Hawaiian cuisine is a body.
The head, ever logical, is new attention to health, sustainability, locally grown. From efforts to rebuild ancient Hawaiian aquaculture practices, such as the restoration of Paepae o He’eia, a Hawaiian fishpond built 600-800 years ago, to the establishment of smaller local farms, members of the culinary scene are helping Hawaii to return to self-reliance. Now, food trucks that serve smoothies with locally sourced bananas and papayas, red beet hummus and Nalo greens, Maui beef on a wheat bun with big island cheese, are constant features of local menus in Honolulu.
The heart, though, is something fuller, something older. Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese immigrant workers shared their lunches on sugar cane and pineapple plantations, one dish influencing the next to create part of the cuisine known as “local” food today. And as much as we understand the head, sometimes it’s impossible to say no to the heart: Malasadas from Leonards, sugar rolled across lightly fried dough, torn apart by pudgy fingers. Thickly fried Mochiko chicken dipped in a tangy shoyu, strewn across a bed of white rice. Mac Salad. Chocolate haupia pie, the coconut and chocolate like mousse beneath a pillow of whipped cream.
The feet of Hawaiian cuisine, the age from which they have walked, are older than even the heart. Before the missionaries, before the colonists, before the plantation owners and the plantation workers, there were the Hawaiian people. The Hawaiians’ communal division of land and the ahupua’a system, a wedge shaped area of land that ran from the uplands to the sea, allowed each community the resources it needed. From fish and salt, to taro farming and koa harvest, the native Hawaiians were a self-sustaining, self-reliant people. Made from taro was poi, a purple grey, thick paste still today as beloved as Grits. Laulau, pork wrapped in taro leaves. Haupia, coconut mixed with “pia,” a thickening agent. Kalua pig, roasted in an imu, shredded and salted.
Hawaiian cuisine lives through its history, when immigrants introduced the feet to the heart, and for its future, as the head looks to the feet and remembers the health of the body.