Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gung Hee Fat Choy - Part III: The 2nd Day Feast

Because my mom's family was Buddhist, Chinese New Year's day was always a strictly vegetarian day, when all we ate was jai.   However, that doesn't mean that we didn't have big feasts for Chinese New Year.  Quite the contrary, we would have multiple big dinners in fact.   Whenever we go out to Night in Chinatown to see the lion dances and the big festivities, we would usually have a nice "End of the Year" dinner at one of the restaurants there.   After I got married, we would always have a Chinese New Year dinner (or dim sum), with my wife's family.   But the biggest feast for Chinese New Year always comes for my family on the day after Chinese New Year, on neen cho yee (or the 2nd day of the year).   For my family this is probably the biggest feast of the year, rivaling Thanksgiving, and often surpassing it in the amount of food.

When my Po Po was alive, she used to cook the entire feast by herself, and it would take her several days.  Since she's passed on, my aunty has been the one cooking Chinese New Year dinner.   Unlike Thanksgiving and Christmas, where each member of my family contributes one dish, Aunty usually cooks Chinese New Year dinner all by herself.  This is largely due to the fact that Chinese New Year is not a State or Federal holiday in Hawaii, so we don't get the day off to cook.   Aunty will take one day of vacation time to spend the day cooking, but it's always a lot of work for her.  However, the importance of the holiday, with its need for special foods, usually outweighs her busy schedule.  Not having the day off, also means that we usually have to rush over to her house after work that day, both to enjoy the huge feast she's made, and to pay respects to our ancestors.

Whether they're Buddhist, Taoist, or whatever, many Chinese families will have an altar in their homes for their ancestors.   It isn't so much a form or religion (you don't really worship your ancestors), as much as it is a form of rememberance and respect.   To be perfectly honest, it never really meant that much to me until my Po Po passed away.   After she was gone, and we put her picture up on the altar, suddenly the whole altar had new meaning for me.  Suddenly, standing before the altar didn't mean paying respect to people I had never known, but it meant communicating with my Po Po again, telling her how my life is going, asking her for help and advise, and of course wishing her Happy New Year. 
My Family's Altar at New Year's
On neen cho yee, my family would rush home to stand before the altar before sunset.  In the days preceeding, every type of new year goodie, tong goh, gao, jai, narcissus, all kinds of fruits, and everything else would be on the altar.  But on this day, all of the food my aunty would be presented before the ancestors, so they could share in our feast.   Regardless of the number of ancestors, there would always be 6 bowls of rice (5 half full and 1 full), and 6 pairs of chopsticks.   We would ring the bell 3 times, to let them know we're home and to invite them to come home and feast with us (although my sons have taken to ringing the bell many more than 3 times).   We would then light 3 sticks of Chinese incense, put our hands together and bow 3 sets of 3 times, and place the incense on the altar. 

After we had all said hi to Po Po, my uncle and I would take the paper money from the altar and go outside to burn it in a pot.   Unlike Western beliefs, Chinese believe that money is still required in the afterlife.   But instead of working and toiling for your cash, you are taken care of by your decendants.  So every New Year (as well as funerals, death anniversaries, and Ching Ming), we burn thin paper with gold & silver foil on it (sort of like origami paper), called gum ngun.   In actuality, the paper is supposed to folded to look like gold teals (the nugget of currancy in the very old days), but since we don't have the day off, we've been burning unfolded paper lately (hopefully Po Po won't mind too much).   Living in the modern times, we also have paper money that resembles Western bills to burn, but we usually save that for Ching Ming.   When Uncle and I have finished burning, we would pour 3 small cups of liquor into the pot, followed by 3 small cups of tea, to finish it all off.   After we've finished burning everything, its time to eat!

In the West, and even at most Chinese dinners, there is one type of soup to start off a meal.   But for this meal, Aunty always cooks 4 soups.  These soups are actually most important part of the meal.   Each soup has a highly symbolic meaning and we usually only ever get to eat them at Chinese New Year, so they are very special.  This is especially so, for the first soup, which also happens to be my favorite one, called fat choi tong.    Fat choi is a type of vegetable, a seaweed, that looks exactly like jet black hair (although slightly thicker than real hair), therefore it is called fat choi (which literally means "hair vegetable").   This is one vegetable that had Andrew Zimmern known about would surely have been showcased on Bizarre Foods, because it is kind of frightening looking to the uninitiated (it really looks like a big clump of hair floating in your broth).  But I really love the texture of this vegetable, which I can only describe as kinda similar to cooked alfalfa.  It has a very subtle flavor, but somehow it is still not overpowered by the chicken in the soup.  You will also find this vegetable in traditional jai, but there it just blends in with all of the other ingredients, whereas in this soup it is showcased as the star.   This vegetable is highly significant for New Year's as it's name, fat choi, is a homonym, which sounds just like the Chinese words for wealth and good fortune (as in Gung Hee Fat Choy). 
Fat Choi Tong (Fat Choi Soup)
The second soup was always my favorite when I was little.   It is a corn soup or sook mai tong.  It isn't too dissimilar to corn chowder or creamed corn, but without any of the cream taste.   I think because it is such a mild, sweet, and creamy (in texture but not taste) soup, kids really like it, because it has become my son's favorite as well.   This soup also represents wealth, as the corn color is supposed to be similar to gold.
Sook Mai Tong (Corn Soup)
The third soup is the most ordinary of all the 4 soups.   It is a bamboo shoot soup, or jook sun tong.   Whereas fat choi is eaten almost exclusively at New Year's time, my Po Po would actually cook this soup for me on a semi regular basis.   However, it is still signficant to have, because bamboo shoots are a big symbol of longevity in Chinese culture.  I don't know how my aunty does it, but the bamboo in this soup is so incredibly plump and juicy, and marries so well with the chicken stock. 
Jook Sun Tong (Bamboo Shoot Soup)
The fourth soup is the most well known of these soups, shark fin soup or yuu chee tong.   If you've never had shark's fin, it actually has very little taste.   It is more of a slippery, long rice type of texture (but firmer).  It mainly absorbs the flavor of the soup its in.    While this dish has been a significant part of Chinese culture as a symbol of prosperity since the Ming Dynasty, it has been the object of controversy recently by bleeding heart environmentalists who consider it cruel to cut the fins of a shark.   Personally, I don't think it's any more cruel than the slaughter of any animal for food.  I do however wish that they harvested more of the shark than just the fins, as any animal that gives its life for food deserves to be made full use of.  There is also concern over the decline in the shark population as a result of over harvesting.  That, on the other hand, is something I can appreciate, and as in all things moderation is the key.  My wish would be that they found a way to farm raise sharks (any species really) to satisfy this demand.   Over hunting almost wiped out the American bison, but these days you can enjoy a very tasty, farm raised, buffalo burger in many places (if you've never had one, you gotta head down to Kiawe Grill in Old Stadium Mall in Moiliili).   Sharks fin soup is a delicacy, as well as huge part of Chinese culture.  It deserves to be protected, so it can be enjoyed by future generations.
Yuu Chee Tong (Shark's Fin Soup)
There is actually a 5th soup that is missing from this set, the famed bird nest soup or yim wo tong.    Bird nest soup, is actually made from the saliva that cave swifts uses to build their nests.   People that harvest these nests have to climb to the top of some very dangerous caves to pry them from the ceiling (it's even more dangerous than opihi picking).   It sounds truly bizarre and frightening, but like the sharks fin, it really doesn't have that strong a taste.  It's very mild, mainly a crunchy jelly like texture (like cartilidge or certain types of fungus).  The really high quality stuff actually just dissolves completely into the broth.   I remember my Po Po making it when I was little for big parties when all of our aunties and uncles would come over.  This soup, even more famous and significant than the shark's fin soup, is not only supposed to symbolize good health for the new year, but is supposed to have incredible nutritional benefits that will alleviate all kinds of health problems.  The problem with it, is that it is ridiculously expensive.   Even moreso than the shark's fin.   Bird's nests go for about $200 a pound for the cheap end stuff.   So, while it is highly significant, we just can't afford to have it every year.

Following the soups, Aunty usually cooks a number of different dishes.    In years past, she has slow braised whole chickens in her pressure cooker (something I used to refer to as "bathtub chicken" because of the shape of her pressure cooker).  This year she opted for some pork chops.   They look basic, but they were cooked just perfectly tender and juicy.   She adorned them with carrot medallions (also representative of gold coins for the shape and color).
Pork Chops
Aunty always cooks a lot of a big batch of shrimp, this year they were garlic shrimp.   Shrimp always seem necessary for festive Chinese dinners.  In fact, in many Chinese families, although they cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, it is the shirmp that is the highlight of the meal.   I remember in grad school, I had a Korean friend who just sat there the whole Thanksgiving dinner eating nothing but the shirmp and grunting every so often about how good it was.   Many Westerners aren't as fond of shrimp, because they're lazy to peel the shells off, but that's what locks in all the flavor.
For a vegetable course, Aunty usually creates something interesting using all of the leftover ingredients that go into jai.   What never ceases to amaze me, is how you can take these same ingredients, put them together in different ways, and have them taste totally different.   In this case, it is the sugar snap peas she threw in that just dominated the flavor of the dish.   The vegetables were so incredibly sweet, not in a sugary sense, but in that fresh, green, from the garden taste.  
Mixed Vegetables
My mom also decided to contribute a dish this year.   After visiting Hsu Yun Temple, and sampling their true monk's food, she was inspired to try recreating their dish with her own leftover jai ingredients.   Then she went on a tangent throwing in American bacon and some Vietnamese sausage (gio).  However, unlike her supreme jai, somehow these ingredients didn't mesh very well.  On top of that, one of the bean curds she used had a very funny canned taste, which kind of spoiled the whole dish for me.  I would've just preferred some more of her incredibly awesome jai.
Mom's Concoction
This year, Aunty also tried to make something really special.   It was a dish of some of the most amazingly plump and juicy black shiitake mushrooms (or doong gu) that I've ever tasted, along with some very tender and sweet abalone.   Abalone is also not cheap, though not as bad as the shark's fin or the bird's nest, coming in at around $40 a pound.   I don't usually like abalone, because many people do it wrong and it's really tough, or it has a weird canned taste.   But these were so remarkably tender and fresh tasting.   Abalone is another significant dish, because the Chinese word for abalone, bao yuu, is another homonym, sounding just like the words for "guaranteed abundance", something we definitely need in this economy.
Abalone & Black Mushrooms
To wrap everything up, you definitely need to have a fish.  Fish or yuu, like the abalone, are a symbol of abundance and prosperity.  It is as important to the Chinese at Chinese New Year, as to the Japanese during regular New Year's.   Of course, you have to stick with the classic Chinese steamed preparation with sesame oil & shoyu sauce, garnished with green onion and ginger.   Howevever, this time Aunty went with a pair of mullet, which I don't think were quite as tasty as the uhu (parrotfish), she cooked at regular New Year.
Braised Mullet
There is one dish that is very conspicuously missing from all of this.    My Po Po used to make the best joong at New Year's time.   Good joong is all in the wrapping, and she used to pack it tighter than anyone I've ever seen in my life.   She used to make wrapping it look so easy, but my mom and my aunty were never able to wrap it nearly as well as she did.  Just like my mom gives jai out to all her friends and family at New Year, my Po Po used to be famous for the joong she gave away at New Year's time.   Even if I went to the market to buy some joong to add to the meal, it would never be as good as my Po Po's was.   It is something that I miss every year since she's been gone.
Chinese New Year's Dinner 2010
In actuality, like the 12 days of Christmas, Chinese New Year is supposed to last 15 days.   It begins with New Year's Day and ends with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day, and every day in between is supposed to be celebrated with different foods (the 3rd day is supposed to be feast of fruits), but like Christmas in our modern world, it is just too difficult to celebrate more than one day.   But with everything Aunty cooks, we have leftovers for days anyway, and more importantly we keep our Chinese traditions alive.   It is one of my favorite holidays and I think my Po Po is happy to see her great grandsons ringing the bell for her and starting to enjoy the same foods she used to cook.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Gung Hee Fat Choy - Part II: A Day of Harmony

Of all of the major holidays, Chinese New Year is probably the busiest of all for me.   There are so many traditions to observe, and things to prep for that, Christmas shopping seems like a breeze in comparison.  Despite Valentine's Day, President's Day, and Mardi Gras all being on the same 3 day weekend this year, greeting the new year majorly took precedence over all of them.

Of course preparation for Chinese New Year begins way before New Year's itself, and we each have our designated roles.   My wife is a veteran narcissus bulb carver, with her own set of specialized narcissus carving tools.  She's never done anything really fancy, like getting it to grow into the shape of a duck or a teapot, but her flowers always come beautifully curly and bloom evenly and brightly by the new year.  As for myself, as a graduate of Hoo Cho Chinese School in my youth, I'm the family's resident calligrapher.  So a week before New Year's I get started writing a dui leen, or the red paper blessings.  You will find these 4 word couplets (like the words Gung Hee Fat Choy) hanging in a pair or two pairs in just about every Chinese home and business on the island.  They express all the good wishes that a family or business would want to receive for the coming year, such as prosperity and wealth, good health, longevity, posterity and many good children, good luck, and a plethora of other wishes.   The words Gung Hee Fat Choy themselves, such a common greeting in the islands at this time, don't actually mean "Happy New Year" (that's more directly translated as "Sun Neen Fai Lock"), but rather are a wish for prosperity, wealth, and happiness.  It always amused me to think that the Vulcans might've been Chinese, because the Vulcan salute, "Live Long and Prosper", is so easily translatable into one of these couplets ("Cheong Fook Cheong Sau").  While these couplets usually stay up all year long, every new year, fresh ones should be put up and the old ones burned (to give thanks for having recieved the blessings over the last year).   So I usually spend the week leading up to new years, writing like mad for all my family's houses and businesses.
4 Couplets in Chinese Calligraphy (left to right):
May 1 investment yields 10,000 returns
May your house fill with gold and jade
May you be as strong as a dragon and healthy as a horse
May the flowers be beautiful and the moon be round (ie. May all be right with the world)

Other things that must be done before the new year include things like:
  • Getting your haircut (along with cutting your fingernails and shaving).  Barbershops in Hawaii enjoy a small rush before Chinese New Year, as my own stylist noted as she was cutting my hair. 
  • Paying off all debts.   Aside of major things like mortgages, we always try to have all debts paid off by New Years.
  • Cleaning the house.    This one is the biggie.  My wife complains that I turn into an obsessive fanatical cleaning maniac just before new years (although recently she's complained that I'm not that way the rest of the year).  But for me, it is sort of spring cleaning on speed.  Of particular importance is sweeping the floor and cleaning the kitchen.  My desk is usually such a mess the rest of the year I can't find anything, but on New Year's day, it will be spotless.   Not mention scrubbing the bathrooms, vacuuming the floor, dusting all the surfaces, etc.   I've recently discovered how much more difficult this task is with children, who have toys covering every inch of your house, and no where to really put them "away".  When I'm done, I'm completely exhausted, but I feel primed and ready to seize the new year.   There was one year that I spent Chinese New Year working in Guam, and I didn't get a chance to clean the house at all.   That year, I felt completely hapless, like walking into a final exam when you skipped out of every class and didn't bother to crack open the book at all.  Having a clean house is just essential.
On the night before the New Year (ie. Chinese New Year's Eve), we always take a bath with the leaves of the boh look tree, freshly cut from our garden.   The boh look (or pomelo fruit) is usually associated with Mid-Autumn Festival, but it also symbolizes purity, so taking a bath with the leaves of this tree floating in the water is meant to cleanse away the tribulations of the past year.  Besides, it is such a relaxing and surreal feeling to have these slightly fragrant green leaves floating around you.   After the bath, my mom would give us a small li see (those lucky red envelopes), to put at the foot of our beds, along with a tangerine to sleep with.   The tangerine, is also symbolic, because the sound of the word for tangerine "gut", is a homonym which sounds like the word for prosperity.  So a tangerine or orange at the foot of the bed, along with some li see beneath it, is symbolic of a prosperous new year.   The stack looks kind of similar to the kagami mochi and orange stack that the Japanese display at regular New Year's Day.   The only tricky part is being careful not to kick the tangerine from your bed while you sleep (it's much easier to sleep with a tooth beneath your pillow).
My Son Sleeping with Li See and a Tangerine
On Christmas morning, children race out of bed to tear into their presents beneath the tree.  On Chinese New Year morning it's sort of the opposite.  The first thing children do is very formally wish their parents a happy new year, and to have good health and longevity ("Sun Neen Fai Lock.   Sun Tai Ging Hong.").  Children always go first, to give respect to their elders.   Parents will then tell the kids all the good things they hope the kids will accomplish, learn, and experience this year.   Along with those wishes comes another li see (this time with a little more money in it), as a gift for good luck and good fortune.   Li See is actually given from any older married person, to any younger unmarried person.   So when I was in grad school, all the Chinese students teased our older, married, classmate (who was only a few years older), asking for li see at Chinese New Year.  But getting a li see is always about the good fortune being passed on, not about the money, and about the respect for the one giving it.

Chinese New Year's Day has it's own set of rules to follow:
  • Don't wash your hair.   This will wash out all the good luck you've received at the coming of the new year.  Besides, you should've had your hair cut already in your holiday preparations.
  • Don't sweep the ground.  This will also sweep out all of the good fortune you've received.  Besides that, everything should already be spotless with all the cleaning you've been doing this past week.
  • Don't cut anything with a knife.   You don't want to be cutting the relationships between you and your loved ones.
  • In fact, you really shouldn't be cooking or cleaning at all on New Year's Day.  All of that should be finished before New Year's. 
  • You should wear new clothes.  Whenever my mom gives me any clothes for Christmas, I always save one set to wear on Chinese New Year, not so far away.   Preferably you should be wearing red, as that's the color of happiness (just like the green you'd wear on St. Patrick's Day, or the orange and black you wear at Halloween). 
  • Hopefully the narcissus will bloom on New Year's Day, as it will bring in extra prosperity that year.
  • Shopkeepers must make a sale to the first customer in their store.  So this is actually a great time to try barganing with them, because they won't let you walk away.
  • Anything you do that day, you'll be doing for the rest of the year, so you generally want to be doing something fun or something productive.
  • Above all, don't argue with your family that day.   You don't want to strain your family relationships on that day, and you certainly don't want to be arguing with them all year long.   It's kind of like not pouting or Santa won't bring you gifts, but with a lot more dire consequences.  
It's funny, there are so many ways to jeopardize the good fortune you receive on New Year's.  Basically, it's supposed to be just a nice peaceful, harmonious day, where you avoid any kind of conflict.    These are really old Cantonese superstitions, and people from other parts of China may or may not observe them.   In fact, there is variance from family to family, but this is what my own Goong Goong and Po Po observed. 

Other Chinese families may have a big Chinese dinner, but because my mom's family was Buddhist, New Year's Day was always a strictly vegetarian day for us.  This goes along with the spirit of the day being free from conflicts or harm to others.  When I was little, this never bothered me so much, as what I wound up eating was peanut butter over hot rice (something my Po Po used to love).  To this day, I love eating peanut butter and rice, as it reminds me of my childhood and my time with her.   These days, I am famously not fond of vegetarianism, as promoted by granola crunching crowd, but this is an entirely different story.  Besides not wanting to rock my karmac balance, the vegetarian food that we get to eat on New Year's Day, is my mom's awesome jai.
My Mom's Jai
Good jai may be the single most complex dish in the entire Chinese culinary repetoire.  However, I've never found any restaurant that serves the kind of jai that my mom makes.  Restaurant jai is relatively simple in flavors and ingredients.  There is really no way that they could afford to serve homemade style jai, which on average has around 30 different ingredients.   Not only are there many, many ingredients, but many of them are exotic vegetables that you've hardly ever heard of, and probably only ever eat at new year's time.  There are the more common like dong gu (or shiitake mushrooms) which are incredibly plump and meaty, lotus root (or hasu), which is just perfectly crunchy, won bok (napa cabbage), and baby corns.  There are also many more exotic vegetables, like fat choy (which is a seaweed that looks exactly like strands of black hair), mook yee (or wood ear fungus, which looks like a big floppy elephant's ear), and gum jun (or golden lily buds).   There are so many forms of bean curds, each with a totally different texture, like fried tofu or wu jook (the flat wrinkled sheets of bean curd you usually see as a bed below your dim sum).  There are also many other ingredients, with only Chinese names, that I'm really unfamiliar with.   And everything is held together with a base flavor of bat gock (star anise) and different kinds of tofu mui (fermented bean paste), both of which give the dish a really old Chinese flavor.
My Mom's Army Pot of Jai
My mom actually originally learned how to make jai from the famous local author/chef June Tong (who wrote PoPo's Kitchen), who is a good family friend.  But over the years, my mom has naturally modified the recipe, and it has evolved into something uniquely hers.   These days, she cooks an actual army pot worth of jai, to give away to friends and family just before New Year's.   What really amazes me about her jai, is how there are so many different flavors and textures, and yet everything works together so harmoniously.  There are crunchy things, there are soft things, there are jelly like things, there are meaty things, and yet they don't real clash with each other.   That's really difficult to do, with less than a dozen ingredients, much less with 3 times that many. But it all works, and it's all incredibly delicious.  Although, I do like picking through my jai to try to taste each thing individually sometimes.  My favorite is the mook yee (or wood ear), with its big floppy form yet crunchy texture.
My Best Friend's Aunty's Jai
Every Chinese family has their own recipe for jai.   With that many ingredients, every family's jai tastes very different.  My best friend's aunty also always gives me some every year, and I always adore her jai.   She uses different ingredients from my mom.  Many of which are a little more recognizable like snow peas, carrot medallions (which are meant to look like gold coins), 3 or 4 different types of mushrooms, and water chestnuts.   Even the base flavoring is different, which almost reminds me of a peanut buttery taste.   I would tend to go back and forth, year to year, deciding which jai I liked better for that year.  Both are equally complex, and equally delicious.  If there were one big difference, I would say that my mom's has a much older Cantonese flavor, the flavors that remind me of my Po Po and really old style cooking, whereas my best friend's aunty's is a much more modern classic Hong Kong taste.

Many Chinese families, my best friend's included, will often put hou see (or dried oyster) in their jai for flavoring.   This seems always seems appropriate for New Year's, as hou see is another homonym, which sounds like the words for "good news" (something you naturally want in the New Year).   Of course, this however makes the jai, no longer vegetarian.  True monks would never eat oysters (or any meat), in their jai.  If you want to taste the truest jai, then you really need to go to a Buddhist temple and try what the monks themselves eat.   Not many people know about it, but Hsu Yun Temple, tucked away in Nuuanu, always serves jai to anyone that visits the temple for free on Chinese New Year's.  It's on a first come first serve basis and they usually run out way before noon.  But their jai is absolutely fantastic, as you would expect it to be since this the kind of food the monks actually eat, and they have naturally perfected their vegetarianism over thousands of years.  Aside of that, Hsu Yun Temple is one of the biggest, most beautiful, most secluded temples in Hawaii, rivaling Byodo-Inn, and it is where my mom's parents (my Po Po and Goong Goong) have their name placards.   So my family visits the temple every New Year to visit them, and to try the monks' awesome jai.

I have spoken to many friends from mainland China, who are really surprised that we adhere to all of these traditions for Chinese New Year.   In China's modern society, they often don't even practice many of these things anymore.  However, living in Hawaii, our Chinese community has always tried to preserve and keep the traditions alive, sometimes much moreso than the Chinese in China.  For me, it makes Chinese New Year one of the most special days of the year.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gung Hee Fat Choy - Part I: Nights in Chinatown

Being Chinese, Chinese New Year is a really big holiday for my family.   It's actually on par with Christmas in scope and importance.   Just as the Christmas season really kicks into gear after Thanksgiving, with a solid month of music, sales and parties prior to Christmas Day, Chinese New Year starts getting underway shortly after regular New Year's Day.  The Chinese community in Hawaii swells with pride, sharing its food and culture with all of our neighbors.
Rows of Narcissus Bulbs in the Sun
The first thing that many Chinese families do after Christmas is head to Chinatown to buy narcissus (or sui seen fa) bulbs.  While in the Western world, the narcissus is synonymous with vanity as derived from Greek mythology, in Chinese mythlology the narcissus flower (which resembles a little cup of gold) was said to bring wealth and prosperity to those who found it.  So it is heavily cultivated at Chinese New Year's time, for its delicate, sweet fragrance, beauty, and as a symbol of wealth for the coming year.   Narcissus bulbs (which are similar to onions) can even be carved to grow into elaborate and intricate shapes, something which has evolved into a classic Chinese art form.   It takes roughly a month to grow from bulb to blossom, and seeing the rows of little sprouting bulbs in water filled bowls bathing in the sunlight on my Po Po's steps always used to put me into the mood for Chinese New Years (the same way that Christmas music starts putting you in the Christmas spirit).  If the narcissus flowers would bloom on Chinese New Year's day, it would be extra lucky, and a sure sign of coming wealth in the new year.
My Baby Boy's First Whiff of Narcissus
The positive connotation of the narcissus flower (which is completely opposite of the Western connotation) also lends its name to the biggest Chinese celebration in Hawaii, the Narcissus Festival.   It was originally conceived following World War II as a way to re-invigorate the economy the post-war economy by showcasing and celebrating the Chinese culture.  The selection of the new Narcissus Queen, always seems like the big kickoff to the Chinese New Year celebration in Hawaii.  While other big Chinese communities around the world may have a Miss Chinatown pageant (as do we), the Narcissus pageant is very different from any other beauty pageant.  All of the contestants in the pageant receive very rigorous training, with over a dozen different classes in different aspects of Chinese culture and history.  Not only does the queen and court represent the Chinese community in many official functions around town throughout the year, but she also spends 3 weeks in China, meeting with governors and other heads of state as a cultural ambassador.   Feminists may scorn the beauty pageants on the mainland, which they think objectifies women, but the Narcissus contestants are always very highly educated, dynamic, strong willed women who are interested in reconnecting with their Chinese heritage and representing the Chinese community in Hawaii.   It is the very feminist ideal, and no wonder that many of these women become leaders in their respective fields and the community.

The festivities begin with the pageant itself, where you won't find them dressed in swimsuits, but a classy and elegant Chinese cheong sams (which can cost around $1,000 a piece when adorned with Austrian crystals).  Then in a week or two, the Coronation Ball, the most formal event of the year (the only time of the year we'd wear tuxedos instead of aloha shirts), where the newly crowned queen dances her first dance with the Governor of Hawaii or the Mayor of Honolulu.   Then in the next couple of weeks, the queen and court  appear all over Chinatown as the streets are all coned off and turned into a huge party.

I love going to Chinatown on the weekend nights leading up to Chinese New Year.  Sure, it's nearly impossible to find parking anywhere near Chinatown, and sure it's literally wall to wall people (something akin to Time's Square in New York on New Year's Eve), but being there always makes me feel like part of something bigger, like I'm connected to all of these people celebrating their heritage.   It always reminds me of those old movies, where the hero gets chased into Chinatown, and it just happens to be Chinese New Year, so the hero can slip away into the sea of people or hide under the dragon dancers, and is able to escape the villan (or vice versa).   With the amount of people in Chinatown on these nights, it's actually quite believable for Hollywood. 
My Son Feeding the Lions
Of course, visiting Chinatown at New Year's means lion dances.   It's nearly impossible to turn a corner without running into a lion dance.  They're more plentiful than Starbucks.   Every shop owner needs to have a lion dance come to bring good luck and prosperity for the new year.   As a Cantonese person, I'm naturally far more partial to the colorful, kinda scary looking, Southern lions, rather than the Northern lions which look like big shaggy yellow dogs balancing on balls (although I do love that segment in Big Bird in China, where Barkley gets to prance around with 2 Northern lions).   I also like the far more acrobatic and difficult lion dance to the long spectacle of the dragon dance (although dragons dances are becoming more common here than they were when I was a kid).  In addition to bringing prosperity to a shop keeper, luck and prosperity for the coming year may be bestowed upon an individual if he feeds the lion (usually a dollar).  So finding and feeding the lions is a must every year.
Tong Goh on Display at Sing Cheong Yuan
My favorite part about Chinese New Year though, is of course the many foods that are associated with New Years.  As you wander through Chinatown in the weekends leading up to New Years, there are certain foods that are simply must haves, both in terms of tradition and good fortune.   Missing them would be like Thanksgiving without turkey or Christmas without egg nog.  The first big stop just has to be Sing Cheong Yuan for some tong goh (or dried candied fruits).   At Moon Festival time, Sing Cheong Yuan is the king of mooncakes, but at Chinese New Years, their display cases are filled with every type of tong goh imagineable.   While in Hawaii, rock salt plums and cherries are everyday snacks, the slightly sugared, dried fruits in tong goh are usually only eaten at New Years.  Our tong goh is also different from the ones found in other Chinese communities, as it showcases many of our local tropical fruits.   In any given box, you'll find, pineapple, coconut, mango, and papaya, along with carrot, lotus seed, lotus root (hasu), kumquat, apple, pear, ginger, and many others.  Each fruit symbolizes something different for the new year, including, wealth and prosperity, good health and longevity, good luck, fertility, familiy unity, and overall happiness.   My favorite has always been the pineapple, as it's deliciously sweet (lacking the tartness of fresh pineapple), it symbolizes wealth (resembling a giant golden Chinese coin with the whole in the middle), and it's the favorite of Professor Horace Slughorn (Harry Potter's last potions master).
Assorted Tong Goh from Sing Cheong Yuan
As you wander up Maunakea Street, and into the Chinese Cultural Plaza, perhaps the most popular snack item that everyone's crazy for at New Year's time, is jin dui.  Similar to Japanese an dango, it's basically mochi, filled with black sugar, deep fried and rolled in sesame seeds.   I always love watching the various Chinese clubs and civic organizations gather all their members to roll, fry, and sell jin dui for fundraising.  They use the biggest woks I've ever seen in my life to fry up huge batches of jin dui, which sell out in no time to the massive crowd.  Just like buying malasadas at Punahou Carnival, everyone wants jin dui at Chinese New Year, because you can never get it nearly as fresh and hot any other time of the year.  Coming straight from the wok right before your eyes, the jin dui is crispy, chewy, sweet, and mouthwatering.  Of course, you absolutely must eat it there, because not only is the noisy crowded streets of Chinatown the essential atmosphere for consuming these yummy morsels, but they will become soggy and cold in half an hour.  So having them fresh and hot is absolutely essential to enjoying them.   Like many great foods, its the contrast in textures that makes jin dui so appealing.   Normally mochi is so soft and sticky, but when you deep fry it the outside is wonderfully crispy and contrasts the gooey inside.  It's no wonder that everyone has to have one right out of the giant wok.
Big Box of Jin Dui
While jin dui is the dominant street food however, the most important food of all at New Year's is another form of mochi, gao.   Despite being a Cantonese dish, for some reason everyone in Hawaii knows it by the Mandarin pronounciation of "gao", rather than the true Cantonese pronounciation, "gou" (or rather neen gou, meaning yearly pudding).  This is somewhat ironic, because in Northern China, the form of gao they have is white and salty, rather than brown and sweet, and virtually unrecognizable to us as gao.  But in Hawaii, we're all familiar with the soft, sticky brown sugar mochi we call gao.     Like all the other New Year's dishes, gao is highly symbolic of New Year's wishes.   The stickiness of the gao, is supposed to bind and hold the family together during the new year.   The little sesame seeds on top are meant to represent having many little children.   The single red date, placed like a cherry on top, symbolizes prosperity and happiness.   Even its name, gou is homonymn for the word for "higher", so eating it is supposed to raise yourself up in the coming year.  Having gao is as essential to Chinese New Year, as kagami mochi (the stack of round white mochi topped with an orange) is for the Japanese at regular New Year.
Rows of Gao
Of course no one makes gao the way that my Po Po used to make it.    For one thing, she would make it Hawaiian style, lining the pan with ti leaves (the same way that lau lau is wrapped in ti leaves).   But what made hers the best was the texture.  Many gao you find on the market are just too sticky and gooey.  Some are the opposite, and when it is too firm it has a chalky, stale taste, like sinking your teeth into hard wax.   My Po Po's gao was the perfect texture.  Sticky yet firm enough to hold its shape when cut.  It was sweet, but not overpoweringly so, as Chinese deserts are never as sweet as Western ones.  No other gao I've ever tasted has ever been as good.   Even leftover old gao can be made appetizing once more, by dipping it in egg and frying it as the Hong Kongese do.   Frying piece of old gao makes the center soft again, and the outside gets crispy, not unlike a good jin dui.   It's something you just can't get enough of when done right.
Hawaiian Style Gao with Ti Leaf Lining
Every year, despite the crowds, we just have to make the trek into Chinatown to join the festivity.  You never feel more happy and proud to be Chinese.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


While we do have a significant number of Mexican restaurants, other Hispanic cuisines aren't so readily represented here in the islands.   In particular, I really have no inkling what South American cuisine is like.   I have naturally always assumed that the cuisine would be very similar to Mexican food, but this is a huge fallacy. French food and Italian food have next to nothing in common.   Chinese food and Japanese food are just as dissimilar.   In fact, I really hate the term "Asian".  At least when we were called "Oriental", there was some exotic, mystical appeal to it.   But, when I'm on the mainland and they call me "Asian American", I always feel like, "Chinese and Japanese are so different, what you cannot even tell us apart??".  I would much rather be called, "local Chinese", or more simply "Pake" will do.   It really annoys the hell out of me.   So by the same token, thinking that all the Latin American cultures are the same does them the same discourtesy.  Unfortunately, since they have very little representation here in the islands, we don't really get the opportunity to explore and get acquainted with their various cultures.

While there are few South American restaurants, we cannot say that they have had no influence in our culture.   In fact, it was gauchos and Mexican vaqueros, who came over to train our local paniolos when cattle was first introduced to the islands.   Because of this, the paniolo methods and tools are very still more similar to the gauchos than to the cowboys of Texas.  Because of their excellent training, the original paniolos (like Ikua Purdy) would consistently out-rope the Texas boys in competition (something they don't like to talk about). 

Fittingly enough, when the Ward 16 complex first finished construction, we had a restaurant called Gaucho Grill.  Like Compadres, it was actually part of a small California chain.  Unfortunately, also like Compadres, most of that chain has closed including the one at Ward.   But for a while we had the opportunity to enjoy Argentina style asado in our own backyard.   Of course, being part of a California based chain, I always questioned the authenticity of the Argentine flavor.  But then again, being steak, it isn't exactly a complex dish.  I'm pretty sure the steak itself was not imported from Argentina, so that leaves only the seasonings to convey the true Argentine flavor.  When I visited Gaucho Grill, the skirt steak that I had was as tender and juicy as expected.   But I was a litlte disappointed in flavors weren't all that distinguishable from any other Western style steak place.   For the most part, steak stands on its own, and unless you're doing teppanyaki, the beef flavor doesn't change all that much.   Of course Argentina is famous for its vast quantities of flayed carcasses being grilled over open flame, so the skirt steak was probably representative, if not entirely accurately, of their cuisine.   When I think of gaucho cuisine though, I just can't help but think of Goofy describing gaucho lifestyle in his 1942 short, El Gaucho Goofy, a segment from the Disney classic Saludos Amigos.   With bread and meat protruding from each side of his hand, and naught but a knife in the other to eat with (1-2-bite-cut-chew), Goofy simultaneously conveyed both humor as well as the mouthwatering nature of the food.  To me, that will always be what Argentine cuisine is all about.

The only other major South American cuisine that we had in the islands, was in the form of a Brazilian barbecue, otherwise known as a churrascaria.   If you've never been to a churrascaria, it is basically a buffet, where a never ending line of waiters come to you with huge rapier like skewers loaded with meat.  They slide you off a piece or cut you off a portion to enjoy until the next waiter comes along with the next type of meat.  It's a huge meatfest, with different cuts of steaks, chicken, sausages, pork, and lamb, enough meat to gorge any voracious carnivore.  You're left feeling really heavy, stuffed full of meat, meat, and more meat.   In Hawaii, this meatopia could be found in McCully Shopping Center, at a place called Tudo de Bon.

Tudo de Bon was brightly lit and clean, but not really adorned with Brazilian decor.   Instead, they focused letting the food convey the authenticity.  Going to the bar for the side dishes, the most unusual (and very Brazilian) thing they had was a ground up powder called farofa, that you would sprinkle on your rice or dip your meat into.   To me the farofa didn't really add much flavor, so much as a powdery, mealy texture which to be perfecty honest I didn't really care for.   But it was the most authentically , and uniquely Brazilian thing that they offered.   The rest of the bar included various pastas and salads, which may or may not have been really Brazilian, but certainly weren't as memorable.   Of course the most memorable thing at Tudo de Bon was the meat.   There was tons of it.   Like the skirt steak at Gaucho Grill, I really didn't taste seasonings that really differentiated it from any other grilled meat, but it was all very succulent and tasty.   I tried to find similarities to Mexican food, but there really weren't any in any of the spices.   I tried to find similarities to our local Portuguese food, knowing how big an influence the Portuguese had in Brazil, but the closest thing they had were sausages that were similiar but not really the same as our own Portuguese sausage.  They really just grilled it to bring out the natural flavors of the meat itself.   While they had so many different types of steak, it was really the chicken drumettes, the sausages, and when they had it the bacon wrapped turkey that I liked the best.  After eating sirloin (picanha) tri tip, ribeye, filet mignon, and even lamb, all the red meats kind of blur together.   But it was a great experience just to have them bring everything by on those huge skewers.   The only problem was that they were really slow.   Whenever we went, it seemed like they only had one waiter (who actually bore a striking resembalance to Sylvester Stallone) going back and forth with different skewers.  I think it was this lack of proficiency in running an efficient restaurant that lead to their closing.  Sadly, they took with them our only window into Brazilian cuisine.

Latin America has never been really high on my travel list, so I don't know that I'll ever taste the truly authentic cuisines of this region.   But, the absense of Gaucho Grill and Tudo de Bon did leave me curious for more. If only my Brazilian friend, Simone, knew how to cook, I'd be all set.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's a Wrap!

Burritos have always been traditionally Mexican, but since the 80's, people have been trying to wrap all kinds of things in a big flour tortilla. People wrap up cold cuts and cheese to make a pseudo-sandwich.   People wrap up salads.   These days McDonald's and KFC even offer snack wraps that have hamburgers or fried chicken in them.   Ever since the trendy low-carb diet craze, people have been substituting tortillas for buns and trying capitolize on the wrap craze.   But only certain places do it well.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
The traditional predecessor to a wrap is of course the burrito.   So named for the way the farmers would bundle their wares on their "little donkeys", or from the backs of which they would sell food from (like lunchwagons from the 1800s), burritos in Mexico are considerably smaller than the mammoth purses in the U.S.. There is some debate about what distinguishes a burrito from a soft taco, but the general consensus is that a burrito is a little larger, may feature more ingredients, but most characteristically the way that it is wrapped.  Tightly tucked in on both ends and rolled like a sleeping bag, burritos are much less messy than a loosely folded or cigar rolled soft taco.  It is this tight wrapping technique that distinguishes the best burritos or wraps.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
There are quite a few Mexican places on the island, each with their own burrito offerings.   However, while places like Maui Tacos, go for the wet approach of making a huge, plate-sized, overstuffed burritos, swimming in Mexican red sauce, this approach, which really requires a knife and fork, is not extremely condusive to the portability that has made wraps so popular.  For me, the best wrapped burrito on the island can be found at a little place called BC Burrito on Waialae by Koko Head.  For one thing, the tortillas they use are more fun and colorful than most places, with flavors like spinach (for a pretty green burrito), jalapeno & cheese, and tomato & chipotle.   Not only do they add flavor, but the texture is a little softer, more doughy, more elastic, and a little more sticky than the traditional flour or corn tortillas.   The result is a very tightly bundled wrap that retains strong cohesiveness and does not fall apart while you're eating it.   For an addtional level of structural integrity, they wrap your burrito in  aluminum foil, which you can peel off, one circle at a time, exposing only what you're going to eat while the rest of the foil continues to hold everything together.  This tight cohesion not only enhances portability, but compresses the ingredients together into a much more unified food item, rather than just a hodge podge of separate flavors.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
BC Burrito uses their excellent wrapping technique to envelope just an entire Tex Mex meal into a single handheld monstrosity.  While their Super burrito is more than large enough to feed any really hungry sane individual, I opted to try their enormous Gutbuster burrito.  This gargantuan thing is as long as my forearm, and thick as the thickest part of a wine bottle or softball bat.  It is also extremely packed with rice, meat (their carnitas have a wonderful smokey taste), cheese, sour cream and guacamole, and salsa (of which my favorite is a very tasty chipotle & corn mixture).  It is so tightly packed with stuff, that just holding it you can feel the incredible weight of all that food.  It's a bit much, even for me, and I left the place feeling as overstuffed as the burrito itself, but immensely satisfied and happy.

Potato Burrito from BC Burrito
The most original and tasty thing at BC Burrito however is departure from the traditional Tex Mex form.   It is their signature potato burrito, filled with seasoned potatoes, grilled onions, cheddar cheese, salsa,  and a nice creamy ranch.  Their potatoes are prefectly seasoned, diced and fried, and surprisingly full of flavor.  As my wife would say, they're full of potatoey goodness.  It really says something that my wife, who really despises Mexican food in general, likes their potato burrito.  They've replaced the Mexican flavor with something a little more universal.   But if you want to add that Mexican flavor back in, they've got a big bar with several dozen different exotic types of hot sauces.   Of course, the only hot sauce that truly has the authentic Mexican blend of flavors and spices, is Cholula (which they have in large quantities).  Add a little Cholula to anything and it tastes authentically Mexican, right?

The potato burrito is a great example of how wraps have evolved beyond the traditional Mexican burrito.  On the mainland, even Chinese food gets wrapped burrito style in something called moo shu pork, which is pork, julienne black mushrooms, maybe some bamboo shoot slivers, some egg, and hoisin sauce all rolled into a crepe.   In Hawaii, with all of our Chinese population being decended from Cantonese farmers, this dish is almost unheard of.  I, myself, had clue what this dish was the first time I went to the mainland, where it is a common "Chinese" menu item.  Luckily, I had experienced this dish once by the time Disney named their little dragon, Mooshu, so I could catch the reference in Mulan.  But I'm not sure that everyone here in Hawaii (or in China for that matter) did.  Regardless, it just goes to show how just about anything gets wrapped up these days.

Turkey Bacon Wrap from Salad Creations
Since the advent of the low carb diet, wraps have become very popular, especially salad wraps.  Now, I have never understood the point of low carb diets.  Supposedly, you can eat something as fatty as a hamburger (smothered in gravy even), but throw it on a bed of shredded cabbage instead of white rice or a bun, and suddenly it becomes healthy for you, and you can even lose weight by eating it?   Yeah right.  But I will say that salad wraps are tasty enough.   These days if we're craving a salad wrap, we head over to Salad Creations in Koko Marina.   They chop their salad, so the mixture of small chopped up pieces fits better in the wrap than other places where big leaves of lettuce in your wrap can get unruly and cause the whole thing to fall apart.   The other nice thing is that they add just enough dressing to bind the salad together within the wrap, adding a little more of that necessary cohesion.

My very favorite place to get different types of wraps on the island though, is sadly gone and way before it's time.  It was a little place in Manoa Marketplace called Pili Wraps Cafe.  They used to use tortillas that were very similar to the ones served at BC Burrito, resulting in the same tightly packed, cohesive goodness.   However, instead of filling those wraps with just Mexican flavors, Pili Wraps put all kinds of things in their wraps.   They used to make a chicken caeser salad wrap that would put Salad Creations to shame.  It had the full caesar flavor and crunch of a real salad, but tightly bound in handheld form.  They also made a terrific spicy Thai peanut sauce chicken wrap and an Indonesian chicken wrap that really captured the flavors of Southeast Asia.   But my favorite was always their Cajun chicken wrap.   Instead of the Mexican rice you would find in most burritos, this wrap had real Cajun dirty rice.   The chicken was perfectly tender grilled white meat chicken.  Everything was then smothered in a wonderful creamy, spicy Cajun sauce that actually had the right blend of spices.  Sinking your teeth into this warm soft wrap was a great combination of textures from the ever so slightly chewy doughy tortilla, to the tender meaty chicken, to the soft beads of rice.  It was warm and filling and utterly delicious.   I was very sad to see Pili Wraps close before they got the chance to establish a following and make some lasting memories.   BC Burrito may wrap the perfect burrito, but Pili Wraps used to dominate the non-Mexican wraps.

Wraps are still changing and evolving, but when people wrap them as expertly as BC Burrito or Pili Wraps, they should be more than just a passing food fad.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yo Quiero

I have a confession to make.   It is in fact, a deep, dark, dirty, shameful secret whose revelation will probably elicit scorn and shun.  It is a scandalous, obscene base desire that haunts me every time it manifests its mortifying grip on my being.  My credibility as a contributing adult, much less a serious food afficionado, walks a precarious line with this licentious information.  But the truth is, I love Taco Bell (or should I say, "Yo Quiero").

Taco Supremes & Burrito Surpreme from Taco Bell
I know, I know.  Taco Bell hardly even qualifies as real food, much less authentic Mexican cuisine, as pointed out in my favorite webcomic, "It's Walky!".    But just like it's eponymous star, Walky, I harbor a ravenous desire for its tasty food like substances, and wind up ordering half the menu every time I walk in.   The thing is, that growing up, Taco Bell really was my first and only exposure to Tex-Mex cuisine.   I never even knew that tacos were originally soft tortillas, not hard ones, until they introduced soft tacos to their menu.   While I despised (and still do) refried beans, the combination of ground beef, sour cream, cheese, lettuce, tomato and olive, was such an alluring mixture (which for a long time represented their entire menu in served in different forms and ratios).  I think it was the sour cream that really made the difference.  The other ingredients can easily be found atop any burger, but the "Mexican" seasonings playing against the sour cream was just unique and addictive as crack.   Despite having been exposed to more authentic Mexican cuisine, I still fondly and uncontrollably covet their guilty, pleasure inducing consumables.

I have, in the course of my life, been exposed to more authentic Mexican tacos and burritos.   In L.A., where I went to grad school, and in New York, where my sister did, taco trucks are as bountiful as our lunchwagons.  Like our lunchwagons, taco trucks are the cheapest, most authentic forms of the indigenous food available.   There is nothing like walking down the street at 1 AM, wearing leather jacket and gloves, with your breath visible in front of your face, and ordering a steaming tortilla, covered with savory carnitas and fresh salsa from the side of a truck.  It's warm and delicious, and as authentic an experience as you can hope for.

If you're not up for eating something from the back of a truck at 1 AM, there are small hole in the wall places you can go to, but they are somehow equally as seedy.  When visiting my pal, Jim, in San Francisco, he took me to a little place in the Mission District, on Mission and 19th, called Taqueria Cancun.   The Mission District is a bastion of the Hispanic community in San Francisco, but is also home to some of San Francisco's more "colorful" elements.   When visiting Taqueria Cancun, you must be prepared to walk past some unsound, unkept, vagrants who will swear and offer lewd comments to your mother.  Seriously. (Mom and I just ignored him.)  But that just adds to the authentic experience right?   Once inside, it feels like a colorful, safe haven, with the spicy aromas of the foods steaming up the glass partitions.   Of course it isn't truly authentic, unless you've got calves' brains (sesos) and cow tongue (lengua) as beef options, and some exotic Mexican fruit drinks (agua fresca) to accompany them.  If you're adventurous enough to actually wander through the Mission District, Taqueria Cancun is the real deal when it comes to Mission style burritos.

Back home in Hawaii, you'd be a little hard pressed to find a real taqueria that offers the authentic beef tongue or brains.  Since we don't have nearly the Hispanic population that California does, we might as well kick it island style instead.   For that, you can head over to the Queen Kaahumanu Shopping Center on the island of Maui (or right over to Kailua Village in Kailua), for some Maui Tacos.   The great thing about Maui Tacos, is that they know that they can't deliver the truly authentic Mexican tacos and burritos, so they don't even bother to try.   Instead they blend Mexican cuisine with some island flavors to give it our own unique spin.  For example, instead of truly authentic mouth watering carnitas, they offer mango bbq pork and they marinade many of their meats in pineapple juice.   The result is a much fruitier, sweeter, more tropical version of Mexican food, that really has a local flavor.

Mild End of the Salsa Bar at Maui Tacos
Probably the best thing about Maui Tacos is visisting their salsa bar.   They have a nice variety of about 6 different salsas, ranging from mild to hot (well not THAT hot, but hot enough), each with their own unique flavor.   One the mild end, their sweetness (or the tartness) of the tomatoes is really dominant (depending on how sweet or tart the original tomatoes were).   Sweet or tart, the freshness of the tomatoes is what really shines through.  They've also got a nice salsa verde (green salsa) in which you can taste the fresh tartness of the jalapenos.  

Hot End of the Salsa Bar at Maui Tacos
On the hotter end, their chipotle salsa is brightly sweetened by the infusion of mango.   Unfortunately, the sweetness kills all the nice smokiness (but not the heat) that chipotle normally brings.  It's a very different flavor than what you're expecting of chipotle.   Chipotle is also the hottest that they get, much less wandering into habanero territory.   But their best, most original salsa is their pineapple passion salsa.  It is instantly recognizable being bright yellow instead of green or red.  The pineapple gives such a refreshing, sweet taste, that it really brightens up whatever you pour it on.   For dipping and eating straight, none of their salsas can compare to the perfect blend of spice and fresheness of the singluar salsa that Torito's offers.  But Maui Tacos makes up for it in variety and originality, and it really compliments their food when pouring over thier tacos or burritos.

Chimichanga (with Mango BBQ Pork) from Maui Tacos
As the chimichanga is my favorite Mexican dish in general, I tried that first.    Rather than the very crunchy thicker tortilla you find at Torito's, the chimichanga at Maui Tacos has a lighter crispier shell.   All of the ingredients inside reflect the whole freshness that Maui Tacos has in general.   A nice change from those wretched refried beans at most Mexican restaurants, you can get whole black beans.  But they still aren't cooked long enough to have the nice uber creamy texture that cajun red beans and rice does.  The steak really has a flavorful char broiled taste to it.   But I did have to pour some of their salsa over it to liven it up.  In general, however, their chimichanga just isn't as good as the melty, savory, yumminess that is the one at Torito's.  Their approach, emphasizing the freshness of each individual ingredient, is solid but it doesn't compare to the flavorful blended harmony that Toritos' has.

Lahaina Burrito from Maui Tacos
Rather than a chimichanga or taco, the thing I liked best at Maui Tacos was their Lahaina burrito.   To me the best thing about the Lahaina is that it is stuffed with Mexican rice rather than beans.   Since I don't like beans to begin with, this is a huge bonus to me.  But also, the rice works really well with the tender savory mango bbq pork.  Additionally, the burrito being served "wet" (covered with Mexican red sauce) gives it the right flavor and moistness, that you don't need to add any more salsa.   This burrito is also seriously stuffed and a nice size for a good lunch.

The Signature Maui Taco from Maui Tacos
Maui Tacos is just about the opposite end of the spectrum from Taco Bell.   While one is a greasy pseudo-food item that feeds your junk food addiction, the other emphasizes freshenss of each individual ingredient.  Neither of them are authentically Mexican, as Taqueria Cancun, but the originality and tropical fruity flavors at Maui Tacos makes them stand out.   The only problem is that every time I go there, I keep thinking of those super annoying Bu La'ia radio commercials they used to run.  Somehow his slovenly, crass, unrefined demeanor is so contradictory to the fresh, tropical flavors that Maui Tacos offers.

I don't know that I'll ever get to walk down the street in Mexico city, and encounter a bubbling cauldron filled with assorted animal parts to be savored over a warm just handmade tortilla under a sprinkling of freshly chopped and mixed salsa.  Then again, at home, I'm comfortable knowing I'm not going to be spending the rest of the night riding the procelain express either.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Viva La Raza!

I spent my college years in the sprawling heat of Los Angeles, a city with a very strong Mexican influence.  I used to really enjoy going down Olivera St., listening to the mariachi bands and eating Mexican food.  But for all of the time that I spent in L.A., I still don't really feel that I know what authentic Mexican food really is.  Yes, I've eaten my fair share of Mexican food, but I've always felt like it was Tex-Mex.  Mexican food, as interpreted by or watered down for gringos.   Watching Anthony Bourdain only served to amplify this apprehension, because he has been so vehement about his love for "real" Mexican food and his dislike of "fake" Mexican food, like Chilis.   Have I only ever been exposed to the fake stuff?  Have I never tasted the true Mexican flavors?  Even I know that hard shell tacos, and anything slathered in sour cream or nacho cheese certainly isn't real Mexican food.   I want to know what Mexican food tastes like, if it were made by a grandmother in Puebla.  What I really need is a Mexican friend who would take me home for a family meal, to get the true flavors (of course the same goes for Filipino food and Indian food).   Until then, I'm stuck eating whatever the restaurants deem fit to serve, regardless of how authentic it is.

Hawaii does not have nearly the same level of Mexican influence that L.A. does.  Whereas on the mainland, it is really beneficial to have all the signs and instruction booklets in English and Spanish, in Hawaii it is much more practical to have them in English and Japanese.  However, my friend Marie at the Latin Business Association, would kick me if I said we had no Hispanic population whatsoever.   We certainly have a number of Mexican restaurants, but without a large Hispanic population, there really isn't anyone who would notice if they got it wrong.  Nevertheless, they certainly are popular enough. 

My favorite Mexican restaurant used to be Compadres in Ward Center.   They were always a little more upscale than any other Mexican restaurant, and were part of a California based chain (both things which always made me wonder if this wasn't more oriented towards gringos).  But their food was always fresh and tasty to me.  I particularly liked their taco fiesta platter for two, which gave you a nice warm stack of tortillas, some beef, some chicken, some pork, some cheese, some guacamole, some sour cream, some jalapenos, and a few different types of salsa, and let you build whatever combinations you wanted.  I think the variety of little dishes just appealed to me, as did the ability to assemble whatever I wanted.  But, was this really how families in Oaxaca eat?  Since our Compadres abruptly closed (as did most of the chain), I will never really have the chance to compare.   I've also needed to find a new place of my Mexican fix.    I know that Jose's on Koko Head has been around for a long time, but somehow they've never clicked for me.  Residents on the Aiea side certainly swear by Banditos, but it's a little far to go just for a burrito.  But I found a small little watering hole, right in Market City Shopping Center, called Torito's Mexican Food, that not only serves what I perceive to be authentic Mexican, but definitely some of the best Mexican food I've ever tasted.

Tortilla Chips & Salsa at Torito's
To begin with, instead of bread and butter, like any good Mexican restaurant they give you tortilla chips and salsa.   But this is not your ordinary bag of Tostitos and a bowl of Pace Picante.  The chips at Torito's have an extraordinary texture.  They're perfectly crisp, but do not any hint of oiliness to them.  They don't have all of the bumpiness and salt of a tostitos, and are overall thinner and lighter.  They have an amazing crunch for something so thin in fact.  They are so totally addictive, your hand just seems to pass them to your mouth on automatic.  But it is the salsa that, to me, is out of this world.  They only have one type, not a long bar like some other places, but with salsa this good, all you need is one.  Whereas Pace has the consistency of ketchup with some chunks of vegetables in it, the salsa at Torito's has the texture of finely minced fresh crisp tomatoes.  It's similar to the texture of the green onion and ginger that you get with good cold ginger chicken.  It's not so much a sauce as it is a relish.   Like good lomi lomi salmon, it is served nicely chilled, which conterbalances its spiciness.   To me, it is also the perfect blend of spiciness that doesn't overpower the fresh taste of the other vegetables in it. I have had a lot of different salsa, but the one at Torito's is my favorite.  Of course, if it isn't spicy enough for you, you can ask them for some of their special "hot" salsa.   It's a green salsa made with jalapeno peppers and habanero peppers (infamous for being on the very hot end of the Scoville scale).  It is so hot, it will be burning your tummy for the next 2 days.

Taquitos at Torito's
Once you've gotten past the chips and salsa, Torito's makes a mean taquito.  When I was little, the taquito was always my favorite Mexican dish.   I think it was because I didn't, and still don't, like the texture of refried beans.  While most places put refried beans in just about every dish, a taquito is just a cigar shaped roll of meat.   With just meat and nothing else, except a little guacamole or sour cream to dip in, and a shape that is just perfect for little hands to hold and little mouths to wrap around, it's no wonder I loved them as a kid.  The taquitos at Torito's are fantastic because, at a lot of places the taquitos are crispy on the ends but the middles get soggy with oil or soaking in guacamole.  At Torito's the taquitos are crunchy from end to end, but the meat is still juicy inside.  What more can you ask for?

Chimichanga at Torito's
As I grew older and learned to tolerate a little bit of refried beans, my favorite Mexican dish became the chimichanga.   I know, with the amount of sour cream and jack cheese on both my taquitos and my chimichanga, I'm really only wading into gringo fare.  I'm sure that no real Mexican grandmother from Veracruz would ever deep fry their burrito.  But they just taste so good, especially the one at Torito's.  I especially like my filled with carnitas or roasted pork.   In fact, Mexican carnitas aren't too dissimilar from kalua pig, except for a difference in seasoning.  Diving into layers of juicy pork, cheese, rice, guacamole, sour cream, and other goodies, my mind shuts down and I just never want to stop trancelike shovelling it into my face.  

Tacos Al Pastor at Torito's
As good as the standard Tex-Mex fare tastes, watching Bourdain made me really want to experience more authentic south of the border cuisine.  One of the most enticing things he ate was a specialty of Mexico City called tacos al pastor.   He said that they were so good, they became the preferred meal option for the entire crew for the entire trip (which really says something).  So imagine my surprise when I saw it on the menu at Torito's.   Just looking at them, you know you're geting something different from the usual ground beef, refried beans, sour cream, lettuce, jack cheese, tomatoes and olives that pretty much defines Tex Mex food.  This was a fresh, soft, tortilla that actually had a lot of corn flavor.  Atop was some tender, juicy sliced pork, topped with a superbly fresh salsa.   However, as delicious as it was, it was a little disappointing too.   My understanding was that tacos al pastor was a Mexican version of the meat that you get on a gyro or shwarma in Greek cuisine.  But the meat in the tacos al pastor was more similar to thinnly sliced pork chops, than it was like the super soft, super savory shavings of beef and lamb that you find in a gyro.   This was one dish that, albeit tasty, left me wanting something more.

Chicken Mole at Torito's
If there was one dish though, that I thought was truly authentic Mexican grandmother food, it would have be mole.  Mole is a spicy, chocolate based sauce that I first found out about reading a webcomic called Wapsi Square, whose lead character Monica is part Mexican.  The fact that I had never even heard of it before, lead me to the believe that this was something truly authentically Mexican.  For one thing, you hardly ever see it on the menu at a regular Tex Mex place.   For another, it is a spicy savory blend of chocolate and chilis.  For most of the country (or the world for that matter), we have a hard time thinking of chocolate as anything other than a sweet confection.   Therefore the idea of chocolate covered chicken seems kind of repugnant.  But originally, raw chocolate (which isn't sweet until you add sugar to it) was used by the Aztecs in the same way that chilis and other spices were.  So a savory spicy melange made with chocolate would be very uniquely and authentically Mexican.  When I first got to taste it at Torito's, I was really floored.  Although chocolate may seem familiar, and Mexican spices may seem familiar, the mole had a flavor that I had truly never experienced before.  It was at once firey and earthy.  The fragrance of the chocolate danced around all of these different heady, picante spices.  The chicken, while moist and tender, really was nothing more than a vehicle for this savory concoction (to call it a gravy or sauce seems almost degrading).  I had finally tasted something, I could thoroughly imagine a Mexican grandmother cooking for me.

Enchilada Plate at Torito's
Torito's has a number of other goodies that I have yet to try which are also classically Mexican.   They've got a fish ala veracruz.  I have always wondered what authentic Mexican seafood dishes taste like, and I'm not referring to the fish tacos you get at Taco Del Mar.  Veracruz is famous for being Mexico's seafood capitol.   Torito's has tamales, which are sort of a Mexican version of joong, and equally as beloved by its constituents.  I have never been a big fan of the masa (or corn meal) and corn husks that they use instead of rice and lotus leaf as in joong.  But then that may be because I've simply never tasted the authentic homemade thing.    They've also got huevos con chorizo (or a Mexican style eggs and sausage).   It's also something I've never tried authentically, although I understand that good chorizo is not too different from good Portuguese sausage.

Salsa at Torito's
I don't know that I'll truly ever be able to distingush the truly authentic Mexican cuisine from the gringofied Tex Mex that is so pervasive around the country.  While Torito's has their fair share of deep fried, sour cream, and jack cheese dishes, they also have things like tacos al pastor and mole, which may be as close as you can get in Hawaii.   I don't know that they're truly authentic, but I do know that they taste really, really good.