Mix plate options from Alicia’s Market.

Images by John Hook

Hawai‘i is a place where the amalgamation of old and new is palpable, especially when you sample the islands’ food. History pervades the bold mountainous shores and primitive tracks of each island, while Honolulu, with its metallic luster and twinkle of faraway lights, infuses the city with an air of briskness that excites. As most guests and residents of a city will tell you, the best way to get a true understanding of a place is through its food. Here, the melting pot of Hawai‘i is home to a multitude of peoples, and its cuisine is as diverse and rich as its historical legacy.

“We had a school, a playground, a post office, and a general store,” says Arnold Hiura, self-professed foodie and author of Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands, of life growing up on a plantation on the Big Island. “The plantation community is rather unique in that it is very self-contained. We played sports, joined the boy scouts, and went to church. Everyone was of a mixed ethnicity, so the community itself colored the way you think and what you liked to eat.”

From the sugarcane of early Polynesian settlers to rice and noodles of the Chinese to pão doce (sweet bread) of the Portuguese, Hawai‘i’s food has long been a celebration of the people who came to live here from all corners of the globe, bringing with them their own distinct customs and cultures. The tastes that are familiar to home, the flavors that are characteristic of Hawaiian cooking inherited over time from mothers and grandmothers—this translates today to a common cultural identity, or as people say in the islands, “local.”

“Every island has a different spin to foods and each can be traced back to their respective cultures,” says Hiura. “When I was doing research for my book, I traveled to each island to talk to people about food. I went to Waimea, Kaua‘i and looked at their traditional salt ponds; I visited the biggest producing taro plantation in Hanalei, I went to Pu‘unene in Maui to visit the last functioning sugar plantation in Hawai‘i. Every island has its own specialty, its own distinction that makes Hawai‘i as a whole so interesting.”

When voyagers from the South Pacific arrived in Hawai‘i more than 1,500 years ago, what they brought with them and what they ate to survive forged the beginnings of what we know today as traditional Hawaiian food. Fish, shellfish, seaweed, taro, and breadfruit, among other things, were prepared in many different ways, including being wrapped in ti leaves or heated underground in an imu. Sea salt was an important commodity (and remains so even today), allowing for drying, fermenting, preserving, and seasoning foods.

The Hawaiians planted sugarcane around their taro fields and chewed on the sweet stalk. In 1928, Maui opened Hawai‘i’s first of many sugar plantations, which stoked the time we now know as Hawai‘i’s Plantation Era. People from all over the world were hired to work in these plantations and over time began blending elements of their own cuisines into the culinary map of Hawai‘i.

“Plantation owners continually recruited workers from different countries, in part because of growth in the sugar industry, but also because workers kept leaving the plantations for other occupations,” says Hiura. “Many former sugar workers found employment in the pineapple, ranching, fishing, farming, and dairy industries, while others started up small businesses. In this transition from plantations to towns, entrepreneurs began importing foodstuffs and other goods from their native countries; others manufactured goods that were in demand and opened bakeries, meat markets, produce stands, fish markets, and restaurants to meet Hawai‘i’s rapidly evolving food needs. Eateries such as Chinese restaurants, Japanese okazu-ya, and saimin stands helped to define for the public what each ethnic group’s food was like.”

The bold, robust flavors of multi-ethnic dishes like oxtail soup, Portuguese bean soup, adobo, and the infamous plate lunch are, without a doubt, evocative of times past. Reflective of the many different cultures of Hawai‘i’s Plantation Era, the following Honolulu establishments are the closest you’ll ever come to experiencing the heart of Hawai‘i in one bite.

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ALICIA’S MARKET

The Mixed Plate

“At lunch, or kau kau time,” begins Hiura, “workers found as comfortable a spot as possible wherever they happened to be working and stopped to share their lunches. Sitting or squatting in a circle, each worker held his or her own rice container, while placing the upper tray in the circle to share what he or she had brought with others. This sharing between people of different ethnic backgrounds led to what could be described as a process of natural selection. In other words, Hawai‘i’s mixed plate today is a representation of those foods that appealed to the broadest base of people over time.”

Camouflaged against linen-blotched stone, local mom-and-pop joint Alicia’s Market is busting at the seams with Kams of all ages. I’m greeted by Leonard Kam, son of Raymond and Alicia Kam, who originally opened the shop in 1949. He’s dressed in an apron, wearing rubber gloves, and filling a large silver pot with potatoes. “You know, the road outside used to be all dirt, and this building was actually a small wooden shack. I remember one Halloween where I was running through the wet dirt, excited to see that they were building a road. So much has changed since then, but our food is still as good as ever.”

The inner workings of Alicia’s market are like a well-organized symphony: the pounding of meat tenderizers against wooden cutting boards; the clamoring of knives slicing through roasted carcasses of various animals; the sounds of the cashier ringing orders up. Leonard beckons to his mother, and an elderly Chinese lady with a wide grin appears. “I opened the shop because I got to make money to live. You know, I only start with my husband. How many times we moved?” she asks to no one in particular before trailing off. “Oh, I forget already, so much we moved.” When Alicia’s first opened, they started off only serving meat, but eventually expanded to include seafood of all sorts. “I like the fish plain with shoyu, but people like pokē and barbeque meat,” she says. “I still cooking. Got to take care of my family, not myself. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.”

Today, in a seamless blend of Far East meets Pacific, the market divides itself into two sections: the produce area and its main attraction, the pupu bar. Here’s where it gets exciting. The scent of Chinese-style roasted meats, poi, pickled vegetables, salads, and seafood fills the air. There’s roast and shoyu-glazed chicken, char siu spare ribs, turkey tails, squid luau, and kalua pork on the menu, but most come for what’s often called the best shoyu pokē on the island.

“My father passed away about ten years ago, but his spirit is still alive with us because, you know, I just feel it,” says Leonard. “When he sees business is good, he’s always happy. And this is where he wants to be—not at his burial site, but here. He poured his whole heart and soul into this place, and we are happy to carry on his legacy.”

Alicia’s Market is located at 267 Mokauea St. For more information, call 808-841-1921 or visit aliciashawaii.com.

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CHAR HUNG SUT

Manapua

Good food often has little to do with grand presentations or imagined artistry, and everything to do with hard work and love for what you do and who you serve. At least that’s Char Hung Sut’s philosophy. With more than sixty years of delighting local palates with its simple but hearty fare, Char Hung Sut remains a symbol for local-style Chinese comfort food. Literally meaning “smell of the tea house,” Char Hung Sut was originally a Chinese teahouse that served local-style dim sum like gau gee min and duck noodle. Though their menu includes nearly a dozen items including pork hash, chow fun, ma tai soo, and an assortment of rice cakes, it’s the Hawaiian-style-sized char siu bao that customers line up for. The dough is large and fluffy and stuffed with a generous serving of shredded pork that manages to be juicy and lean all at once.

“We make the manapua fresh every day,” says Barry Mau, grandson of original founder Bat Moi Kam Mau, who arrived to Hawai‘i from a small village in China when she was only 16 years old. “My grandmother used to work at Dole Cannery making kukui nut leis, but her real talent was making dim sum.” Now at the helm of this fourth-generation restaurant in the vibrant quarter of Chinatown, Barry is up before the break of dawn to prep for the busy day. “I oversee retail, and my brother Bruce makes the dough,” says Barry. “The bread is the real secret. It has to be fresh and done just right.”

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Char Hung Sut is located at 64 N. Pauahi St. For more information, call 808-538-3335 or visit charhungsut.com.

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Photo by Jonas Maon

LEONARD’S BAKERY

Malasada

“Portuguese immigrants preferred bread rather than taro or rice,” says Hiura. “They were famed bakers, and the undeniable aroma of pão doce wafting from traditional Portuguese stone ovens is etched into the memories of many plantation residents.” None, perhaps, is more famous than Leonard’s Bakery, founded by Leonard DoRego in 1946 after he moved to Honolulu from Maui. Leonard’s parents were from San Miguel Island in Portugal, where they boarded the British sailing ship the Monarch in June of 1882 to work in the sugarcane fields. Portuguese immigrants began building fornos, or stone bread ovens, to make various bready treats, and Leonard’s mother suggested using them to make malasadas for Shrove Tuesday, a Portuguese tradition similar to Fat Tuesday. Suffice it to say, she had a couturier’s touch to confectionery. More than a hundred years later, Leonard’s malasadas, fried perfectly golden brown and covered in sugar, remain a part of Hawai‘i’s signature fare.

Leonard’s Bakery is located at 933 Kapahulu Ave. For more information, call 808-737-5591 or visit leonardshawaii.com.

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FORT RUGER MARKET

Musubi

Hawai‘i’s most torrid love affair has to be with the ubiquitous Spam musubi. Spam first showed up in the islands during World War II, when fresh meats were difficult to come across. Soldiers referred to the mystery meat as “ham that didn’t pass its physical” or “meatloaf without basic training,” but nevertheless, it made its way into the local diet. Japanese immigrants who came to work on the plantations brought with them musubi or onigiri (small balls of rice wrapped in dried seaweed), to which locals added Spam. “It was better for Hawai‘i workers, as its saltiness kept it from spoiling long after it was prepared,” says Hiura. “This was important to plantation laborers and other working-class folks, who packed their lunches in the morning and had to leave them under the tropical sun for several hours without refrigeration.”

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Fort Ruger Market (named after Fort Ruger, the first military reservation in Hawai‘i) offers a dizzying mix of musubis, among other local samplings. Though it recently came under new ownership, little has changed about the quaint neighborhood market. “After I bought this shop from the previous owner, I knew that I wanted to stick with the long-held traditions because people have this idea of what to expect when they come here,” says owner Hajun Choi, who moved to Hawai‘i from California five years ago. “We have custom-made, sashimi-grade poke, Hawaiian plates, boiled peanuts, and a variety of musubis. The only thing I added to the menu was Filipino food. Everything else I kept the same because of the shop’s history.”

The people patronizing the market range from construction workers to groups of college students, and they all come here with one thing in common: They’re hungry. Though Fort Ruger is popular for its pokē, kalua pig, and mixed bentos, it’s the various musubis that fly off the shelf. There is the pipikaula-with-fried-rice musubi, ahi musubi, and an assortment of musubis made with char siu, mochiko chicken, Portuguese sausage, Spam, hot dog, bacon, and meat jun.

“When I first moved here, I thought it was so strange that people sold Spam musubis in their stores and that people actually ate them,” says Choi. “It didn’t take long for me to catch on, and now I think they are the best things!”

Fort Ruger Market is located at 3585 Alohea Ave. For more information, call 808-737-4531.

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YOUR KITCHEN

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Shave Ice

“Over 1,000 years ago, Japanese people preserved natural ice during winter months in ice rooms dug deep into the shady sides of mountains,” says Hiura about the origins of shave ice. “Then in the summer, they could extract the ice, shave it, and eat it with syrup. Japanese also liked to add azuki beans sweetened with sugar to shave ice to flavor it.”

On 10th Avenue just off Waialae Avenue, Your Kitchen recalls the plantation days of Hawai‘i when workers delighted themselves with shave ice as an afternoon treat. Yasuyuki and Yukiko Asakura, who took over the space after Samira Country Kitchen vacated three years ago, display a passion for excellence that characterizes the centuries-old frozen confectionary. While patrons won’t find the gigantic cones of other shave ice locales, they will discover that what the shave ice bowls at Your Kitchen lack in size, they make up for in quality. Here, the Japanese-style shave ice is soft and fine, nearly creamy in consistency, and available in just a few homemade flavors like green tea, strawberry, mango, haupia, and passion fruit. The restaurant’s signature, Fujiyama (the green tea cone), features a mix of bittersweet green tea syrup, homemade ice cream, and azuki beans.

Your Kitchen is located at 1423 10th Ave. For more information, call 808-203-7685.