The First Plate Lunch? An excerpt from "Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands"

In Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands, Hiura reveals the unexpected birthplace of the plate lunch: Honolulu harbor.

Hawai‘i’s food and culture are so intertwined as to be inseparable. You can’t eat a dish without encountering an ethnicity, an era, a family or a good story. In his new book, Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands local author Arnold Hiura dives into our state’s delicious and fascinating cuisines. The book is published by our sister company, Watermark Publishing. Each week in November, we’ll be presenting an exclusive excerpt from the upcoming book (you can order it here).


In this week’s installment, Hiura reveals the unexpected birthplace of the plate lunch: Honolulu harbor.


Photo: Hawaii State Archives


In 1987, when I was editor of the Hawai‘i Herald, staff writer Wayne Muromoto and I investigated the origins of the plate lunch. We dedicated ourselves to the cause, spending the better part of a year conducting plate lunch “research” all over O‘ahu. Besides gaining 20 pounds (each) and compiling a comprehensive directory of plate lunch establishments, we asked dozens of old-timers when and where they remember plate lunches first appearing in Hawai‘i.


In keeping with good scholarship, we made our criteria clear: We were looking for actual evidence of the plate lunch, including a paper plate, rice, entrée and macaroni salad. To our surprise, the anecdotal evidence all began to point to the Honolulu waterfront (right, from the old Honolulu Fort, ca. 1900) in the 1920s and ’30s. There, Wayne learned, pushcart peddlers served up plate lunches to hungry stevedores, sailors, laborers arriving and passing through the old immigration station, and even cruise ship crews and passengers.


In 1988, we received a letter at the Herald from subscriber Leilani Iwanaga, who recalled that her grandmother, Moyo Iwamoto, had sold plate lunches on the Honolulu waterfront in the late 1920s. After her husband died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1921, Moyo had to raise their six children by herself. She began selling snacks such as candies and oranges at Honolulu Harbor near Pier 7 from a wooden pushcart mounted on two creaky wheelbarrow tires. Moyo’s son, Matsu, helped his mother on a daily basis and was able to provide Wayne with considerable detail about the family business.


In the late ’20s, Matsu recalled, his mother was able to obtain a larger cart, which she positioned along Pier 2 (a current cruise ship terminal). There she sold sushi down by the seashore, along with pastries, candies and oranges from a red wooden cart, which sported three-foot-high wooden wheels, a wooden roof and a long push handle. An important feature of the new cart was a compartment designed to hold a large block of ice, which Moyo shaved with a hand plane to make shave ice and milkshakes. She even made her own syrup by mixing sugar, food coloring and various flavorings.


Although he was still a youngster when it was being used, Matsu remembers the pushcart well, as it was his daily assignment to push the bulky contraption from Halekauwila Street across busy Ala Moana Boulevard and along the bustling docks of Honolulu Harbor—about a mile each way.


Later, Moyo was able to lease a small space on Channel Street from the Inter-Island Drydock Co. There, in a hut measuring about 20 by 25 feet, she set up a small cooking area and four long tables. From this simple dockside stand, in the late ’20s or early ’30s, the Iwamotos began selling honest-to-goodness plate lunches. For 50 cents, hungry dockworkers and other customers could buy an eight-inch paper plate piled high with rice, a vegetable, macaroni salad, kim chee or takuan pickles and a main entrée. Matsu, who did much of the cooking for his mother, remembers that entrées included beef stew, beef tomato, butterfish, chop steak, pig’s feet, chicken long rice, pork chops, ham hocks and saimin. Their mixed plate, which included hot dogs, SPAM™, eggs, rice and salad, was one of their biggest sellers.


Business thrived through the war years, as sailors and MPs joined the ranks of stevedores and other regulars. The enterprising Moyo would set up whenever battleships docked at Pier 2, so she could sell snacks, plate lunches and soft drinks to the sailors. Inter-Island Drydock closed after the war, and the family had to vacate the stand. Undeterred, Moyo bought a truck and started a lunchwagon business selling plate lunches just outside of the Pier 2 gates. She would check the posted schedules and be there to feed the work gangs on both day and night shifts.


Moyo Iwamoto worked until illness forced her to retire in 1965 at the age of 81. She passed away a year later. Matsu and his wife, Thelma, continued the business for a few more years before they, too, retired. Matsu told Wayne that he remembered one other lunch stand, owned and operated by a Kaya family, that was serving plate lunches in the area around this time. The origins of the plate lunch may forever be the subject of debate, for the odds are that variations of the plate lunch were evolving at the same time.


Still, the case for Honolulu Harbor as the birthplace of the plate lunch is quite convincing.