Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hawaiian Food, New York Groceries

Eating in Hawaiʻi

Back in January when we visited Hawaiʻi for the first time, we were lucky enough to eat a lot of really good food! I made every effort possible to eat poi, a thick paste made from mashed, cooked kalo (taro), but it was actually surprisingly hard to find good poi in Hawaiʻi. The best poi we found, however, was at Helena's Hawaiian Food near the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Best Meal Ever, Picnic lunch of Helena's Hawaiian Food

The basics of any traditional Hawaiian meal are fish and poi. In ancient Hawaiʻi, pig was also eaten along with fish, but mostly by the aliʻi (the Hawaiian elite, comprising royalty and chiefs). For the makaʻāinana (common people), fish and poi were the key to their livelihood and culture. Men went deep-water fishing off the coast while women fished the shoreline; on land, men grew kalo (taro) and cooked the meals, while women engaged in making kapa clothing from wauke (paper mulberry) bark. The gender divisions around the gathering and preparation of food were continued in the eating of food: simply, men and women could not dine in the same space together. These rules, known as kapu (in English, "taboo"), were enforced by aliʻi until 1819 when King Liholiho ended the practice.

Anyway, like a makaʻāinana of old Hawaiʻi, I had fish and poi for lunch at Helenaʻs that afternoon. Pictured in the left cup is poke (a seasoned raw fish salad made with cubed ʻahi and seasonings) and ʻopihi (raw snails). If I had known it was going to be raw fish and snails, I might have passed, but it tasted great, and I only knew what poke and ʻopihi were once I looked them up in my Hawaiian dictionary afterwards.

Pictured on the right is a cup of poi. Poi is made from cooked kalo (taro) root that is, after cooking, pounded into mush; water is added until the right consistency is found. I ate some with a spoon, but it is supposedly meant more as a dipping sauce, so I dipped most of my poke and ʻopihi in the poi. 

The taro fields of Hanalei, Kauaʻi [the source of much Hawaiian poi]

I was reading recently in an 1823 primary account by an English missionary in Hawaiʻi of a large feast where aliʻi passed around a huge gourd full of poi and they each took turns dipping their foodstuffs in the poi bowl before consuming:

"[There was] a large wooden bowl of poe [poi], a sort of thin paste made of baked taro, beat up and diluted with water, placed by the side of their plates, from which they frequently took very hearty draughts.
"Two favorite lap-dogs sat on the same sofa with the governor [Governor Kuakini of Hawaiʻi], one on his right hand and the other on his left, and occasionally received a bit from his hand, or the fragments on the plate from which he had eaten.
"A number of his punahele, (favorite chiefs,) and some occasional visitors, sat in circles on the floor, around large dishes of raw fish, baked hog, or dog, or goat, from which each helped himself without ceremony, while a huge calabash of poe [poi] passed rapidly round among them." (William Ellis, 1823)

Recently I was also reading Jacobus Boelen's narrative of his 1828 trip to Hawaiʻi, and he mentioned a similar scene where the young King Kauikeaouli ate with the help of a servant who sat at the king's side with a bowl of poi. As Boelen reported, the king took big and frequent bare handfuls of poi into his mouth while he was eating and talking. 

As a final historical anecdote, in the 1850s and 1860s sugar plantation owners in Hawaiʻi attempted to get their newly-arrived Chinese employees to eat poi for sustenance. The Chinese workers however demanded rice instead. Not only would this Chinese resistance to poi lead to the growth of rice agriculture in Hawaiʻi (much thanks to these Chinese migrants, many of whom took up independent rice farming after serving in the sugar fields), but this legacy of resistance is even present today. Most eateries in Hawaiʻi, including Helena's, give customers the choice of either rice or poi with their fish.

We also sprinkled on top of our food some ʻalaea (red Hawaiian dirt) salt. ʻAlaea salt is said to be very healthy, and it was so good that we even brought a pouch of the salt back to New York with us!

Eating in New York

During our first few weeks back on the U.S. mainland - back in NY - I was pretty gung-ho about preparing traditional Hawaiian cuisine in the Big Apple. What I tried to make was this:

Lomi Salmon
and Haupia (a traditional pudding made from coconut and arrowroot (pia), or these days, cornstarch)

With the salmon (I ended up buying an Atlantic farm-raised variety at the local store), I was just about ready to begin to lomi ("massage") the salmon when I realized that I needed to salt the salmon first! So I found this website that explains how to salt the salmon. But even after salting the salmon (with the ʻalaea salt we brought back from Hawaiʻi) I did not realize that the salmon had to sit for days absorbing the salt. And so we waited....
...and then when the salmon was salted (although I did not know how to tell if it was salted enough or not!), I began to lomi the fish: meaning that I rubbed it between my hands and my fingers, gently flaking the salmon into small pieces. I very much enjoyed the idea of lomi, but it was apparent that I needed as much practice with lomi as I could get, so my girlfriend kept offering me the opportunity to "lomi" her shoulders! Lucky her :) To lomi the salmon was much more complicated, however.

As for the poi, my struggle began with the simple need to find taro. Is there taro in NYC? The Hawaiian recipe book we bought in Kauaʻi, Entertaining Island Style, hinted that I could try going to an East Asian grocer in NYC for taro. So I ended up walking to somewhere on Manhattan's Lower East Side to a Japanese grocery store, but taro they did not have. And that was that. I gave up on making poi. We would, like the Chinese sugar workers of mid-nineteenth century Hawaiʻi, eat rice instead.

Haupia: simple. I mixed sweetened condensed milk, coconut milk, coconut shavings, and lots of cornstarch. In fact, I ended up using about 10 times more cornstarch than the recipe called for! And yet still the pudding would not congeal any harder than a thick soup. So we ate soupy haupia with spoons and bowls and cups for the next week. It tasted fine, but I missed that silky consistency of the haupia we had in Hawaiʻi, especially at the Hanapepe Cafe on Kauaʻi, where they make haupia resting on a bed of purple sweet potato pudding made from Okinawan sweet potatoes. YUM!

We have yet to "eat out" at any Hawaiian establishments in NYC, but I have at least heard of this place. Anyone want to check it out with me? Or have you heard of any others?


  1. You should have come out to Queens for the kalo - try some of the Indian(Jackson Heights) or Chinese(Flushing) grocery stores. Garans we get 'um heah, brah!

  2. Dear Kunchog:

    Thanks for the advice. I don't know if I will ever try making poi again by myself, but at least now I know where to find kalo!
    Got any more advice about cooking/eating Hawaiian food in NYC?