Maracuya, maracuja, parchita: they are all local words for passionfruit that I have encountered in my travels—in Panama, Brazil, and Venezuela respectively. In a recent visit to Honolulu, I learned to refer to passionfruit by its Hawaiian name: lilikoi. I would also learn that just like the local name for the above tart fruit, Hawaii has kept its own local flavors and ingredients, even in the face of Taco Bells, golden arches, and endless cans of Spam.
It is easy to understand why. The climate is perfect for tropical crops, and the waters around Hawaii are swirling with tasty critters. Shipping food from the lower 48—the nearest mainland—can be expensive, especially produce. But the most important reason is something I noticed soon after I had arrived: the people of Honolulu simply like their tropical bounty. Fresh papaya, fresh opakapaka (pink snapper), fresh pineapple juice in the morning.
The line outside Ono Hawaiian restaurant reflected the double whammy of local and tourist foodies.
Just remember: no get mad. The dancing hula pig was enough to keep me from getting angry as my wife and I fried in that line in the noontime heat to wait for a table and a combination platter…beef jerky, taro porridge, rice, haupia (coconut milk dessert), hot sauce, and dueling pig dishes, pork kalua and pork lau lau. The lau lau was wrapped in the taro leaves, reminiscent of an alien brain prop from a grade B sci fi flick. I half-expected a stage hand to be squeezing a hand-held pump to make the vein-like wraps of taro pulsate. While Spam ended up making its way into the platter (as if to remind us of its undeniable popularity), it turned up cubed in a bowl of tomato salsa, a kind of adaptation that teamed it up with fresh produce, the processed part and the fresh part sort of cancelling each other out.
Here is a close-up of the alien-brain pork lau lau, sliced open to show the tender pork mingling with melt-in-your-mouth pork fat inside the taro leaf wrapping.
The waitress told us that the lau lau had steamed for five hours. “It’s good you got the lau lau now,” the waitress told us, “because at dinnertime, usually no more.”
There seems to be some odd connection between fake wood paneling and passionate cooking (the homely interior of Difara’s pizza in Brooklyn comes to mind). Fading photographs of Filipina beauty queens, Hawaiian actors, and family group shots watched over us as I pondered which was more tender, the kalua or the lau lau.
In Waikiki, sidewalk ads for indoor shooting ranges scream “Shoot real guns!” “Feel the power!” while their signage–and that of bus stops and even caution signs at the beach–is most often in both English and Japanese, replacing Spanish as America’s default second language. This reality reflects the Japanese penchant for visiting Hawaii, just seven hours from Tokyo. Amidst this unmistakable, if not surreal, sense of place, we stopped at Hula Dog for their Hawaiian take on the frankfurter.
A veggie dog is holed up inside the taro-bacon bread somewhere, topped with mango relish and passionfruit mustard. They did away with boring ol’ Heinz ketchup and instead expanded the American hot dog tradition by introducing condiments based on tropical produce. Tangy-sweet fun.
Farmers’ markets are always great places to discover uber-local produce and culinary entrepreneurs from the area. Fortunately, Hawaii has its share. At the King’s Village farmers’ market, we bought a loaf of fresh, spongy Hawaiian sweet bread, a glass of freshly squeezed mint limeade, and a cannonball-shaped avocado that yielded a creamy texture.
Lastly, it looks like Spam, that unstoppable foot soldier of globalization, has popped up again.
An unholy marriage of locally grown nuts and a sodium-laced miracle of shelf-life resulted in something I could only expect from Hawaii: Spam-flavored macadamia nuts. The Spam imparted its telltale, liverwurst-y scent, but didn’t seem to impart any flavor. I suppose that’s what happens when one takes a processed food like Spam and further processes it into a powder. Kind of like paying tribute to processed food while simultaneously disrespecting it. In Honolulu, you can have it both ways.