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White Rice, Spam and Health in Hawaii

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#1 caroline

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Posted 08 October 2003 - 04:19 PM

The thread on the future of restaurants in Hawaii has produced a blitz of postings about the healthfulness of the diet of the people in Hawaii (and in the South Pacific too). When I lived in Hawaii it seemed to me that this was a very tangled question. Different groups had different problems. Historically it was until the last fifty years or so difficult to get the kinds of foods that were thought of as healthy on the mainland. And besides many people did not (and still do not) want those kinds of foods.

And I have to admit that I was very impressed with the high life expectancy of many people who lived in Hawaii. Seems a very nuanced approach is needed. I'd love to hear more,

Rachel Caroline Laudan

#2 skchai

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Posted 09 October 2003 - 11:59 PM

Rachel, I'll give it a shot, though since I have few if any of the statistics at hand I may be among the least qualified people to be talking about this. My unformed impression is certainly that the obesity rate is extremely high in the islands, especially among men, but not nearly as much among women. This does some to be in part a aesthetic-cultural issue, since the popular "moke" image for men blends a macho stereotype with one that emphasizes a relaxed, easygoing nature - this seems to be condusive to seeing large, though not necessarily trim, body as fitting an ideal image of the local male.

But certainly more than this are the structural forces that have been mentioned: (1) the importatation of large amounts of high-fat processed foods into the islands during the planatation era, and the subsequent development of tastes for those foods, (2) the rather sudden transition from a plantation economy requiring high calorie consumption for laborers to a sedentary service-oriented economy, without corresponding changes in consumption habits, and (3) until, recently, the surprising lack of variety and expense of fresh fruits and vegetables on Oahu (something you pointed out very well in your book).

In relation to this, I'd like to pose the following question to KarenS: I realize that you have reasons to criticize HRC, and I agree with some of them. HRC has priced itself out of the budget of most local people, and the connection with local cuisine is often more in name than in reality.

However, HRC has also been the leading force in bringing about a revolution in local agriculture, with a major emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. Local vegetable growers such as `Nalo Farms and Wailea Ag have made a living largely due to demand from HRC restaurants. Moreover, HRC dishes, with their emphasis on lightness, tend to be lower in calories than the typical plate lunch version of local cuisine. Indeed, with the exception of Zippy's Shintani Cuisine, the only plate lunch places that have done much to emphasize healthier alternatives are those (Kaka`ako Kitchen and Onjin's) that are closely allied to HRC.

So perhaps we should give HRC a break, at least from the point of view of the health angle. While it still needs to provide a version of its cuisine that is more accessible to the local people's budgets and tastes, you certainly can't accuse them of being behind the unhealthy diets that local people often consume.

Looking forward to your stinging response!

Sun-Ki Chai

Former Hawaii Forum Host

#3 KarenS

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 01:08 AM

I feel very qualified to answer this because this has been and is, my life. I started cooking at IL Fresco in the ward center. We had the same oven as Chez Panisse. Nothing was frozen or canned- plus we made all of the bread.
When I started cooking at Il Fresco, the only fresh herbs avaiable were flown in frown Molokai twice a week from Kumu Farms. We were usiing north shore shrimp, great cheese, and making killer pizza. I am working in the first kitchen ever that has used soup bases and canned broth (I have been doing this for 20 years) .
The misconception about Hawaii is that people are all healthy and beautiful here. Because of the lack os fruit and vegetable eatiing, Hawaii is not considered a healthy place to live.People need to learn to eat healthy here. I work with everyday guys that will have rice, fried chicken wings, and frozen corn with butter. The other days will be "beef ass covers", gravy and stove top stuffing ( the day that I threw the big fit- the day of rice, fried chicken wings, and frozen corn, served in 2# of butter. I said , thiis is not healthy-we will eat something else.
I cooked here long before the Hrc business. I do not have much respect for
the way they treat their employees. Has their been any new hrc food in the past 10 years? I think that they have been mostly spending their money.AW does not ever do new food - his sous chefs make all specials,and special menus. aw lives his life as a wealthy patron-he visits sometimes, when he feels like it
I am at Nalo Farms all of the time.Only the celebrities get applause. Mike Nevin, who is the Chef at the Academy of Arts, was also my boss at Il Fresco for 6 years! Before him, I think ther was no fresh herb available.

#4 skchai

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 06:21 PM


I've read about Il Fresco, and how much it's missed, as well as Nevin's new setup at the Academy of Arts. It's had very good reviews. In fact just last Sunday we were at Academy with the kids for the Korean Family Day and were looking forward to eating at the Pavilion Cafe. Unfortunately, the seems to be closed on Sundays! If you still keep in touch with Nevin, perhaps you could ask him why - if other than religious reasons. That's probably one of the Academy's biggest business days, and when they hold many of their special events. If the Cafe could close on Mondays and Tuesdays instead. . .

Meanwhile, after being denied, we walked across the street to Thomas Square, where they were having the Annual PowWow, and had ourselves some frybread tacos under the banyon trees. But that's another story. . .

But I admit I'm a bit confused. Some people might even place Nevin's cuisine at the Pavillion Cafe in the HRC category, since it has that East-West influence (albeit with a Mediterranean emphasis) and uses locally sourced ingredients. How would you differentiate it from HRC? Are you saying that HRC consists only of the celebrity chefs such as Wong, Yamaguchi, et al.? Or the original 12 chefs who incorporated the group?

Sun-Ki Chai

Former Hawaii Forum Host

#5 KarenS

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 09:50 PM

Mike Nevin would never consider his food HRC.

#6 KarenS

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Posted 13 October 2003 - 10:43 PM

Container loads of salisbury steak certainly help explain some of the poor Hawaiian eating habits. Many of them were left from WW2 (60 years ago aprox). Most people never calculate rice consumption to their total days consumption- it is just there. This is in addition to pasta, bread, pasta salad, sushi, fried wings, fried katsu, fried noodles, maunapua, gravy, buttered corn, saimin, mac salad, fries, spam musubi, poi, sweet potatoes, and every sauce and gravy very sweet. Vegetables and fruit don't get much notice.

#7 alanamoana

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Posted 14 October 2003 - 12:58 PM

well karen, don't beat around the bush :laugh:

it is strange that with so many asian groups who tend to eat rather healthily in the old country, they eat crap in hawaii. it must be like pidgin english...combining all the languages into one that every plantation worker can understand. so they've had to create a kind of food that has everything (fat/flavor) and nothing (nutritional) all at once!

i understand that so much of this is perpetuated because of availability of food items in the past. but with the world getting smaller and the farms producting better and better produce on the islands, let's hope that we can see a shift to better eating habits.

there's a recent article in the new york times magazine regarding the new "obesity epidemic" which is interesting. the rest of the united states is following hawaii in some respects.

ny times article

#8 FoodZealot

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 12:43 PM

I don't consider myself to be a health fanatic by any stretch, but I'm trying to take better care of myself. Having just returned from the Islands, strictly on an anecdotal level, I'd have to say that I would have a much more difficult time eating a healthy and balanced diet in Hawai`i. Granted, I live in freakish, image-conscious, diet of the week LA, and I don't eat enough veggies here either.

It seems like it's tougher if a family is in that suburban/warehouse shopping/fast food/just grab something quick kind of lifestyle. As has been mentioned, you might think that there'd be better choices because individual ethnic cuisines have their vegetable dishes, but it's as if a five year old got to choose the menu - the daily diet is all skewed to fatty, starchy, syrupy sweet sauces and few or no veggies. Technique has something to do with it too, because the fried stuff is just greas-zy. There's good produce in the supermarkets, but if it has to be made separately from the heat and serve meal, it doesn't get made.

Maybe my impressions are exacerbated by the warmth and humidity of the climate, which make me feel bloated and gross. And I just had a birthday, so I'm thinking like grumpy old man: "gunfunnit kids!"


#9 PakePorkChop

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Posted 31 May 2004 - 12:13 AM

I guess this thread is re-examining the statistics indicating that Hawaii's people are the longest-lived in the nation.

Before commenting about diet, we need to look at genetics and life-style.

It seems to me that it takes a certain kind of human to end up here in the most isolated landfall in the world. The proto-polynesians came out of Southeast Asia on sailing canoes, skirted Australia, and ventured into into the east and central pacific. The europeans circumnavigated the globe on sailing ships to get here, as did the Boston traders. Asian, European, and American immigrants all ventured thousands of miles to this unknown land for opportunity. Without any scientific basis, I'm going to make a claim that some very tough and hardy people came to live in Hawaii.

And how do they live? Whenever I return from a trip to Europe, America, or Asia, I'm always struck by the laughter and musicality of the society as soon as I emerge from the plane. Cool tradewinds, laughter and music... it's Aloha Friday! and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so forth. Try that in Manhattan, where you work your secretary to midnight on weekdays, all day Saturday, and go in Sunday to clean up and prepare for the next week.

Having a tough, hardy people living in balmy weather with laughter, sunshine, flowers, and music will do wonders for life expectancy, even with diet issues.

But I won't concede the diet discussion. Hawaii eats three times the national average of seafood. Will you find tofu, bittermelon, and seaweed, all acknowledged restoratives, in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Missouri? We have 50,000 Okinawans in Hawaii, many eating what is postulated as the healthiest in the world, representing the largest Okinawan community in the United States.

Chinese may not raise "local" crops, but their consumption of cabbages, root vegetables, and sprouts is huge. Ditto for Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and others.

Hawaii is the soup noodle capitol of the U.S. of A, pound for pound, person for person. The balanced blend of protein, vegetable, and starch topping in a rich simmered broth is almost medicinal in effect.

Don't be misled by the excesses of fast food and drive in offerings. They do exist, and Hawaii has large health issues (I intend to discuss the matter of "Polynesian
Markets" in the future), but there is a lot going on here with just plain folks preparing their everyday meals.

And all the while they are singing, humming, and laughing.

#10 KarenS

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Posted 31 May 2004 - 04:59 PM

Hawaii has not had the "healthiest" for a long time. The growth of adult onset diabetes is the highest in the country. There are also more fast food places in proportion to the population then anywhere in the US.
I love Hawaii; Hawaii needs to shake free of the fatty diet introduced in the 50's. Most Asian cuisines are very healthy. The problem is that it has become teriyaki, katsu, macaroni salad (as a veg), potato salad, and white rice. A serving of rice is supposed to be half a cup. The guys that I work with will have 6c of rice, fried chicken wings, buttered corn, iceberg lettuce with thousand island dressing.
That equals, fat, sugar, carbs, and no vegetable.
I hear all the time "diabetes runs in my family". Adult onset diabetes has to do with diet, weight, and exercise.

#11 PakePorkChop

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Posted 31 May 2004 - 09:02 PM

KarenS, I think that we have a common meeting ground, and I want you to recognize that there is a huge population out there in Hawaii that just does not eat like the people that your work with. I don't contest that certain ethnic groups, younger people, and visitors (who fuel many of the fast food outlet openings) need to review their nutritional philosophies. Nevertheless, there's a lot going on here in Hawaii, in the Chinatown and ethnic markets, that contemporary writers are not acquainted with and attuned to. Glory, glory, to ethnic cuisines, which reach their culmination in Hawaii!

#12 skchai

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Posted 03 June 2004 - 12:56 PM

Sorry for joining in so late, I've been away on an extended trip (including a lot of eating), and just got back. I'm not nearly knowledgable enough to get into the debate about whether the local diet, on the average, is more or less healthy than that on the mainland. Suffice to say that there are major problems all over the U.S. in that regard, and Hawai`i is no exception.

As all of you have mentioned, the issue of nutrition is closely related to the question of the context and conditions under which local people end up eating. Fast food in Hawai`i is not only ubiquitous but typically very unhealthy - the typical plate lunch, for all its attractions taste-wise, more often than not contains little or no vegetables at all. Yet the plate lunch menu does not accurately reflect what most of us eat at home, particularly for those whose home cooking is based on the traditional diets of the many countries (including Hawai`i itself) from which our ancestors arrived.

I don't know the solution to this problem. There are a large number of ways that we can move to a healthier diet, but none of them are easy. Here are a few random thoughts:

(1) Clearly, habits have to be shaped at an early age. Gene Kaneshiro, head of the DOE school lunch program and son of the late Columbia Inn founder Tosh Kaneshiro, has made a number of moves in the last few years encourage healthy eating in the schools, but enforcement is hard because of pressures on cafeteria managers to attract kids to the cafeteria lines in the first place when many other other alternatives exist. Here are three articles from local papers on the subject:

School Lunches going Healthier

$1 Lunches no Bargain for Students

Cafeteria 101

(2) One part of the problem is the universal product of industrialization: people eat out more often, usually on the run. Fast food is by definition not just inexpensive but also meant to be gobbled down quickly. And while it it is not by definition unhealthy, it almost inevitably ends up being that way. My theory on this is that eating fast means not really tasting the flavors what's going down but rather getting a kind of visceral reaction based upon the basic taste sensations, the only things that make much of an impression when people are not bothering to chew are large quantities of fat, sugar, salt and the like. Not trying to be a slow food fanatic (I usually eat a lot faster than I ought to), but people can only learn to appreciate healthy food once they sit down and slow down enough to appreciate the distinct flavors of different ingredients. Nor does it mean that they have to stop eating fat, sugar, and salt, but once they slow down they'll be able to appreciate the flavors of different fats, sugars, and even salts, while being satisfied with smaller quantities.

(3) An aspect of the problem that is unique to Hawai`i is our failure to integrate the vast array of vegetables and fruits that exist within our various ethnic cuisines into the food that can be be found in everyday eating places, those at a lower price level than the rarefied heights occupied by fusion cooking. It is ironic that dominant local inexpensive meal, the plate lunch, which is originally derived from a conglomeration of vegetable-heavy cuisines, more often than not contains no vegetables at all. There are a of course a large number of casual dining options that are much healthier than the plate lunch, but they tend to be clustered in ethnic or speciality restaurants and are not well-integrated into a coherent body of "local" cuisine.

A couple of previous threads touch on this issue from the point of plate lunch and "mid-range" restaurants:

The Future of Hawaii Restaurants

Hawaii Plate Lunch

I think, however, that the local population is willing to adapt to healthier alternatives to the traditional plate lunch, as long as entrepreneurs are willing to provide alternatives that are relatively inexpensive and are consistent with local culinary identity. The success of places like Kaka`ako Kitchen and I Love Country Cafe shows that this is the case. Yes, both of these places offer mac salad, but only on demand, and there are higher percentage of low-fat entrees and side vegetables. The ubiquitous Korean plate lunch places also provide an even larger variety of vegetables, and though most entrees are very meaty, the percentage of deep-fried dishes is at least somewhat lower. We need more choices like this, but we also need chefs who can creativity integrate healthy alternatives into the plate lunch and mid-range menus in a way doesn't seem imposed from outside.

Sun-Ki Chai

Former Hawaii Forum Host