“One scoop, two scoop?”
The lady at the lunch wagon is asking about rice, the stubby, sticky staple served from an ice cream scoop with every Hawaii plate lunch.
Rice is a fact of life in Hawaii. Threaten a storm or a dockworkers strike and the first thing to disappear from supermarket shelves is rice, mostly sold in 20-pound bags.
If rice is the base of nearly every Hawaii meal, what goes on top or alongside depends on who’s eating. The 50th state has one of the country’s richest food cultures, born of the mixing and mingling of many different immigrants: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, even Puerto Rican and old New England missionary stock.
Hawaii has what may be the best sushi outside Japan, as well as Korean specialties such as spicy bibimbap and, if you’re lucky, a cold summer soup made of arrowroot noodles floating in salty-sweet broth of Asian pear. Hot, sugary Portuguese doughnuts called malasadas are Sunday morning fare. Ethnic Hawaiians still enjoy the sticky pounded taro root called poi, soft, salty lomi lomi salmon (fish that’s “massaged” with tomato and onion) and custardy coconut pudding called haupia.
Like its people, who have mixed and married enough to make Hawaii the most diverse state in the nation, the food of the Aloha State has its own story. Most of Hawaii’s immigrants arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries to work sugar cane and pineapple. In the fields, the workers shared their noodles, their adobos and their linguica to create a rich culinary pidgin known simply as “local food.”
Local food means Spam musubi, reminiscent of a giant nigiri, topped with a slice of Spam and tied with seaweed. It means tasty noodle soup called saimin, the hamburger-fried egg-gravy-on-rice mash-up called loco moco. And it means poke, cubed ahi tuna tossed with green onions, sesame oil, rock salt and, if you’re truly going native, inamona, or candlenut.
But the quickest schooling in local food comes from the plate lunch. After the scoops of rice will come macaroni salad or “toss,” meaning green salad, then your pick of anything the island offers: chicken braised in soy sauce, salty Hawaiian kalua pig, Japanese-style grilled mackerel, even chili or beef stew. Those are the foods unique to Hawaii.
– Michele Kayal
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