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Keith Talent

Honolulu report

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Don't know where to start here - of course judging food quality is a subjective business, so it's quite possible that contradictory opinions can be equally valid. So there's nothing objectively incorrect about anyone saying that Hawai`i has lousy food - it may indeed be lousy from their experience and tastes. Anyway, nothing seems to get people more excited about a local food / music / anything else, than someone coming in and slamming it!

Given that no one can claim objectivity, I'll try to restrict my "defense" of our food by discussing the extent that Hawai`i, and particularly Honolulu, fits into each of what, in my mind, are the three best-known "paradigms" for evaluating a fine food city . . .

(1) The haute cuisine paradigm. This paradigm is the kuleana of the Michelins, Gault-Millaus, and those who seek to emulate their influence in annointing temples of fine dining. No doubt, as far as this is concerned, that Honolulu cannot claim even auxiliary membership in the rarefied circles of haute cuisine cities - New York, Tokyo, Toronto etc. But as Rachel points out, this is hardly a reasonable comparison given the great differences in size. Indeed, the fact that anyone would think of comparing Honolulu, even unfavorably, with such places shows there that our high-end cuisine has more prominence than one would expect given our population. It would be hard to imagine someone even bothering to make such a statement such as: "Tulsa / Halifax / Buffalo just can't compare with New York or Tokyo for great restaurants!" No offense to any of those cities intended - I love BBQ brisket / saltfish and brewis / beef on weck! Indeed, some of my best friends . . .

Yes, Roy's would be just one among many in New York. But the fact that we have even one Roy (not to mention one Alan Wong, Mavro, Sam Choy etc. apiece) is a lot of visibility for a city of about 375,000 people, and a huge jump from where we were 15 years ago. Indeed, whatever you think about Hawaiian Regional Cuisine and other self-conscious culinary movements in the local restaurant industry, it's clear they have brought us greater visibility and influence in haute cuisine than any similar-sized city or territory in the world. This is true any way you measure it, whether it be restaurant and chef awards, mentions in foodie magazines, nationally distributed chef's cookbooks, influence on menus elsewhere in the country, etc. etc.

(2) The "terroir" paradigm. This is (literally in this case) the kuleana of the Slow Food movement, the proponents of controlled appellations, and such. Here, the emphasis is on distinctive food products that are historically tied to a particular territory, that are raised with great care and reverence, and (perhaps most important) are bound up in the identity of the people living there. Here, Honolulu and its surrounding areas are not really doing badly (again, given the size of the population), but at least in my opinion things could be better.

Yes, partly inspired by the HRC and its nouvelle cuisine roots, much more emphasis is being made on locally sourced ingredients, and farmer's markets are going up left and right. I agree with oneidaone that KCC Farmer's market is a great resource for the chef. Small producers, much celebrated by the local food press, are making everying from prime-grade steer to chocolate. However, as welcome as this trend is, and as wonderful as many of the products are, too often it comes across as a delayed and reduced-scale reflection of what has already taken place in many major mainland population centers.

But no, it's not a scandal that we can't get heirloom tomatoes in the same variety and quantity here as you can in New York. The real scandal is that it is almost impossible to find high quality taro or breadfruit here, despite the fact that have been the staples of the Native Hawaiian diet. Or, to take "aliens" that have been long-naturalized, that you have to go to extraordinary lengths to find a good ripe pineapple or high-quality Haden mango (unless, in the latter case, you have a neighbor with a tree). Most of the mangos sold in local supermarkets are from Mexico - that it in itself is not remarkable; it is just part of the modern parable of the global division of labor, along with Aloha shirts made in Indonesia. What is more extraordinary is that great local pineapple, mango, or litchi is almost impossible to find even in the farmers' markets.

Locally-sourced ingredients are not enough for fufilling the stern requirements of this paradigm. We need more of an emphasis on locally-sourced local ingredients. And no, Rachel, I don't believe that this is a cry for "authenticity", whatever that means. Instead, it is the notion that if a society seeks to buy into the Slow Food ethos of culinary communitarianism, it needs to define a reasonably stable set of food items to call its own. Each of such foods must be distinct enough to differentiate the society from others, well-suited to its physical climate if it is a crop, and established long enough to be integrated into the local cuisine. Whether these foods have been there for a hundred generations or one is less important. Heirloom tomatoes can't define "us", even if it is very nice to have them available here, because no one will view them as distinct to or particularly well-suited for Hawai`i. Some of the other foods I've mentioned above can, but need to be nurtured to develop into full-blown expressions of local identity.

(3) The diversity paradigm. Here, we're talking about the multiplicity of cultures and cuisines in one place, both juxtaposed and blended. This is, in my opinion, where Honolulu looks the strongest. Yes, I'm painfully aware we're missing quite a lot. Among other things, we don't have much choice in the way of good Indian, Mexican, or Arab restaurants here. Indeed, if you're looking for the sheer availability of a complete range of ethnic cuisines, then even here we can't measure up to New York, Los Angeles, or London, to take the three most diverse restaurant cities in the world. Of course, you may have to drive or ride the subway for quite a while to get to the best places in those cities.

Travel time aside, however, there are many ways in which Honolulu is unexcelled even by much larger cities. One is the widespread availability of cuisines that you would be hard-pressed to find even in some of these larger cities. One of course is traditional Hawaiian food, but we can include in this category the multitude of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants specializing in one particular dish, or food from one particular subregion. Not to mention rarer findings such as the half-dozen or more restaurants serving Okinawan cuisine, a few well-hidden places serving Samoan or Micronesian food, etc.

More importantly however, is the constant, casual, and seemingly unconscious mixing of cuisines that goes on in Honolulu at the most plebian levels. "Ethnic" food of many kinds has insinuated itself into our own cuisine to the point that no one thinks that there is anything remarkable about the average, not-particularly-adventurous person eating pork adobo for lunch one day, Japanese curry the next, kalbi and kimchi the next, and laulau the next. Not to mention fried chicken on Friday. It's almost a cliché, but this kind of procession is just part of the normal diet here. And the great forum for this procession is the ubiquitous plate lunch, often served out of a lunchwagon where a single local lady may offer all the aforementioned dishes on one menu, all prepared on a tiny stovetop, with "two scoops" of rice the only constant, literally and figuratively the glue holding everything together. Sneer you may at the plate lunch wagon. O.K., the food is often carelessly made, and even I would love to see mac salad banished to the great `opala dump in the sky, but there is probably no site in the world at any time in history, with the possible exception of the old Singapore hawker streets, where a greater variety of culinary tradition are brought together in one great multicultural heap.

Sooner or later, moreover, things get mixed up, which leads to shoyu poke, chicken longrice, char siu saimin with katsuo broth, beef hekka, "meat juhn", mochiko chicken, kim chee burger, kalua pig pizza, Spam musubi of course, butter mochi, and on and on, as well as literally hundreds of other "fused" dishes that are seen as so routine that they have no name. This kind of stuff does happen elsewhere, but nowhere close to the same extent as it does in our city and state. I think that it is this diversity that caught Rachel's interest after she had lived here for a few years, and which she wrote about so beautifully in Food of Paradise, which is, as far as I know, the only book focusing on the cuisine of a single U.S. state to ever win a major culinary prize - the IACP Jane Grigson award.

SO. . ., even going by the conventional criteria, I think both Honolulu and Hawaii look pretty good, particularly when you take into account size, but even overall when it comes to diversity.

BTW, since this thread has long since ceased being a trip report, I think I will move everything from tooearly on to a new thread. Any objections? Stay tuned. . .

Larry, are there audio archives of the recent Town Square episodes - 5 pm is one of the most difficult times for me to tune in, but I'd really like to hear the shows with Joan Namkoong and the others.

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Yes, there are audio archives, though it could take a couple of days to a week or two before the program appears. The archives are at:

http://hawaiipublicradio.org/Aarchive1.htm .

It is actually the "fusing" that you talk about that intrigues me most. On the Mainland, I think it is more the common thing that (for example) Japanese restaurants stick with the stereotype. Variations are few and often would seem weird in the home country (California rolls, for example, as "sushi"). The fusion sometimes works well, sometimes not.

This is probably an area of discussion where people will reasonably differ according to their own culinary preferences, experiences elsewhere, and expectations. Remembering back 30 years ago when I started coming to Hawaii, it certainly wasn't meeting my expectations. Things have come a long way in certain respects. For eating, speaking generally, I don't know where to place Hawaii on a scale at present, or how that scale should be calibrated. There are plenty of places I'd place lower. I recall going into a "Chinese" restaurant in Columbus Indiana (not Ohio) and ordering chow mein. It was peas and carrots mostly.



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I think the Carribean/Mexican place you ate was Cha Cha Cha's. There is a place called Cha Cha Cha Salsaria, also billed as Carribean/Mexican, in the Hawaii Kai plaza where we sometimes stop for tacos on the way to one of the beach parks. i like that they use a lot of fresh vegetables in their dishes.

I don't have much of a chance to explore the restaurant scene in Honolulu, because the people we visit with are just not up for it. But I always enjoy the food because, as other posters have mentioned, you get wonderful fish and produce. Your average plate of fish in a bar on the beach is a lot better than most of what I can get on the mainland, at least without spending a ton of money.

If you're there dining with kids again, you might want to try driving over to Roy's. The branches in Hawaai are, in my opinion, much better than those on the mainland (that local fish and produce again), it is kid-friendly, and the service is never less than excellent.

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I'm sorry you had a bad run-in with the police while you were there. I'm a local Hawaiian now misplaced (been travelling around the world for the past 4 years) and well- what can I say, I never really liked any of the restaurants or such there, especially around the Waikiki area. And that's pretty much why I decided to learn how to cook since my mom wasn't really into cooking either.

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