Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Okinawa is such a beautiful place, not just the ocean and scenery and culture, but the people. I’ve been treated well and taken care of by many people here in what has become ‘My Hawai‘i.’” — Colin Sewake
GINOZA-SON — I now live more than 4,800 miles away from my birthplace of Hawai‘i, but that doesn’t mean I have to be totally separated from all of the food and flavors that were a part of my growing up years.
For the past year or so, I’ve been making my own kālua pig in a crockpot with pork butt and liquid smoke that I buy from the commissary at the U.S. military base. I season it with Hawaiian salt that I brought back from recent trips home to Hawai‘i. After some trial and error, I now have the liquid smoke and Hawaiian salt adjusted to my taste.
Why it took me two decades since settling here to make my own kālua pig, I don’t know. After all, it’s so easy to make.
I like all kinds of Hawaiian food, but laulau is my favorite. Here in Okinawa, I wrap the pork in lūʻau leaves from the taroimo, or taro, plant. Fortunately, taroimo grows here in Ginowan and Kin. Several of my Hawai‘i friends have farmer friends who give them the leaves, which the Okinawans don’t eat. They eat the root and the kuki (Japanese for stem), but they discard the leaves when harvesting the plant. Us laulau lovers can help ourselves to as much of the leaves as we want.
I recently ran into my old friend from Hilo — Jami Larson — who retired from the U.S. Marines. We got to talking about the taro leaves, which we had discussed before. One of Jami’s farmer friends had just harvested some taroimo and had saved the leaves for him. Jami set aside a bag of leaves for me, so I drove up to his house in Ginoza to pick it up.
I’ve known Jami for a long time, but I’d never visited him at his house, which is just north of the Kin and Ginoza border. His wife and kids greeted me with warm hugs and handshakes. I was surprised at the huge size of his yard and house. Jami said he had converted the second floor of his house into a karate dōjō (training hall), which he offered to show me. I followed him up the stairs in the back.
From his rooftop deck, Jami has a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean. He said some of his Hawai‘i friends gather at his house in the early morning hours of the first day of the new year to watch hatsuhinode, the first sunrise of the new year.
After an enjoyable conversation in Hawai‘i Pidgin, I thanked Jami for the leaves and headed home to start making my laulau.
I’m always looking for opportunities to get my son Aki in touch with his Hawaiian roots so I had him go outside and cut several ti leaves from a plant that I inherited from a military couple from Hawai‘i that was returning to the Islands.
I lined the crockpot with the ti leaves and then had Aki arrange a couple pieces of pork that I had already poured liquid smoke over and sprinkled with Hawaiian salt. Then I had him rinse a pile of the lūʻau leaves so that I could place them over the pork. It was the first time I was making laulau in a crockpot — granted, it was the lazy man’s way, as I had pretty much dumped all of the ingredients into the pot without wrapping the laulau individually.
I covered the pork and lūʻau leaves with one last ti leaf, covered the pot and set the switch on high. I let the crockpot sit overnight, hoping it would taste so good the next day that I could say, “Oh, wow, laulau!” when I took my first bite.
The next day, I decided to supplement the laulau that Aki and I had made with another Hawaiian dish before diving into our laulau. I drove to Big Grocery Store in Zakimi, off of Hwy. 6, to buy some maguro (‘ahi in Hawaiian, or yellowfin tuna) filets and other ingredients to make some poke.
My taste buds aren’t that great and I’m no Sam Choy when it comes to preparing poke, so my eyes searched for the cheapest maguro filets, which turned out to be the tonbo maguro. At ¥147 (about $6.05 per pound), I was able to buy 1.23 pounds for $7.46 (excluding the 8 percent consumption tax).
I then moved on to the seaweed section and bought the nama (raw/plain) version of the mozuku seaweed, which is commonly found in Okinawa. I don’t have access to the red ogo that is used in Hawai‘i.
I bought a small tray at 70 cents a pound and a bottle of goma abura (sesame seed oil) because the one at home was almost empty.
At home I had the tamanegi (round onions) and negi (green onions) that I needed. I can usually buy a sleeve of negi for ¥100, which is less than a dollar. I try to be resourceful by saving the bulbs and putting them in a cup with just a little bit of water and letting them get some sunlight on the kitchen counter. That helps them grow back. Then I’ll have more negi to use when I want. People reading this might think I’m being kechi, or stingy. I call it being “thrifty.”
For the base flavor, I just use shoyu, although, this time, I used some ‘alaea (red Hawaiian salt) that I had on hand.
Here are a few tips for making your own poke:
• Sharpen your knives;
• Don’t be kechi; buy good grade fish that isn’t stringy;
• Taste as you add and mix in the ingredients so that you don’t add too much salt (and raise your blood pressure); and
• Serve your poke in a Ryükyüan glass dish or yachimun (ceramic) pottery for effect. It doesn’t change the flavor, but it adds color and ambiance to the table.
I didn’t get any complaints or negative comments from Keiko or Aki about the laulau or the poke, so I guess I did OK with these Hawaiian dishes. Not bad for trying to create something close to the taste and feeling of my birthplace all the way across the Pacific here in “My Hawai‘i.”
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, O‘ahu, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to fulfill his U.S. Air Force ROTC commitment. He met his future wife, Keiko, within a month and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin retired from the Air Force and, recently from the Air Force Reserves. Colin and Keiko have two children, Mizuki and Yoshiaki, and make their home in Yomitan.