Food, like music, is one of those universal “languages” that everyone can understand and one that is open to various interpretations. Former Hawai‘i Herald editor Arnold Hiura explores the evolution of food, past and present, with his newest book, “From Kau Kau to Cuisine: An Island Cookbook, Then and Now.”
The book, which was released by Watermark Publishing late last year, features commentaries and recipes from Big Island television personality and KTA Super Stores executive vice president Derek Kurisu and Jason Takemura, executive chef of Hukilau Honolulu and Pagoda Floating Restaurant.
While Kurisu and Takemura have experience in the food industry, author Arnold Hiura does not. In an email interview, he explained that as an editor/writer for the Herald and in his freelance work, his interest has been in writing about local history and culture. With topics on food, he likes to focus on the stories behind the food, the history of the dish and the philosophies of the chef.
“Food often played a big role in many of these stories, since it is something that everyone readily identifies with. My friends and I who grew up on the plantation sometimes talked about ‘the old days,’ which included food memories. More importantly, we knew that food was a reflection of the culture and values that we all identified with,” Hiura wrote.
His first book, “Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture,” published in 2009, traced Hawai‘i’s food history and heritage through the various ethnic groups. In “From Kau Kau to Cuisine,” Hiura delves into how the role of food in today’s society continues to grow. “There are food writers, books, restaurant reviews and cookbooks galore. There are major initiatives affecting what and how we eat: eating healthy, buying local, etc.” He goes on to explain how “young chefs today are one generation removed from the original wave of Hawaii Regional Cuisine masters and apply their own creativity to what’s come before them.” He cites twists on the basic loco moco, or using ingredients such as warabi fern or smoked meat to create new dishes. “Kau Kau to Cuisine,” he says, “looks more closely at these new developments and the traditional foods that inspired them. They may appear totally different in terms of ingredients, cost and presentation, but there are connections that run deep below the surface.”
Those connections that Hiura refers are exemplified in the 30 pairs of recipes that are featured in the book. A “then” recipe from Kurisu is followed by a “now” recipe by Takemura. A few examples are Spam Musubi vs. Smoked Pork Belly Bahn Mi Sandwich, Natto Fried Rice vs. Kälua Pig Hash Benedict with Lomi Tomato, and Raw Crab Poke vs. Black Bean Kona Crab with Hämäkua Mushrooms and Truffle Butter.
In the book, Derek Kurisu recalls growing up in the Big Island plantation town of Hakalau in the 1950s and ’60s — discussing topics ranging from the importance of mom-and-pop stores and foraging in the ocean or forests to find food such as fish, seaweed, meat or fruits; to the soup kitchens, shipping strikes, rice as the staple and “bug juice.” He also talks about how fresh, home-grown vegetables played a major role in the daily plantation diet and how the dishes made with those vegetables were indicative of the diverse ethnic groups represented in the plantation camps. Although fresh is best, the economy and lack of refrigeration or freezer space opened the doors for canned foods such as Hormel SPAM, Libby Vienna sausage and corned beef, Coral tuna, and Van Camp pork and beans to become pantry staples and major players in the local diet.
Hawai‘i’s multicultural nature can best be exemplified in the plantation society with workers from various ethnic backgrounds gathering at parties or sharing their lunch on the field.
“Food is a tool that brings people together. Even in the old days, plantation workers shared their lunches with each other. Today we get together with friends and family and have potluck.” And in sharing food, by extension, one is also sharing his or her family and their traditions.
In the book, Kurisu encourages people to learn how to make the foods that are always at their respective family parties. “You should learn how to make your aunty’s famous salad or your uncle’s ‘ono chicken, because they’re a part of your family tradition. Once they’re gone, it’s going to be too late.” And it’s not just the dish, but the utensils used in the process. “Find out what pots and pans they use and make sure you keep them, because you’re going to need that. That’s the ones that somehow hold the magic. The whole spirit stay in them,” he said in the book.
Jason Takemura contrasts Kurisu’s “then” segments with how Hawai‘i is faring “now.”
After completing culinary school in Oregon, Takemura returned to Hawai‘i in 2003 and quickly found out how, as with most trends like fashion and music, the newest food dishes were delayed in coming to the Islands. That’s not the case anymore, he says, as Hawai‘i chefs are becoming trendsetters in their own right.
“Locals travel a lot more — both to the Mainland and foreign countries. They are more knowledgeable than in the past, more adventuresome and their expectations are higher,” Takemura writes in the book.
He notes that Hawai‘i’s restaurants are earning recognition overseas and local chefs are garnering accolades in national cooking competitions. In recent years, Hawai‘i chefs have been making the rounds of several food shows. Angela Chandler and Nicole Ferriman of Hokulani Bakery won an episode of the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” Sheldon Simeon of the Migrant Maui restaurant in the Wailea Marriott Hotel did Hawai‘i proud in the Bravo network’s “Top Chef,” as did Phillip “Ippy” Aiona, owner of two Waikoloa restaurants on Hawaii island, who was vying to become the next “Food Network Star” and get his own show. Last year, Aloha Plate Lunch, comprised of Lanai and Adam Tabura and Shawn Felipe, won “The Great Food Truck Race.”
While the lunch wagons and manapua trucks aren’t new to Hawai‘i, “food trucks,” which made their Mainland debut in the early 2000s, are now all the rage. “Eat the Street,” a food truck and street food rally, is held once a month in Kaka‘ako and, occasionally, in Kailua and Mililani. The food trucks are not only trendy, but also a new way for up-and-coming chefs who don’t have the finances for a brick and mortar establishment to get their feet wet in starting a business. Along those lines are “pop-up restaurants,” which utilize the kitchen and facilities of existing restaurants. Some of the “pop-ups,” such as The Pig & The Lady, had a big enough following that they now have their own restaurants in downtown Honolulu.
To further explain how Hawai‘i’s food scene is evolving, Takemura points to the pioneers of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine who use fresh, local ingredients to create innovative dishes representative of Hawai‘i’s diverse ethnic cultures. He also discusses the rise and popularity of farmer’s markets, which promote sustainability and “buying local,” and the use of organic foods and grass-fed beef.
“From Kau Kau to Cuisine” is Hiura’s fourth food book, but he makes no claims to being a “foodie” or an expert on the subject. “I like to eat and my palate is quite broad. I’m not afraid of trying stuff, including food that is unusual or exotic. I wouldn’t consider myself a foodie, however, in that I don’t constantly write, or blog, or post stuff about food.
“I’d make for a terrible food reviewer in that I was raised to appreciate all sorts of food and to not complain or disparage about what we were served (especially by others). That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own impressions as to what is really good,” he wrote.
Whether he considers himself an expert or not, three of Hiura’s books — “Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands,” “The Blue Tomato: The Inspirations Behind the Cuisine of Alan Wong,” and “From Kau Kau to Cuisine: An Island Cookbook, Then and Now” — have won the Hawai‘i Book Publishers Association’s Ka Palapala Po‘okela Award for Excellence in Cookbooks. “Blue Tomato” also won top honors in the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ book awards “Chefs & Restaurants” category.
“What made the Po‘okela Awards meaningful was the quality of the other books entered in the same category each year. Hawai‘i has more than its share of really good, really knowledgeable, really talented food writers. I don’t place myself in the same category as them as far as food knowledge goes, so the recognition did help to calm my apprehensions as to what the heck I was doing!” he wrote.
“From Kau Kau to Cuisine: An Island Cookbook, Then and Now” retails for $29.95 and can be found at bookstores, other retail outlets, online or directly from the publisher at www.bookshawaii.net.