President Obama’s recent vacation in Hawaii once again highlighted all things Hawaiian to a public that may not be familiar with everything the islands have to offer. I was watching cable news during his trip, dozing off following an all too successful holiday meal, when I noticed a strange segment about Hawaiian food.
It wasn’t strange necessarily because of the food, which honestly can be a bit odd at times, but because of the reactions of the reporters. I watched as they cast disapproving glances at spam and rice rolls and outright hatred when presented with loco moco.
Granted, I wasn’t fully awake, but I was genuinely surprised at the treatment Hawaiian cuisine received at the hands of these talking heads. It made me wonder how many people felt the same as these self-important blowhards and how those opinions might change if they understood the roots of these culinary oddities.
No where else in the United States exemplifies the concept of a melting pot better than Hawaii. Over the centuries people from all over the world have immigrated here, bringing their unique culinary traditions with them. These traditions intermixed over time and the result is Hawaiian cuisine as we know it today.
Loco Moco – This is not for those with a weak stomach, but does make for an excellent late night meal. In its basic form, loco moco consists of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy. The dish was created at a restaurant in Hilo at the request of some teens who didn’t have enough money for a full meal. Like many Hawaiian meals though, variations of this home food favorite probably existed long before it was officially named at the grill. The name itself really doesn’t mean anything and was dubbed loco moco on a lark. Today though it is one of the most popular meals in the islands.
Tonkatsu – Originally of Japanese origin, the tonakatsu, which refers only to the pork version, is popular throughout Hawaii. It is decidedly simple, but hearty and filling – the classic definition of a family meal. Katsu is made by frying a scaloppini chicken breast or pork cutlet, similar to a schnitzel, and served with a tonkatsu sauce. Sides almost always found with the katsu are a portion of rice and macaroni salad.
Like many of the classic Hawaiian meals, tonkatsu was introduced to the islands by Japanese immigrants brought in to work on the various plantations.
Spam – Spam is hugely popular in Hawaii and can be found on the menus of most restaurants, at all times of day. Spam was introduced during WWII, when GI s were given the tinned meat as part of their daily rations. Surpluses of the meat made their way into the general populace and a culinary revolution was born.
Today spam is just as popular as it was during the war and not surprisingly Hawaii boasts the largest consumption of Spam per capita in the country. One of the most popular dishes made with this mystery meat is Spam musubi or Spam sushi.
Just like its fishy cousin, the Spam roll is composed of a block of rice with a slice of grilled Spam on top and nori wrapping to hold it together. It actually makes for a great, on the go snack.
These are just a few of the many, unique home-style and street food specialties that make Hawaii one of the most unique culinary destinations in the world.
Have you been to Hawaii? What’s your favorite island staple?