Hawaiian Chilli Pepper Water
8 small hot red peppers (Hawaiian, ideally, but birdseye will do), chopped
2 slices ginger
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
about 2 cups hot water
Sterilize a pint jar. Place in it the peppers, ginger, garlic, vinegar and salt. Add the hot water, seal the jar, and let mellow a few days in the refrigerator before straining out and using. Slop it on anything you like – rice, pasta, meat, salad – to add a touch of Tabasco-like zing.
Chilli pepper water is a ubiquitous Hawaiian condiment which I think pretty well expresses the Hawaiian attitude to food. The word grinds refers to the kind of food you eat everyday, with relish, until you are bursting-full. The most famous grind is loco moco, two scoops of white rice (always medium grain), topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and gravy… which you should then feel free to slosh chilli pepper water over. Local variations abound, such as this dish we encountered in Hilo – katsu moco, rice topped with Japanese tonkatsu-style pork and fried eggs. Once you eat of this dish you will forget the days you were hungry.
I’m not so much into the diner-style eats, honestly, though they have their place. Mostly this is because I am embarrassed I can never finish a red-blooded-male-size portion. Also, I’m a grazer. I like to nibble on this and that through the day. The best Hawaiian nibble, which I have posted about here, is spam musubi. Again, medium grain white rice, topped with a slice of spam which has been lightly fried in soy sauce, then wrapped in nori. Sometimes other condiments are added, such as the famous Japanese pickled plums ume. Or a little fish roe. Or a sprinkling of furikake. Again, the local variations are endless. They are good. I want some right now.
Another indigenous food is kulua pork, which is pig that is roasted whole underground in a stone pit. Served with cabbage and the ubiquitous scoops of rice, it is salty, savoury, smoky, succulent and satisfying.
Hawaii is fortunate enough to have a strong Japanese influence, even more so than Seattle. Hawaii is also fortunate enough to have a million available species of fish, which of all people the Japanese know how to deal with. In Hawaii they put fish to the best of all possible uses, served raw as poke (I’ve previously mentioned poke here). There are even more versions of poke than there are of loco moco or spam musubi. Any creature that swims the watery deep, it seems, can be turned into raw fish salad, lightly seasoned with shoyu, sesame oil, seaweed and chilli. Ahi tuna is the classic fish of choice but you can also get octopus, sea snails, squid, crab, you name it. Poke is so ubiquitous in Hawaii that pretty much any corner store sells it by the pound and with a couple of pairs of disposable chopsticks you have a wonderful grazing lunch for two.
Among other things we have the Japanese in Hawaii to thank for is the tonkatsu-wich. Tonkatzu is pork which has been breaded in panko breadcrumbs and fried, then sliced and served with shredded raw cabbage and tonkatsu sauce, which is often apple-based. Tonkatsu is, historically speaking, already a fusion food. It is an example of yōshoku, the Japanized versions of the Western foods which were suddenly available in Japan after the Meiji restoration. In Hawaii they take the cultural confusion a step further by placing the breaded pork between two slices of white bread. Served with tsukemono (pickled vegetables), ground sesame seeds and a variety of sauces, this is less trashy than it sounds, and very, very delicious.
In Waikiki we visited a fantastic udon noodle restaurant. It was so popular the line usually doubled about the block, which was a bit odd for a place that really only served one dish. But their udon were fantastic, made before your eyes, thick as nightcrawlers and served with a few simple choices of garnish. Despite the line we went back, just to be amazed again that something so simple could be so good. I think I must try mastering the art of udon making.
I could go on, and on. I haven’t even mentioned the most famous Hawaiian dish of all, poi, which is steamed and mashed taro root, and which a local we met advised us, if offered it, to smile politely and take a tiny taste so as not to offend anyone. I could rant about the sushi. Or the Portuguese influenced longaniza sausage. Or the dragonfruits and longans and lilikoi (passionfruit), my most favourite of all fruits.
Maybe next time.