Author Arnold Hiura at a lecture at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Northern California. Photo by Viven Kim Thorp.
Author Arnold Hiura at a lecture at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Northern California. Photo by Viven Kim Thorp.

Spam musubi. Shave ice. Poi. These are a few items that come to mind when thinking about food in Hawai`i. In Arnold Hiura’s book, “Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands”, he details the history of food in Hawai`i from the pre-contact era to the days of plantations, ending in the modern Pacific/Asian fusion era.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “kau kau” is a term used in Hawai`i meaning “food” or “eat.”

Arnold Hiura grew up in Papa`ikou, a sugar plantation town on the Big Island of Hawai`i. Living in Papa`ikou allowed Hiura “to experience an older, rural lifestyle” and partake in “local traditions that once dominated the islands.” Though he wrote an entire book on the cuisine of Hawai`i, he doesn’t claim to be a food expert.

Hiura sees himself as an Everyman, another guy on the street. This unique perspective allows him to share his simple observations with the readers of his book. This lends itself to an easy reading experience for food lovers of all types — from those who are interested in Hawai`i’s rich culinary history to those who simply crave good recipes.

Kau Kau contains over 70 local recipes that any cook could recreate, although some of the ingredients will be hard to come by in a regular grocery store. The glossary contained within explains the more foreign types of food for those who aren’t familiar with Hawai`i’s unique cuisine.

Kau Kau also details the types of food the Polynesians brought with them on their voyage to Hawai`i, such as breadfruit, taro, sugarcane, pigs, dogs, and chickens. Hiura explains the influence that missionaries and sailors had on the local diet, most importantly by introducing beef to the islands. Local favorites like beef stew and lomilomi salmon (salted salmon) were introduced in the 1800s.

However, the heart of Hiura’s book lies in his section on the plantation era. Farmers from many nations, such as China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines, worked side by side with native Hawaiians in the sugar fields. When it came time to break for lunch, they gathered in the fields, took out their lunch boxes or bentos, and shared what they had with each other. This food sharing would influence later local cuisine. When ordering a plate lunch at a local drive-in today, one can easily pick out the influence of each of these cultures as they compile their plate of various meat and starch choices.

Due to lack of refrigeration, preservation was critical to the islanders, hence the multitude of pickled, canned, smoked, salted, and dried foods that remain popular today. Money was another key factor. Most families during the plantation and the WWII era were quite poor, so they had to make sure that they used everything they could to stretch each meal for their family.

Modern Hawaiian food is known widely as a fusion between Asian and Pacific cuisine, but Hiura now sees local food being influenced by what is happening on a national scale.

“People are more health-conscious,” says Hiura. “[They are] more likely to seek natural and organic products.” Along with a surge in farm to table cooking, smaller portion sizes have also become more readily available.

In the end, Hawaiian cuisine begins and ends with the family dinner table. Arnold Hiura reflected on the fond memories he had growing up on the Big Island.

“No matter where we happened to be residing at the time, everyone did their best to be home for New Year’s.” On New Year’s Eve, his family would gather together to pound mochi. The following morning, there would be a breakfast consisting of mochi soup and other dishes eaten with the hopes that the meal would bring health and luck to them during the year.

This is the ultimate key to the success of the book. Kau Kau gives those from Hawai`i a nostalgic look into their youth while at the same time giving those unfamiliar with the island a unique view into Hawai`i culture and cuisine.

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