by Rebecca Persons | Photography by Craig Fujii
Waves flow rhythmically against sand that’s as soft and fine as flour and crash against ancient lava rocks while a ukulele gently strums in harmony. I’ve spent the last five months living in Hawaii, and it’s time to go home. But during these final days, I’m soaking up as much of the sights, sounds and secrets this lovely land has to offer—and a big part of that is the food.
In Hawaii, as in other regions of the country, many dishes and cooking techniques have been bequeathed from generation to generation. Much of Hawaii’s signature cuisine has developed from a blending of indigenous and nonindigenous cultures—particularly the cultures of those coming here to settle from Southeast Asia. But whether a meal is considered traditional island fare or cultural fusion, Hawaiian food is infused with a distinct and proud heritage that reverberates strongly on these islands.
Huli Huli chicken is a good example. “Huli” literally means “turn” in Hawaiian, and the recipe for this spit-roasted, flavorful chicken is considered one of the oldest in Hawaiian culture. Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken trailer in the Ko‘olau Mountains in K–ane‘ohe on the island of O‘ahu is continuing the tradition. Owner Mike Fuse roasts his chickens on a giant spit filled with fragrant kiawe wood—introduced to Hawaii in the 1800s and now growing abundantly—which imparts a characteristically sweet, mesquite-like flavor to the meat. Frequent rotation of the chickens while in the smoky cloud is critical (hence the name of the recipe), as is frequent basting with the tangy, sweet, aromatic and gingery sauce.
The Pig & The Lady is another example of strong culinary tradition on the islands. I stumbled on the pop-up stand a few years ago while wandering aimlessly around a farmers market on the island of O‘ahu. When it began to rain, many of us, including the wild chickens underfoot, sought shelter under some huge banyan trees. While waiting for the rain to subside, I became mesmerized by the steam rising from giant vats at the nearby stand, and the heady aroma of ginger and lemongrass hanging in heavy clouds all around us. The vats held soups prepared from family recipes at The Pig & The Lady stand, and they’ve become so beloved, that the owners have since opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Owner and chef Andrew Le says the restaurant project has been a very personal experience for him. “It’s considered a member of the family,” says Le.
Ending up in Hawaii was unexpected for the Le family. In 1975, Le’s Vietnamese parents escaped the fall of Saigon while his mother was nine months pregnant. On their flight to a refugee camp in Arkansas, her water broke, requiring an emergency landing in Honolulu where she gave birth to Le’s older brother. The family never left. Le went on to become a classically trained chef, and he says the pop-up restaurant (founded in 2011), which offers many of his mother’s traditional Vietnamese recipes, was supposed to be a temporary project. Its success, though, led to expansion and a full-time, family-run business. Le considers all of it as a tribute to his mom, who’s affectionately referred to by customers as “Mama Le.” “Mom was a great cook and always wanted a restaurant,” says Le. “This is my gift to her. She still comes in every day and tastes soups.”
Their Canh Chua Chay soup is good for all seasons, but especially perfect for crisp weather in the fall and winter. The broth is rich with mushrooms, okra, crispy-skinned tofu, tomatoes, tamarind, bean sprouts and bamboo shoots, and the fusion is completed with the addition of chunks of fresh, local pineapple. This hearty soup drowns a pile of rice noodles and requires chopsticks, a spoon and lots of slurping. Also popular is the stewed beef bone marrow soup. Prepared in the traditional Vietnamese style, the soup is made from blanched bones that have been stewed for eight to 10 hours. Ginger, onions, fish sauce, raw sugar and spices are added—turning the tendon into a rich, gelatinous protein that is good to soak up with the baguette served alongside it. The end result is a light but flavorful dish served in a huge bowl with large bones steeping in their glory. Another authentic dish is a whole roasted Shinsato Farm pig head that must be ordered 24 hours in advance. Once the head is roasted, lemongrass, ginger and coconut water are added, and the dish is served with condiments such as raw oysters, house pickles, fried shallots, turmeric rice, house tortillas and papaya salad. “Every great restaurant chef uses a combination of all their experiences and influences. I fall back on memories or things that I crave when creating a dish, and it’s what ends up on the menu or on a plate,” Le says.
Soup from The Pig & The Lady and Huli Huli chicken are just two of the hundreds of things I’ll miss about living in Hawaii. As I make my way to the North Shore and drive down Kamehameha Highway, the sun shines across colossal mountain walls that look like pleated curtains from the hundreds of waterfalls that pour down each crevice after a rainfall. Rainbows are everywhere—creating full arcs across the sky. It almost seems cliché. I think about the subtle cultural differences I’ve come to love here: You don’t shake someone’s hand when you meet them—you hug; Li hing mui—a fruity, sweet-and-sour plum powder popular in China—lines the rims of margarita glasses in lieu of salt; and chickens and cats live peacefully together, analogous to how everyone seems to live on these islands…like family.