Saturday, September 12, 2009

Saimin: The Ultimate Comfort Food

If you ask anyone from Hawaii what their favorite comfort food is, there is a high probability that saimin will top their list.    Saimin is to us islanders, what mac and cheese is to mainlanders.    It is perhaps the single, most quintessential, make you feel right at home, relaxed, thinking back on simpler, happier times food there is to us.   And just like there is a world of difference between a $0.99 hamburger from McDonalds and a gourmet 80/20 ground sirloin you would find at a fine steakhouse, there is a huge range of quality when it comes to saimin too.  

Before we begin, let's get one thing completely straight.  True saimin is a dish that is completely unique to Hawaii.   It is NOT Japanese ramen.   Nor is it a Chinese tong mein.  Despite the cravings that we get as college kids for a good cheap pack of Sapporo Ichiban or Cup Noodles, they're not really the true saimin that we're thinking of.    Saimin is a Hawaii born dish, a sort of blending of the different noodle soup dishes from the different cultures that worked our sugar plantations; Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino.  They all kind of contributed to the pot and created something new and unique to these islands.   Saimin noodles are square cut, not round (like udon).   They're actually slightly curly, not entirely straight (like ramen).  The toppings that make a traditional bowl of saimin are also a blending of whatever each culture had on hand, Korean Won Bok (leftover from kim chee making), Chinese red rimmed char siu, Japanese kamaboko (the red and white fishcake), some eggs, green onion, and of course Hawaii's great love, Spam (leftover from our days as a warzone in World War II).  If you eat enough of the noodle soups from the various East Asian cultures, you can recognize the differences between each, and the unique blending that true saimin is.

As I mentioned before, Saimin comes in all different grades and quality.   At home, the gold standards for saimin are the fresh frozen (not dried) packs from S&S or Okahara.   If you're going out, it's on all the menus all over town, at carnival events, even at McDonalds (the first localized product McDonald's ever offered).   While I love eating a good Saimin and McTeri burger combo from McDonald's, and as much as I (like all other Hawaii kids) freaked out when I couldn't get it from McDonald's while at college on the mainland , it's not the everyday common saimin that I'm pursuing here.   The quest I'm on, is for the truest, most uniquely Hawaii, most classic form of tthe dish.    In other words... the perfect saimin.

The first saimin that I really truly loved was from a place called Tanouye's on Waialae Ave (currently the home of Super Pho).    My dad said that when he was in elementary school, Tanouye's was just a lunchwagon, and that he could buy a bowl of their saimin for just $0.25.   When I was a kid, he would take me there, and we'd have a table next to the stone wall which was up to table level.  Practically the whole wall above it was a giant window that they would open so you could watch people pass by on the street, while tucked away behind their willow tree.   It was the kind of feeling feeling you would get if you took a streetside cafe in Paris and dropped it into the middle of Kaimuki.  It was charming.  But it closed, and a number of restaurants have tried to take its place.

When Tanouye's closed, my quest for the ideal saimin was on.   We went all over town, trying different ones.   Some were too salty.  Some too watery.  Sometimes the noodles weren't right.  Some were variations thereof, and not the classic taste that I was hunting for.  Then, I found one that really fit the bill.   It was Washington Saimin, right on King Street just past McKinley High School.   Theirs was just wonderful.   The right kind of noodles, the right texture, the right flavor, the right broth, and such a cheap price too.   Okay the seats were a little too stiff (they were straight 90 degree angles, it was worse than a church pew), but who cared when the saimin was so good.   Whereas Tanouye's was a Japanese family, Washington was a Korean one, which again spoke to how true saimin was a blend of all of our cultures.   But again, sadly Washington Saimin closed a few years ago as well.

Here I was, again without a classic old style saimin that would be there to comfort me and warm me up when I needed it.   I already knew that the other contenders on island just weren't the same.   The thought was completely dismaying.  If I couldn't find anyone else in town that did it for me, and it was exclusively a Hawaii dish, would I never again taste the true saimin?   Was it going to be a memory I could never revist?  Thankfully, I found a new love...  it just so happened not to be on the same island.

X-Large Deluxe Saimin at Hamura's Saimin
I happened to be vacationing on Kauai with my sister and her friends, when they brought me to the place where I found not only my new favorite saimin, but one that frankly was better than I had ever had anywhere.  Period.   The place (as you may have figured out already),was, of course,  Hamura Saimin in Lihue, Kauai.  Just walk through the doors and you feel like you've been transported back to a Hawaii of 50 years ago.   There of course will be dozens of people waiting in line to get at seat at their one super long winding communal counter.   And when you finally order, you must get the biggest bowl of their super deluxe saimin with everything in it.   Of course, true saimin, must be accompanied by a yakitori chicken or beef stick on the side.   It would be like ordering a hamburger without fries.   And when you finally get your bowl, you taste all of the history and warm comforting grandma like cooking they put into each spoon.    The noodles are the perfect texture, something you can always tell from handmade, fresh (not frozen or dried) noodles.  The broth, doesn't taste like any ordinary shoyu or dashi based soup, it tastes like ha mai (you know those small dried shrimp) that's been boiled for hours to make the perfect stock.    Not spicy enough for you?  They've got some classic Hawaiian chili pepper water sitting there for you to kick it up.  Every spoon tastes like Heaven.   And when you're done you can top it off with their famous lilikoi pie.   This was like really like meeting the perfect woman and saying "where have you been all of my life??"

Okay... so I'm not going to fly over to Kauai just so I can have a bowl of saimin.   And yes, I still haven't found a saimin place on Oahu that I think can compare.   But just knowing that it's still there is comforting.   Knowing that this treasured piece of our history and culture is still alive somewhere is somehow enough.   Somehow the knowledge that it is still kept safe and hopefully won't be forever lost eases my tormented soul.   If ever Hamura's were to close, I think I would shed enough tears to fill their largest saimin bowl.   But for now.... for now I am happy and comforted.


  1. .....Saimin isn't from Hawaii. It's from a very small province in Japan. The province that most of the Japanese immigrants in Hawaii came from.

  2. No you're wrong. Saimin is a Hawaii dish. Even verified in the Wikipedia.

  3. how many times have you vacationed on kauai with your sister and her friends? guessing just the one time she made you "chaperone" why can't i remember going to eat this awesome saimin?!? drat, if i had remembered, i might not have eaten pho at Bale so many times during my honeymoon...

  4. Justin, have you ever tried Sun Noodle brand fresh Saimin? It's the one in the white bag labeled 'Hawaii's Original Saimin'. THE BEST. The noodles have a much better flavor and slightly thicker profile than S&S. I love S&S, but Sun Noodle's own brand has them beat, IMO.

    If you go to Maui, you also gotta' try the Dry Noodle, a.k.a. "Dry Mein" at Sam Sato's in Wailuku.

    Just like it sounds, it's saimin, but instead of the saimin noodles served IN the broth, the broth is served on the side. The noodles are lightly tossed in a hot pan with oyster sauce before service, which gives it this wonderful, subtle extra kick of flavor. The traditional garnish of charsiu, kamaboko and green onions are served on the noodles. It's really good!

    I tried Hamura's Saimin on Kauai, but honestly I wasn't impressed. I think the folks on Kauai rave about it so much only because they're the only game in town there.

    Here on Oahu we still have TONS of Saimin shops (Shiro's, Saimin House, Forty Niner Restaurant, Ethels just to name a few!), so each one here doesn't get nearly as much attention as Hamura's does. Must be nice to have a monopoly like that there on the garden isle!

  5. Ha ha. Never mind about Sam Sato's. I see you already visited them in your Maui post. My bad. I'll need to read through all your entries first before commenting. lol


  6. Hmmmm. Saying that I love saimin is an understatement. Here's my take on who had or has the best saimin in town. Till this day, no one has even come close to duplicating the broth at this joint. There are three things that I base my judgement on who has or had the best saimin stand in town. The broth, the noodles, and the BBQ stick. Hands down, it was Hall Saimin. A small 6-table stand located on the corner of Hall Street and N. King Street. There have been other stands over the years that have came close such as Tanouye's, Wong's Okazuya (Ala Moana Center), Palace Saimin, Kinau Saimin, Saimin House (the original one), and a little place on the corner of Vineyard Blvd. and Liliha Street (where Times Supermarket is now). I don't remember the name, but I do remember going there with my dad when I was a kid. My father was a true saimin connoisseur. He would always take us to these little "hole in the wall" saimin stands. I later found out that most of these saimin joints had one thing in common. They either got their saimin, soup base, udon, or all three items from a saimin factory known as Takahashi Noodle Factory. It was a small noodle factory located on N. King Street just a few doors down from where Hall Saimin once stood. Some of them would use Takahashi's soup base as the starter for their broth. Maybe Takahashi Noodle Factory should have opened their own saimin stand! What do you think? Nowadays, I just settle for Sekiya's saimin. No Hall, but it satisfies my craving.