Hi. My name's Carol, and I love food. No, you don't understand. I love food. If I were on the Titanic, I'd be in the galley (kitchen) eating up the chocolate pudding and the roasted quail. I go to most events, activities and parties just for the food. The company and the conversation are secondary. Here, I'll try to document everything that goes into my mouth. Aren't we excited? Oh, hey, are you gonna eat that?
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Potluck, Hawaiian Style
When they invite you to a Hawaii potluck, go. Don't ask questions, and for heaven's sakes, don't pester them about your food allergies or your diet! A Hawaii potluck is unlike any Mainland potluck you've ever been to, trust me. You haven't lived until you've attended one, especially the one I did by Kailua beach park.
My husband's 30-year high school reunion was held there on July 31st. It was perhaps the greatest day of my life. I spent most of it taking cell-phone pictures of all the food being prepared and presented, then shared it on Facebook to make all my FB friends on the Mainland jealous. It worked, my friends.
How can anyone turn their forks away from kal bi, barbecued chicken, SPAM musubi (shut up, you've never had it, it's fine dining and could make a vegetarian a carnivore), two different kinds of fried noodles, pork hash, mac salad, poi, freshly cut Hawaii pineapple--the sweetest in the land, ahi poke, fried ahi bones from the poke, malasadas, Hawaii style chili with chunks of franks, chow fun noodles, mochi cakes, furukake rice...
I thought I'd go first for the kal bi, fried noodles, mac salads, SPAM musubi. It's been so long since I had truly authentic local food like these food stars. So long. But surprisingly, I found myself taking the first bite of the chili, falling in love, going back for seconds and thirds, and watching Malia Peters -- wife of one of the Kalaheo High School alumni -- prepare a second pot full.
None of her chili ingredients were particularly exotic. Chili pepper. Costco can of tomatoes. Celery, onion, ground beef, kidney beans. Maybe soy sauce. Yet, combined, this chili tasted more like a deep, rich, resonant meat sauce. I literally could've eaten this with or without starch. Like Nigella's meat ragu she topped only with cheddar.
Watching the Kalaheo grads--many of whom had left the islands long ago--put together their special culinary contributions made me achingly homesick for a Hawaii I used to love before I moved away due to economic reasons. I was raised on this food. I crave it when everybody in Seattle's chowing down on holiday staples of turkey and gravy, or going crazy during Copper River Salmon season in the spring. Because in Hawaii on Christmas, for example, I would eat my turkey and gravy with rice, not mashed potatoes, and accompaniments more ethnically diverse than stuffing and cranberry sauce. You haven't lived until you've had sushi, fried noodles, sashimi, pancit and lumpia with your turkey. On New Year's Eve, the stores in Hawaii are run out of order with sashimi and mochi orders.
The one Hawaii potluck staple I miss most on the Mainland is fried noodles. Mostly because nobody here has ever heard of it. I would describe the dish and they still wouldn't get it. Just get Chinese noodles and fry them in a pan with soy sauce, is their usual refrain. Inside, I'd feel like pounding their heads with a frying pan. Maybe it's true that's all I need to do to get my fried noodles. But I can't be sure and I certainly can't trust Mainland standards. I'm almost entirely convinced there are Hawaii-only secret ingredients that make the fried noodles uniquely fried noodles of my childhood. Just as New Yorkers are convinced their water is special for their pizza pies.
Another delight I thoroughly enjoyed was watching the men make ahi poke from scratch. Busting out the huge, machete-like carving knife, thinly slicing freshly caught fish, mixing in the soy and the sesame oil, the seaweed (a friend's husband picked some from the ocean days later for his poke, which was amazing to me)--and I don't even eat poke!
Then, I got to watch the men flip the Hawaii-marinated meats on the grill, another favorite pastime, similar to watching the best outdoor grilling show with the best views of the ocean and the palm trees in a tropical balmy breeze. There must've been tons and tons of raw marinated meat waiting for grilling that could've fed the entire state of Washington. I wondered what my Mainland friends would've said and done if they were with me at that very moment. I imagined the looks on their faces as they took their first bite of real kal bi and poke, and chowed down on the delightfully Hawaii combination of rice and mac salad with everything.
This was the big event I looked forward to for months. I'd hoped I had enough of an appetite to eat my fill, plus fourths. But by then, a week into our vacation, I was so full I could barely finish all my chili. It made me sick not being able to try every single dish each guest brought.
Most of the guests, I'd say about 90 percent, brought home-made dishes. Of the dishes that were store-bought, 90 percent of that was properly store-bought because they represented the uniqueness of Hawaii, like the Leonard's malasadas.
I suffered from severe culture shock years ago when I attended my first "potluck" on the Mainland, a church affair. Lots of lovely homemade pies, breakfast casseroles, fancy Gruyere, goat cheese and brie Frenchie appetizers. But mostly grocery-store bought wraps, crudites, sushi!, fruit platters (which were rarely sweet-ripe), and cakes. As my husband and I searched in vain for any signs of Hawaii potluck (it's hard to shake off childhood traditions), our hearts sank. We stupidly wished someone Asian had brought gyoza, spring rolls, manapua, something! Even when one of them did, it wasn't Hawaii style.
After two or three of these parties, we started bringing some local food. Of course, the local food was very popular and widely embraced. I made lumpia several times and they went crazy. My mom made gyoza several times and those went in seconds.
I need to get cracking on amassing Hawaii recipes for future Mainland potlucks to tide us over until we go back.