Hasegawa Honors Community “Aunties” by Reviving Old Hawai‘i Cookbooks

Ida Yoshinaga
Republished with permission
Zentoku Foundation

Community researcher, information architect and poet-artist Jennifer Hasegawa. (Photo courtesy of jha.land)

Itadakimasu! (We heartily receive this meal!) The nishime demonstration is done, as Hasegawa is poised to start “grinding.” Jennifer Hasegawa seems an unlikely preserver of simple community cookbooks from the Hawaiian islands’ early statehood period of the 1960s through 1990s. The digital maven, a Sansei who had worked around the Bay Area’s tech industry since moving to the North American mainland from her childhood home on a Hawai‘i “neighbor island,” appears a master of 21st-century media. Curation and continuity of old cultural recipes might seem the furthest thing from Hasegawa’s mind.

But the information architect’s passion for documenting post-plantation-period island food all started with a hunger to eat nishime. This cultural stew, along with other working-class immigrant meals, reflected the rich culinary history of the Japanese and other ethnic groups originally brought to Hawai‘i as cheap agricultural labor from the late 1800s through the Territorial Era that ended in the mid-1950s. As these groups were exposed to both Native Hawaiian and U.S. mainstream culture, they produced a special polyglot of “local” island cuisine.

Hasegawa further demonstrates the how-tos of homemade nishime in her online video; here, she expertly cuts a slit in the middle of konnyaku (konjac, a low-calorie yam) slices, before turning them inside-out to create a visually pleasing, corrugated design. If you do not learn these cooking tricks from an “auntie” or older relative, how would you know how to make nishime? Hasegawa shows another culinary technique, the wetting, tying and cutting of the konbu (seaweed) knot for her nishime.

Hasegawa’s paternal grandparents, Issei immigrants from Niigata Prefecture who had settled in Pepe‘ekeo, worked around that sugar-mill camp on Hawai‘i island; her grandmother lived near the plantation store. (Photo courtesy of kaukauchronicles.org)

Hasegawa initially desired to revive old-school dishes once introduced to the Hawaiian islands by her Issei, or first-generation-settler ancestors, who had migrated from Niigata prefecture. Hearty Issei dishes were made popular during the post-plantation era via inexpensively produced recipe books put together so that early immigrants and Native Hawaiians, including Nisei and Sansei (second- and third-generation) women descendants of early Japanese immigrants, could duplicate the cooking practice of their forebears. Often, the books were meant to modernize Hawai‘i femininity, showing diverse women of color in the islands how to use consumer kitchen equipment in order to be proper American housewives. 

The Sansei tech worker, however, soon realized that younger generations in the islands might need help holding on to these precious culinary traditions. The cultural knowledge had started to die out in Hawai‘i kitchens as those generations went through the Americanization process, getting addicted to fast food or to eating out. Hasegawa came into her own ethnic-preservation awareness when she realized that she personally did not know how to make this simple Japanese root-vegetable stew that she so loved.

“When it comes down to it,” she said, looking back at her journey, “nishime and sekihan (red-bean rice) were the two things that I wanted to make. Every special occasion I had as a child, there was nishime. And sekihan my grandmother would make each time I went over to the house.”

Hasegawa’s nishime recipe, learned from female family and various community “aunties,” which she shares on The Kau Kau Chronicles website.

Soon, on her trips from her adopted residence in San Francisco back to her family home on the Big Island, Hasegawa began to borrow her mother’s collection of recipe books to learn how to make these beloved, small-kid time dishes. “The way to do it [learn to make the dishes] was through these books,” she explains. 

She focused on collecting, then digitizing for internet distribution, cookbooks which had originally been curated and printed for working-class local women by home-demonstration councils. The councils, part of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service which aimed to teach farm women in the rural U.S. better homemaking methods and improve their living conditions, produced recipe books which would be distributed and taught by their agents who worked with young housewives. 

Hasegawa, a committed and community-based researcher who required that data-selection methodology be fair and precise, did not choose recipe books still being sold by community organizations for fundraising, such as the classic Hongwanji Buddhist temple series of cookbooks. That’s because she hoped not to interfere with their fundraising. Nor did she select cookbooks by sole authors — for instance, Muriel Miura’s best-selling collections of Hawai‘i Japanese and island recipes from Mutual Publishing — because her emphasis was on food writing that was community-authored and collective, not commercial and individual. Hasegawa regards recipes as similar to poetry in their spare visual layout. She feels that these food-making directions are often read in ways similar to how people read rhymes. 

Hasegawa’s The Kau Kau Chronicles, a community-cookbook digitization project reflecting Hawai‘i’s multicultural culinary history, on a mobile device.

Hasegawa’s nishime recipe, learned from female family and various community “aunties,” which she shares on The Kau Kau Chronicles website. Originally not knowing how to make this traditional working-class dish (and sekihan, or red-bean rice) drove the Sansei tech innovator to start up her digital cookbook-collection project.

She herself has written a collection of verses, “La Chica’s Field Guide to Banzai Living,” published in 2020 by the experimental-poetic and mixed-genre publisher Omnidawn. She believes there is a “connection between poetry and putting up recipes,” with both serving as sensory tools that stimulate memory and emotion.

Hasegawa, who earned an M.A. from San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing Program before working for such Bay Area tech firms as Oracle, Electronic Arts and most recently Facebook, quickly brought her sophisticated informational skills to the project. She designed the website, The Kau Kau Chronicles (kaukauchronicles.org), which launched in October 2020 with the goal of “preserving and sharing the history of Hawai‘i’s recipes.” She posted instructions for making in-demand dishes from cookbooks from the 1950s to the early 2000s. She also came to share stories on that site of those who loved rediscovering what the recipes symbolized for their own ethnic groups and family memories. 

The Kau Kau Chronicles have attracted interest from other Hawai‘i expats now living across the mainland as well as from fellow Sansei still in the islands who fondly remember such family dishes and want to create meals from the site’s recipes. Some people even return to these food-making instructions as a nostalgic, intimate way to remember deceased loved ones who had once cooked for them, Hasegawa said.

Since its launch, The Kau Kau Chronicles, with the generous help of many volunteer community archivists collecting and digitizing their own cookbooks, have exhibited nearly 3,500 recipes and helped to preserve 23 cookbooks. It has drawn 33,043 unique visitors, 43,985 visits and 227,442 webpage views. The bulk of site visitors are from Hawai‘i (21,550) and California (8,487) but also come from all 50 states as well as from 44 countries, including United States, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, Guam, Thailand and France. 

 “Now I make nishime and sekihan for my own home, for New Year’s especially,” Hasegawa said proudly. She demonstrates how to put together her own version of the classic nishime recipe on YouTube, as “my riff on a dish prepared by my grandmother and aunties in Hawai‘i.

Her father, a construction worker/surveyor, and her mother, a nurse/housewife, had encouraged their civics-oriented daughter to get a master’s degree to be practical. She did, but in creative writing, producing a visionary political book of poetry, the well-reviewed “La Chica’s Field Guide to Banzai Living.”

Hasegawa hails from Issei ancestors who had labored on Big Island plantations and in the island’s food industry. Her paternal grandparents, who settled in Pepe‘ekeo, worked around that sugar-mill camp; her maternal grandparents had lived in Kurtistown Ola‘a, growing sugarcane on their own land and selling it to the mill, before passing it on to their oldest son who also ended up farming the land.

The young Hasegawa, obsessed with food, especially baked goods.

Her own cookbook-collecting mother, a clean freak, had not encouraged Hasegawa to make things in the family. But she nonetheless managed to develop a passion for baking while growing up. A powerful memory from her early-1980s childhood was when her mother dropped her off at the Buddhist temple in Hasegawa’s Hilo hometown and instructed the then-12-year-old girl to go through the building’s door. 

Hasegawa suddenly found herself in a “big church kitchen. It was all about the aunties, all types…who were there baking. Getting ready for the big bake sale…they grabbed me, and I had to go to work,” she laughingly recalled. These “aunties” in their fifties, including younger Nisei and well as older Sansei women, taught the tween to make “all the standards you see in these cookbooks. Fridge cookies, ice cream cookies, etc.,” Hasegawa remembered. 

The women were no doubt part of the local

home-demonstration council, Hasegawa speculated, just like her aunt Masae Saito, a big figure in the council whom Hasegawa regrets never getting to know well. So when Hasegawa first borrowed from her mother’s collections of recipes to bring back to San Francisco, she chose a home-demonstration-council cookbook. That was a year and a half ago, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when she began her digitization project.

The top 10 recipes enjoyed by The Kau Kau Chronicles visitors reflect the unique blend of cultural groups in Hawai‘i. This “hit list” includes Japanese dishes, with some hybrid cultural influences. They include the Japanese-Dutch kamaboko-shrimp tempura at #6, the Japanese-American mochi rice stuffing at #7 and butter mochi, supposedly a Hawai‘i Issei recipe at #9. But the list also includes the popular Chinese manapua pork bun at #3 and crispy won ton at #4; the Native Hawaiian-Native American oven kalua turkey at #5, Portuguese bean soup at #2 and malasadas at #10. 

The overwhelmingly positive response encouraged Hasegawa to start a Facebook group for other fans of Hawai‘i recipes from the islands’ diverse cultures. Today, the group is an active community of nearly 3,200 people who share vintage cookbooks and love of local food-making in common. 

It is important to Hasegawa to not only feature Japanese dishes but also those of other communities in the Hawaiian islands. For the progressive writer, this commitment to interethnic solidarity seems strong. “The way I remember things working, in Hawai‘i, despite the ‘melting pot’ story, is [that we live in] very insular communities,” Hasegawa said. 

As a result, she wants to “not only show the Japanese perspective and Japanese recipes.” Sometimes, her culinary reflection of the complex mix of populations in the islands produces layered and delicious tales of community blending and cross-cultural contact.

For example, in the “Calabash,” or “potluck,” section of the website where participant stories and recipes are posted, Hasegawa has featured a Native Hawaiian woman who shared her family’s Portuguese recipes with the site’s readers. Her website thus contributes not only to the preservation of Japanese ethnic recipes but also those of other cultural and national groups who have mixed throughout modern island history.

The poet-cum-techie summarizes her diversity-centered philosophy behind The Kau Kau Chronicles and its FB site: “One thing I know is that food brings people together in Hawai‘i — no matter what — and I want the site to perpetuate and amplify this effect.”

Note: For more on Hasegawa’s lyrical, imaginative approach to creative writing, see this Jan. 20, 2021, interview at robmclennan.blogspot.com/2021/01/12-or-20-second-series-questions-with_10.html, conducted by Canadian poet Rob McLennan in the wake of the publication of “La Chica’s Field Guide to Banzai Living.”


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