Hawaiian Food — Beyond the Tiki Torches

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This year is the 50th anniversary of Hawaii's gaining statehood. Until 1959, the 50th state of the union was a United States territory, but that didn't stop the Pacific island culture from inspiring a stateside craze for all things Polynesian that lasted well into the 1960s. Tiki-themed restaurants and clubs sprang up throughout the country.

Most have since disappeared, but a few holdouts remain. I recently visited one of these kitschy remnants, a Polynesian supper club replete with fake palm trees and plastic leis.

Other than the availability of fruity drinks embellished with paper umbrellas, the menu had little relation to actual Hawaiian food, which I had the opportunity to sample on a handful of trips to the islands a few years ago (and which I still dream of on cold winter nights).

Hawaiian cuisine has developed through a peculiar combination of abundance and scarcity. Fresh fish and tropical fruits are plentiful—and delicious—but nearly everything else must be shipped in from elsewhere.

First, about the abundance. Seafood, naturally, figures heavily in the islanders' diets. Poke, chunks of raw fish mixed with seaweed or other seasonings, is a traditional Hawaiian dish. Lomi-lomi salmon gets its name from the Hawaiian word for massage, because of the way the chunks of raw salted fish are hand-mixed with tomatoes and onions.

Some of the sweetest and most appealing fruits in the world thrive in Hawaii's tropical climate. Many are not native to the islands, though, including the one probably most associated with Hawaii, the pineapple. The spike-topped fruit originated in South America, and was introduced to Hawaii by Captain James Cook in the 18th century.

Sugar cane was once one of the state's chief agricultural products. Commercial production began in the early 1800s, with the help of labor imported from Asia (one of the sources of the islands' cultural diversity). Conditions and pay were notoriously dismal, as was the impact on the environment. Rising labor costs after Hawaii gained statehood, as well as the value of land in the increasingly tourist-based economy, helped lead to the decline of the Hawaiian sugar industry. Today only two producers of raw sugar remain in the state, and one of them, Gay & Robinson, last year announced its plans to transition to ethanol and renewal energy production in 2010.

Some of the most popular local dishes have nothing to do with fresh fruits or fish, though, and don't find their way onto most tourist menus. Loco moco, a concoction of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and gravy, was reportedly invented in Hilo in 1949 to provide cheap and satisfying eats to some young boys from a sports club.

The carb-and-fat combo is also found in the classic midday meal, the plate lunch. This generally consists of two scoops of white rice, a scoop of mayo-laden macaroni salad, and some kind of meat, often with gravy.

Perhaps the most famous Hawaiian culinary quirk is the popularity of SPAM, the canned ham and salt pork loaf introduced to the islands by soldiers stationed there during WWII. One explanation for its popularity is its affordability and convenience as a meat that stores easily in a place where food can be so expensive. A front-page newspaper story during one of my visits was about how Hawaiians were upset that a new spicy SPAM variety was introduced in Samoa before Hawaii. Most convenience stores sell SPAM musubi, a twist on sushi with sliced SPAM in place of fish, set atop a brick of rice and wrapped in a ribbon of seaweed.

And no hot day in Hawaii is complete without a heaping serving of shave ice, which bears no resemblance to the far inferior snow cone (its closest relative, in my experience, is the New Orleans snowball). Unlike the big grains of ice in a snow cone, which inevitably lead to all the flavored syrup accumulating at the bottom, shave ice contains a fine powdery snow that soaks up the delicious flavors uniformly.

You can find recipes for many of these Hawaiian dishes, and others, at the University of Hawaii's "Local Kine Recipes" ("local kind" in Hawaiian pidgin).

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