individual servings. Everyone gets their own little box, every bit of the food is sequestered in its own partition. But I prefer the Japanese food in an izakaya—a place that serves sake and those salty, full-flavored snacks that go so well with it.

There are few sights more lovely than watching your waitress place your sake glass in a masa, that little box, and then deliberately tip up the big brown bottle so that your glass overflows.

There’s nothing more convivial than sitting around with friends at, say, Imanas Tei near the University and ordering one thing after another to share—edamame, salty fried shell-on shrimp, seafood and goba tempura, and don’t forget the thin slices of broiled tongue.

If Imanas is too crowded, you can always drive down Kapahulu to Tokkuri Tei, where the snacks menu seems seems longer than most novels.

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Currying Favor: It’s difficult to get an exact count, but there are perhaps as many as 100 Thai eateries on O‘ahu, certainly enough for everyone to have a neighborhood favorite. I used to make a special trip to Singha in Waik-?k-?, for the Black Tiger prawns with Thai chili ginger sauce, but Chai Chaowasaree, who also owns Chai’s Island Bistro put it on the menu there as well.

In fact, we’re singularly blessed with Southeast Asian cuisine. Rather than Thai, I’d have the Laotian curry at Spices, with its load of dill and bitter little round eggplants. And I’d have to have the chicken curry at Green Door Café, which is Malaysian instead of Thai. It’s the most fervid curry I’ve ever tasted. Not the hottest. It has spice, not just chili peppers.

We did The Splendid Table interview at Green Door, so I didn’t have to convince Lynne it was good. She was wolfing down the curry, red pepper prawns and Nonya pork with remarkable staying power for someone who’d been eating her way through Honolulu all week.

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Sailing Ships and Whalers: Just thinking about leaving Hawai‘i makes me hungry for Hawaiian food. It makes me want to unwrap that massive laulau at Ono Hawaiian Foods and smell the perfume imparted by the lua‘u leaves—that poetic part of the taro plant.

What we now think of as Hawaiian food is really quite cosmopolitan. It must have started changing from first contact. That’s why there’s often beef stew on a Hawaiian food menu, courtesy of the missionaries. Lomilomi salmon, courtesy of the whalers, who showed up with dried salmon from Alaska. The ancient Hawaiians certainly didn’t chop up tomatoes, or, for that matter, season their poke with shoyu.

At The Willows buffet: The poi is ancient Hawaiian, the shoyu on the poke arrived with Asian immigrants and the curry arrived by sailing ship. The mango chutney is just because we have lots of mangoes to use up.

I think, having been away, I’d go to the buffet at The Willows, where you can get everything from poke to poi, plus that golden chicken curry that came to the Islands via sailing ship. I always like to imagine the cream of Honolulu society rowing out to dine at some 19th-century sea captain’s table, then hurrying home to copy a hip new international dish.

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At the High End: Since we have some of the best high-end restaurants in the world, I’d have to have meals at Chef Mavro’s, Alan Wong’s, Roy’s, Hoku’s and Hiroshi’s.

At Mavro’s, I’d eat pretty much anything George Mavrothalassitis put in front of me, expecting something as dazzling as the last dish I had there: hapu‘upu‘u (Hawaiian sea bass) topped with fresh Big Island ogo and a little green cloud of lime froth, surrounded by a weightless but deeply flavored lemongrass-basil-white wine broth.

Similarly, you’d let Alan Wong or any of his chefs pop onto a plate whatever excited them at the moment. However, if I’d really been away, I’d have to have Wong’s classic appetizer—the champagne flute filled with garlicky red and yellow tomato soup that’s not much more than liquefied Big Island tomatoes. With tomato soup, you need a grilled cheese sandwich—and you get one with k-alua pork and foie gras.

At Roy’s, I like to eat at the bar and hardly ever get past the appetizers—the wood-smoked baby back ribs marinated in hoisin and miso, the ponzu hibachi salmon and that remarkable nouveau sushi roll that’s filled with spicy crab and avocado and topped with, what else, filet mignon.

At Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas, I’d have to have the veal cheeks. It’s not something I’d have the patience to recreate at home. Chef Hiroshi Fukui steams the veal in a broth of red wine, shoyu, mirin, sake, ginger and garlic for four hours. Then he tops each cheek with cilantro pesto. Lots of American chefs do veal cheeks, but Hiroshi’s you can get only in Honolulu.

At Hoku’s, I’d have to have chef Wayne Hirabayashi’s tribute to his local roots, his “Chinatown Special,” with house-made char siu and roast pork, a Korean-style braised short rib and a cup of remarkable Peking duck broth.

Hirabayashi’s so local that he even has a musubi on his menu. He experiments from time to time with things like lobster musubi. But, he told me, “Every-one wants the original, so we’re going back to it.” It’s a rice ball filled with poke, grilled so it’s crunchy on the outside. It’s served cut in half, with a squiggle of aioli on the plate (sort of an upscale nod to the Best Foods tradition of local food). The only trouble is that, when you eat it, you’re full.

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Musubi: At the mention of musubi, The Splendid Table folks perked up. They knew all about Spam musubi. It’s apparently replaced ham with grilled pineapple slices as every Mainlander’s notion of Island cuisine.

A musubi is the most convenient food in the world, but even after decades in the Islands, I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm for Spam. If I was just going to grab a quick musubi—I know this is heresy—I’d have the salmon and brown rice musubi from Kelvin Ro’s Diamond Head Market & Grill.

Ro does make Spam musubi. In fact, his Spam musubi started developing a reputation. Uncomfortable with being known as a chef who cooked Spam, and thinking the musubi took too long to make anyway, he quit selling it.

“Oh my god, what an uproar,” he says. Compelled by customer outrage to put Spam musubi back on his menu, Ro increased the price a dollar. “It’s amazing,” he said. “We still sell out every day.”

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Love You Like a Mango: The other thing that Mainland people know about culinary Hawai‘i is shave ice. The Splendid Table folks asked me about my favorite.

None. The texture of the ice is wonderful, but the syrups are artificially colored, artificially flavored and way too sweet. I can usually resist, but, well, OK, maybe an occasional chocolate shave ice with condensed milk and mochi balls from Yummy Ice Garden downtown.

Stuck on the Mainland, I wouldn’t miss shave ice. I’d miss mango sorbet, which you can get in almost any Honolulu restaurant, most of it made by Maurice Grasso at the Gelateria.

Mango sorbet is, for me, the quintessential Island dessert. Outside of Hispanic communities, it’s rare to encounter anyone on the Mainland who even knows what a mango looks like. Once on the East Coast, my heart leapt up when I saw in a supermarket produce section a sign that read: “Mangoes.” Under it was a pile of papayas.

We don’t know how lucky we are to eat here. I couldn’t move away. I’d starve.