I wasn’t expecting Hawaii to be such a cultural experience. Although part of the United States, it feels like another country. Native words are everywhere. So are surfers, whose sport comes from Polynesia, the source of much Hawaiian culture.
While distinct from the Native Americans who populated the Americas before Columbus, the relationship between Caucasian settlers and the Native Hawaiians (who call themselves kanaka oiwi) follows an interesting pattern through time and space. In New England, most of the natives were killed or marched off to western reservations, which was the fate of all western and plains Indians. In Hawaii, where there are no reservations, the newcomers have instead inserted themselves—along with their laws, culture, and technologies—among the natives, who had no choice but to live side by side with the infiltrators. Though better than reservation life, this arrangement understandably created widespread hostilities, which still rumble beneath the surface like Pele, the hot-tempered Hawaiian goddess of volcano and fire.
Even the kanaka oiwi themselves are relatively recent arrivals, having somehow found Hawaii after sailing from distant South Pacific islands.
Then came Captain James Cook, who brought a cocktail of diseases that reduced the native population to about one tenth of what it was. By the time the locals figured out that Cook and his men were trouble and disposed of them, word of the islands had already gotten out. Outsiders swarmed in, doing things like creating the world’s largest pineapple plantation—which Jim Dole did on Lanai Island.
Meanwhile, immigrants from around Asia began arriving, with their various cultures in tow. Today, the mix of Polynesian, Asian, and Western influence defines Hawaiian culture, and food.
Not surprisingly, this intermingling of cultures has created some amazing culinary options. Poke, for example, which I call “Hawaiian sashimi,” includes chunks of raw tuna tossed in various mixtures of spicy mayo, seaweed, sesame oil, scallions, kim chi, and flying fish roe.
A seriously memorable meal went down at a bar on the Kona coast. It began with kava, a South Pacific drink that tastes like bitter mud and supposedly gets you high. Even after my mouth went numb it still tasted terrible, although drinking kava while eating fresh pineapple chunks was less disgusting. Then came a plate of local style ahi tuna flanked by taro root in coconut sauce, stir-fried veggies, and poi, a slightly bitter soup made from taro and used as a sauce. The side dishes were good, but it’s the ahi tuna that I want to write home about. Rubbed in toasted sesame oil, garlic, salt and pepper, it was pan-fried with oyster sauce added at the very end. This fusion of East, West, and South Pacific was some truly ono grinds and left me whimpering for more.
Later, the lady and I flew into Kauai, the so-called Garden Island and home to the wettest spot on Earth, Mt. Waialeale, which receives on average 460 inches of rain per year. Our plane was late, the hotels and rental car places were closed, so we pitched our camo tent—with rain fly on—in a wild, chicken infested grove of trees near the airport. Then we hitched a ride to the 7-Eleven—the only open place in town. I could hardly believe it when I saw sushi in the cooler: California rolls, vegetable futomaki rolls, and more. And then, under the heat lamp alongside the corn dogs and burritos, I spotted the all-time quintessential epitome of East meets West: Spam musubi.
To call it Spam sushi would be nearly correct—except the rice has salt instead of vinegar. Nonetheless, it looks like a big piece of nigiri sushi, wrapped in a strip of seaweed, but with spam on top instead of raw fish.
Taking one for the team, I wolfed down a piece of Spam sushi alongside a veggie futomaki, and chased it with a can of Dole pineapple chunks—imported from Thailand!
It’s crazy that of all Western culinary traditions for the Hawaiians to have latched onto, Spam reigns supreme. Years ago, in the temperate rainforest of Canada’s northwest coast, I spent five days on boat patrol with some Haida Indian wilderness rangers in the Kitlope watershed. We stopped for lunch at a family fishing camp that was buried in fresh and smoked salmon. “Oh boy,” I thought. But alas, we were served “Indian steak,” or Spam on Wonder bread.
Perhaps it’s an argument for cultural universality, that even here, in the most isolated islands in the world, on the border of East, West, North, and South, it’s still cowboys, Indians, and Spam.
Ask Ari: Not so simple to keep imported fruit safe
Q: Dear Flash,
Your story the other week about Hawaii reminded me of a question I’ve long pondered: Why is it that I can’t bring kumquats—or any number of other fruits—over the border from Mexico, but I can buy Mexican kumquats at Safeway? How do they know that those kumquats are safe, and others aren’t?
A: Dear Fruity,
You’ve asked a big question, but the short answer is that fruits which have the potential to carry infectious plant diseases must be imported very carefully, harvested from known sources tested to ensure they are clean. Of course contamination still happens, and I guess that’s just the price we all have to pay so folks like you can have your weird tropical fruits.
Here in Hawaii there is an ongoing debate over the use of radiation to neutralize pests like fruit fly eggs and larvae. While public outcry derailed a plan to use nuclear radiation to kill fruit pests, a slightly less controversial proposal to irradiate with focused electron beams managed to pass by a 1 percent margin. The USDA gave a $6.9 million loan seven years ago to a company called Hawaii Pride to irradiate papayas, longans, rambutans, lychees and star fruit before shipping them to the mainland. In August, 2000, the irradiated fruit began shipping.
Opponents of this technology, according to the Organic Consumers Association, contend that while it doesn’t create the same level of environmental hazard as using nuclear material to irradiate fruit, it can still reduce the food’s nutrient value, pose hazards to workers, induce free radicals and radioactivity in food, and open the door for the use of nuclear materials. Maybe you should switch to apples.
Send your food and garden queries to email@example.com.