Monday, September 21, 2009

Ode to the Okazu-ya

If the Chinese came to Hawaii and prospered, the Japanese came over and all but took over.   I mean seriously, Hawaii my be part of the United States politically, but culturally, I've always thought we were a subsidiary of Japan.   We take off our shoes when we enter our houses.   We eat with chopsticks much more than forks.  We run around saying things like "ah so desu ka!".   So it's no wonder that we tend to eat a lot of Japanese food as well.   We eat all kinds of Japanese food, from ramen to sushi, from bentos to izakaya.  And often times we take it and make it our own.   Traditional onigiri or musubi is a Japanese rice ball, but add a little spam, and you've got something so unmistakably Hawaii, that it's become almost synonymous with our cuisine.  Mac salad comes with every plate lunch in town, but the original Japanese form uses very little mayo, more miso, and has a much smoother richer consistency almost like mashed potatoes (the salad at Hanaki is a prime example of this style).

When you think of Japanese food that's very local Japanese, perhaps the oldest, most endearing form is the okazu-ya (or the Japanese delicatessen).  Yes, when you're in New York, the deli is a Jewish domain, filled with lox and bagels, knishes, and matzo balls.  But when you're in Hawaii, and we mention a delicatessen, the image immediately appears of the little old Japanese lady, with her white hair tied back with a palaka bandana, scooping out some rice for your bento.   Those little old ladies have been working behind the counter of those restaurants for almost all their lives, and when you see them, you instantly know that it's a mark of quality and expertise. 

There were so many old style okazu-ya's dotted all over town.   The first (and most famous) one that pops into mind will always be Wong's Okazu-ya in Ala Moana.   I always loved this place when I was a little kid, but somehow I remember having more noodles there than okazu-ya style food.   Even though it's gone, many of the old okazu-ya's still survive.   Whenever we're on the Windward side, I'm always checking to see if Megumi restaurant is open.  I know lots of people there like Masa & Joyce, but I always think of their food as more Hawaiian, and Megumi's as more Japanese.   Gulick Delicatessen moved from Guilick Ave. to King St. close by McCully, but believe me they still have the best furikake musubi's in town (they're very generous with the furikake, making the rice almost completely hidden).  Furuya's is good, but kinda pricier.   Even good ol Sekiya's has an okazuya section.    But if you were to ask me which is my absolute favorite okazu-ya, the answer would easily be St. Louis Delicatessen (right across form Chaminade University, next to St. Louis Drive Inn).  

Assortment from St. Louis Delicatessen

They have all the best stuff you can expect from an okazu-ya; maki sushi and cone sushi, musubis, Japanese style fried chicken and shoyu chicken, various types of tempura, nishime, shoyu hot dogs and teri hamburgers, potato hash and various croquettes, and all kinds of other little goodies.   Their tempura is the older style of tempura, not the modern flaky panko batter tempura, but kind that is more like andagi batter tempura.  This style, much more common in the 50's, is rarely seen these days.

Chow Fun at St. Louis Delicatessen

The real surprise though, is their incredible chow fun.   I mean, seriously, look at them. They look like plain white noodles, with a few shreds of carrot and green beans.   It looks like it would be completely bland. There's not even the hint of a shoyu color or oil.   But these noodles are amazingly flavorful.   It's not just salt.  They've got some Japanese seasonings that I can't even begin to break down.   But they're simply ono, and the star of any meal there.

Assortment from St. Louis Delicatessen

I'm not even sure if they have okazu-ya's in Japan ("okazu" is a side dish to accompany rice in Japanese, and "ya" is a store), or eateries specializing in these dishes.  But even if they do, like the spam musubi, through time they've really been adopted into our own culture.

1 comment:

  1. justin, you also gotta' check out Mastumoto's on Gulick. Their Chow Fun gives St. Louis Deli' chow funn a run for the money.

    Nuuanu has the best selection of a wide assortment of specialty fishcakes. Their Kabocha is also really good there.

    Don't forget Marujyu Market in Aiea. You'll find every ethnic dish on their spread on any given day. You can walk out with a Pastele, Gandule Rice, Pork Adobo, Pancit, Laulau and house-roasted Charsiu all on one plate!