By Brandi-Ann Uyemura--If you think Hawaiian food is barbecue meat, rice, macaroni salad and anything else they stuff in a typical mainland plate lunch you are at least half right. How about the other part? Well let’s just say you are about to be set straight. In the 184-paged hard cover award winning book, Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands, local Hawaii author Arnold Hiura dives into the real treasures of the islands–its multicultural history.
“Arnold was able to document a lot of things that was a part of someone’s oral history,” said Daryl Higashi, president of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce of Northern California Foundation. “It’s all there in one book. You got the histories. You got the cultures. You got the whole idea of certain foods of Hawaii and set up in different eras in Hawaii.”
If you are a Hawaii transplant (born and raised in Hawaii, but now live on the mainland) this is the book you always wished someone would write. How many locals, for example, know where the first plate lunch came from? When he was the editor of Hawaii Herald, Hiura and staff writer Wayne Muromoto spent a year in 1987 investigating the origins of the plate lunch gaining 20 pounds each in the process. Talk about devotion.
Kau Kau also provides answers to common questions from non-locals such as why Hawaii people love spam so much and how to order shave ice the right way. Filled with photos, personal stories, about 70 recipes and the roots of Hawaii’s history and cuisine it may be difficult to categorize, but no matter what you call it Kau Kau packs a punch. It is an in-depth look at Hawaii’s culture, people and history through the eyes of its true love-food.
The inspiration for the book came from Hiura’s upbringing as a Sansei, growing up on and working in the plantation on the Big Island.
“On the plantation I think was that era when immigrants came from different countries and really didn’t even know that much about each other. When lunchtime came, that’s where a lot of interaction took place and that was where both food and language and other kind of things helped bridge the gaps. It was food representing culture representing relationships.”
But it was only after talking with friends that Hiura decided to write the book. He wrote Kau Kau, something that was going to be about plantations but then turned into a book about Hawaii’s culture as a whole using food as the proverbial doorway.
“It started with a bunch of us who grew up with the same kind of background, people my age who grew up on the plantation. We would often get together and some people would start reminiscing about how things used to be in the old days and how much things have changed. A lot of it had to do with food.”
Three years later the recipes, stories and interviews with restaurant owners, recognizable chefs like Alan Wong and Zippy’s (a popular local chain) founders Charles Higa were put down and the book was published.
In describing Kau Kau, Hiura said, “It’s not just the mixed plate. And not just oh we have one side dish, one Japanese dish, one Filipino dish. I mean that’s all true, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the story. The heart of the story really deals with people making due, people trying to survive.”
According to a Dec 18, 2008 white paper from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, “Between 85-90% of Hawaii’s food is imported, which makes it particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and global events that might disrupt shipping and the food supply.”
It is this constant reminder of the fragility of Hawaii’s food system that Hiura believes bonded Hawaii residents. And it is despite their differences, that their shared experiences of war and plantation life made Hawaii what it is today.
Arnold said, “You know the older generations who had to make due with so little had a certain to me character, a certain humility, a certain social values that allowed Hawaii to become what it is. Although we need to evolve, change and grow, we shouldn’t change the kind of values that allowed us to become who we are in Hawaii. And if we change that, if we become too sophisticated and too worldly and too critical, in food and in other things, then how are we different from anybody else?“
Hawaii’s love for spam derived from this lack. It was a time when families of 8 were common “and how do you feed them when you make so little money?” Arnold said, “People ate a lot of rice and then they used something salty to flavor the rice. So if it was a salty piece of meat with a lot of cabbage or a can of spam all chopped up and you cook it with shoyu…you stretch it. That was kind of the way it was.”
It is the history of Hawaii’s food that he says often “gets overlooked.” It is, in fact, symbolic of Hiura’s story and his penchant for preserving old Hawaii.
For one thing, Hawaii may still be as ethnically diverse as ever. The 2009 U.S. census bureau estimates that 30.2% of Hawaii’s population is white, 3.2% black, .6% American Indian and Alaska Native persons, Asians 38.8%, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander 9.2%, Hispanic or Latino origin 9%. Yet, the cultural landscape of Hawaii is changing. As Hawaii’s menu shifts into a new, contemporary food scene, there is awareness and a definite consciousness of how and what Hawaii will look like.
“I certainly wanted people to be more aware of the food story in Hawaii beyond just the mixed plate. And I also wanted people to really give pause and think about where we going as a society and how far we’ve changed.”
It is his ability to discuss Hawaii’s broad food landscape as he says, “more of a historian, not a foodie,” and to do so in a way that engenders nostalgia and satisfies our curiosity about Hawaii that may have to do with the popularity of his book.
Higashi said, “It resonates to different generations. In general, people are always interested in history and how did things get started like the whole idea about plate lunches. The whole idea about why people in Hawaii eat certain kinds of foods…it’s been incorporated in lifestyles of people in the bay area.”
Both Hiura and Higashi were pleasantly surprised by the turnouts for Hiura’s two book-signing events in the bay area recently. The Hawaii Chamber of Commerce of Northern California (HCCNC) and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center (JCCCNC) cosponsored both events.
On Aug. 7, Higashi said, “On a Saturday afternoon in San Jose, we had close to a hundred people there in Hukilau San Jose.”
On the following day, Hiura attended another event in San Francisco at the Japanese Culture and Community Center Issei Memorial Hall. It was estimated that about 200 people attended.
The presentations went so well in fact, that Higashi has asked Hiura to return. Although in an email Hiura said, “it’s a little early to say just when and where it might be. I know for myself and the publisher, it’s been an eye-opening experience to see how much interest there is in Hawaii-related stuff in the Bay Area and I’m excited about the possibility of returning.”
Kau Kau can be purchased at San Jose Japantown’s Nikkei Traditions or from the JCCCNC.