Sheldon Simeon writes Cook Real Hawaii to not sell people Hawaiʻi they think they arrive to, but to tell the story of the place from its own perspective. He writes, “How does a place that has so long been defined by the outside world define itself?” and sets out for almost 300 pages to tell the story of Hawaiʻi, or at least a part of it, with food (page 7).
The first 25 pages will introduce you to the book, Simeon, and the history of Hawaiʻi. This
section is essential for people to understand why this book does not feature strictly Hawaiian dishes and recipes. In this section, you’ll learn that people from Hawaiʻi do not mistakenly identify themselves as Hawaiian but rather as kamaʻāina or local or by their ethnicity. So when Simeon writes about cooking “Real Hawaiʻi” he is giving a guide to cooking local food. He unfolds the story of immigration and colonization through food and it can tell us a lot about how people persevered to keep and remake their traditions. Food tells us about present Hawaiʻi and its community which is unlike the exotic, imaginative Hawaiʻi often sold to tourists.
Simeon was raised on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi (like me) in Hilo (unlike me. I was born and raised in Kona.). He went to culinary school on Oʻahu and currently lives in Maui where he has opened up multiple local food restaurants with his family. He has also participated in numerous cooking competitions where he learned to be confident cooking from his own background. Through his cookbook, he takes on his responsibility to share the world he knows by peeling back layers of history.
Over 260 pages are dedicated to recipes and it’s complete with photos, stories, and thoughtful instructions. The photos truly make the food jump from the page and they feature knives that might remind many locals of their family kitchens (like me). The stories he’s supplemented are of family, growing up, and the immigrants of Hawaiʻi. One of the greatest assets of this book is how each story speaks volumes about the influences on the dish and of Simeon’s heart. The instructions are thoughtful and encouraging. If a cook cannot find the ingredients or prefers to use something else, Simeon encourages people to use what works best for them and with the resources they have. This is parallel to how ethnic traditions of food were remade in Hawaiʻi when people formed new communities. The food section is broken into Heavy Pupus, Hibachi Styling, Fry Action, Sim Simmer, Rice and Noodles, Mean Greens, Sweets and Drinks, Odds and Ends, and an ingredient guide for those that might get lost in lingo or specifics.
I’ve gone through this book with multiple family members and I have found that we all couldn’t resist going through everything it has to offer. It really is a book that has encompassed so much of what we all grew up eating or wanting to eat. Simeon writes, “Hawaiʻi food, or what we call local food, tells us the story of where we came from. It is embedded in every part of our language, our songs, our jokes. We celebrate it every chance we get. It doesn’t just fill our bellies, it keeps us being who we are” (page 8). I think my family and I were all happy to find a cookbook that is realistic to our lifestyles. We also liked comparing the recipes to our own ways and we found many dishes we have never heard of or eaten much of. Nonetheless, I think all the recipes deserved to be tried or improvised on (just as the immigrants did that Simeon acknowledged) and my family members and I set out to do just that.
I made the Local-Style Beef Stew (page 148) on a lonely winter night in Seattle. That meal brought me back home to my aunty’s kitchen where I would watch my uncle and aunty night after night, pull things from the cabinet, and add them into the large silver pot or large wok as they go. My aunty and uncle made the Portuguese Bean Soup (page 144) for family dinner while I was back home in the summer. We ate it with smoked meat, ube bread rolls, barbeque chicken wings, steak, rice, and salad. Everyone devoured the soup. It was light, balanced, and delicious with the rest of our meal. Most of us could not not finish it.
While the recipes will not always match our families, the recipes capture the heart of the local story and that’s what Simeon shares in his cookbook. What he shares reflects his home, community, family, and, most of all, himself. The recipes are influenced by his culinary background which allows him to bring some fresh takes on local dishes that everyone knows and loves. His recipes are one of the millions of recipes that families will cook for their loved ones. For this reason, I suggest treating the cookbook not as a set of rules, but as a guide to home.
The recipes that Simeon has included in his cookbook are recipes of the heart. His cookbook inspires me to learn from my family how they cook the foods I know and love. I’m looking forward to the day I could share with my friends and family the dishes I learn and remake as my own. For now, I’ll stick to following the recipes for meals and treats while I am in Seattle, away from home.
One local story is not completely like each other, but we all come together with food and we continue our traditions with our gatherings. In continuing the traditions of food, we preserve and honor all that people have persevered to protect their families, culture, and self. Like Uncle Sheldon, we should all take on our responsibilities to protect the future of our homes with the platforms we might have and the communities we come from.