Sunday, September 27, 2015
Last February my family and I visited Hawaii. We spent our entire time on the Big Island, exploring volcanos, wildlife, beaches, and of course, cuisine. Fortunately we had a local guide, my sister-in-law, who worked on the island doing bird conservation work. When you get to travel with people who live in the locale you get an opportunity to see things differently. I find one of the biggest advantages this affords is getting direction for great grocery shopping. In Hilo, she directed us to KTA Superstore, a Big Island chain. I fell in love. All sorts of fish, dozens of jerkies, fruit I have never seen and two aisles of all sorts of East Asian goods. We ended up with that Hawaiian favorite, Spam. Fried and mixed with some macaroni and cheese and had our first lunch on the island.
During the rest of the week we ate incredible (and amazingly priced) sushi at Ocean Sushi in Hilo, poke (essentially marinated, raw fish) in Kona at Da Poke Shack, saimin (Hawaiian raman) in a Kona food court and delicious pub grub at Kona Brewing. But the highlight for me was a dish that somehow epitomizes much of what I saw of Hawaiian cuisine.
Let me explain a little. Initially, I knew nothing about Hawaiian cuisine beyond Spam, pineapple, macadamia nuts and an assumed love of fish. What I did not realize was how Hawaiian eating has been so heavily influenced by its surrounding cultures, specifically Japanese and post-WWII American. Most world cuisines have influences from other lands. The Italian use of the tomato was only possible after the Columbia Exchange of the 16th century. The Irish had no access to the potato until the same time. American soldiers in WWI brought back French fries from Belgium. The fortune cookie is actually American, but ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants here. The food world is my favorite place to witness historical globalization. But in Hawaii it more resembles current events. Hawaiian food has evolved dramatically in the last 70 years. The Japanese and maritime traditions seem obvious if you just look at the map. A basic understanding of American history and Hawaiian statehood explains the American influences. But those American influences are heavily-flavored by the US military presence – compact, long-lasting, easy to prepare, filling and durable.
At three places I sampled Loco Moco, the ultimate blending of influences. I found my favorite at a diner not far from the Hilo Airport, local favorite, Ken's House of Pancakes. If you go looking around online or on cooking shows you will find many variations of this Hawaiian staple, but the most common, most pure form is loco-simple. A few scoops of sticky rice, topped with a hamburger patty, topped with basic brown gravy with a sunny side up egg gently laid on top so you can let the yolk seep around it. Imagine that for a moment…. Now, how can diner food be any more perfect? Ken’s has an overwhelming menu, lightning fast service with a smile and many variations of loco moco, but the basic is really all you need in my opinion. You will find fish, fancy burger patties, from-scratch sauces, but I say keep it simple and traditional. Want to go seriously loco – try the sumo – 6 scoops of rice, 2 patties and 3 eggs. They’ll bang the gong when you order and likely call 911 if you finish it, as a heart attack is immanent.
So the other day I tried this at home…and kept it really simple. One cup of rice, a frozen hamburger patty, a packet of brown gravy and an egg. Simple, cheap, traditional and made of military-grade durable ingredients. Three pans and a rice cooker, this dish done this way requires no skill but for whisking a packet of brown gravy and turning on a stove. This turned out as good as anything I had in Hawaii. I do not think I would change anything. Maybe some hot sauce, horseradish or spicy mustard would be good. Of course you could switch up the meat with the appropriate sauces. But the original in this form is a flawless diner comfort food. Mahalo and aloha!