Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Taste of Hawaii Tour with Alan Wong

It's hard to imagine anyone not loving Hawaii. You've got a set of beautiful tropical islands that are part of the United States so that you get all the amenities of home while feeling like you are almost in a different country entirely. My first trip to Hawaii was to Maui with my parents in the 70s. Since then I've been back a few times, but I never had such a wonderful time as my last visit in August. I guess it was the freedom of being by myself so that I had the ability to explore, learn, and know Hawaii in a much more intimate way than ever before.

When I was told that there was going to be a Taste of Hawaii Tour with Chef Alan Wong coming to San Francisco, I had to sign up for one of the events. Alan Wong is one of the most prominent chefs in Hawaii. He was here to introduce his new cookbook, the first in over a decade, called "The Blue Tomato". Along with him was Arnold Hiura, a journalist who is now also known as a Hawaiian food historian. He also has a book out, "Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands", which I bought as well. They were in the Bay Area for a week, their only mainland stop. There was a full week of events, including the Chef's birthday bash. Eileen and I went on Sunday for a talk/dinner event at the Japanese  Cultural & Community Center of Northern California.

Arnold Hiura started out talking about the cultural richness that Hawaiian food has developed due to the blending of so many nationalities.  There's not much to Hawaiian history. The Polynesians settled the island and lived their lives the same for about a thousand years before the first European ships stumbled across the islands in the 1700s. But after that there was constant change as more and more ethnicities found their ways to the islands. It was similar to what I had learned in August at dinner (see Hawaiian Lunch Wagons post). I had gotten a brief history of Hawaiian plantation life and Hiura only added to the story. He had with him one of the tin lunch carriers and showed how the main section would be packed with rice and then the smaller top section would be filled with the entree (so to speak). At lunch the plantation workers would all sit together in a circle and keep their rice, but the other dishes would be put out in the middle for everyone to pick from with their chopsticks. This encouraged people to bring something good to share without it being too different to turn others off. He also talked about how it then progressed to mixed marriages. A Chinese worker might decide to stay after his contract was finished and end up marrying a local girl. Soon there would be a fusion of cooking.

Next Hiura brought out a can of Spam and one of sardines. He told about how you would have large families with not enough money who would learn to make a can of Spam and pot of rice feed ten people. That's how Hawaiians became the Spam experts. Chef Alan Wong got up quickly to joke that he created Spong - Spam that had been Wong-ed.

Wong then spoke about the change in the Hawaiian culinary scene over the last twenty years. Until the 90s the Hawaiian dining scene catered to mainland tastes and that meant shipping in most of the ingredients from the mainland and other countries. It wasn't until the late 80s/early 90s that the new generation of chefs started to focus on their own culinary history rich with the fusion of all the cultures that had settled on the islands. In fact, Wong was one of the twelve chefs that formed Hawaii Regional Cuisine.  This was the start of their own Hawiian locavore movement of focusing on their own island farms, ranchers, and producers. This not only helps Hawaiian businesses, but it reduces the dependence on imports. As Wong noted, if there was a disaster the size of the Japan tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, Hawaiians only have about three weeks worth of food. 

Wong then did a quick cooking demonstration. He made a soy milk panna cotta to use as the base to a seafood salad. Here you see a pan sized version and below you see the individual servings we ate in clear cups.

There were three dishes from Wong, the seafood salad, a Hamura Saimin with Kauai Shrimp and Red Onion Butter, and a Thai curried seafood soup. 

We were also treated to a buffet from the Hukilau restaurant featuring Ahi Poke, Chinese Chicken Salad, Teriyaki Beef, Kalua Pork, Hukilau Chicken, Yaki Onigiri.

Wong and Hiura signed their books for all and there was a giveaway of dinners at Wong's restaurants. We each got Wong's book free with our event ticket, but ended up buying Hiura's book as well because it was so full of history and stories.

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