Friday, October 30, 2009

Like Liquid Lau Lau

When you think of Hawaiian food, certain things are pretty common, kalua pig, lau lau, and poi for instance are pretty common place.   Others are a little less glamorous.   Pipikaula doesn't get much attention, because honestly it's hard to find good pipikaula that isn't too tough, dry and chewy.   But with our history as a seafaring port and our paniolo population, it should be no surprise that Hawaiians knew how to make really good beef jerky. You probably haven't heard too much about na'au stew, because it's stewed pig organs and people in America are a little squeamish about eating internal organs.  Even I can't really discuss it, because I'm not allowed to eat it (too gouty for me).  But one of my favorite Hawaiian foods that is a little off the radar is squid luau.   Squid luau isn't as mainstream simply because well, it doesn't look all that appetizing.  Kids on the mainland already have a hard time eating spinach because of how it looks (thus the spinach farmers enlisted Popeye to aid their cause), and because of its wetness, squid luau looks even less appetizing.  When I think of squid luau, I can't help but think of those old Fosters radio commercials where the Aussie guest mistakes the squid luau for dog food, and incurs the wrath of the angry blalah (which of course he soothes with a cold Fosters beer).

The first time I had squid luau was just out of high school (and you never forget your first time), when my hapa-Hawaiian friend got married.  Although he spent much of his childhood in Michigan, he came home and grew up here, even graduating from Kamehameha School.  His family is one of those really local, pidgin speaking, influential, old Hawaiian families from Waimanalo.   His dad is is one of the nicest, brawniest, most intelligent mokes you'll ever meet, with the really firm handshakes that just exude warmth amd aloha.   So it's no wonder that when he got married, they had a huge, really authentic luau, which to this day is some of the best Hawaiian food I ever remember eating.   The poi was nothing less than spectacular.  The perfect thick, smooth texture and strong taro flavor, absolutely nothing like the watered down junk you get in hotels these days.   The pipikaula I remember was so smokey and flavorful.  But nothing compared to the squid luau at the end of the line.    My first impression was that it was that it looked like a cousin of creamed spinach.   My second impression was that someone had liquified their lau lau.   But as I ate more of it, deep flavors began to emerge.  The strong squid flavor comes out first.   Then the super complex greenery of the taro leaf, which seems so much more pungent than in a regular lau lau.   The slight hint of sweetness from the coconut milk.  And the bright briney intensity of the Hawaiian salt just lights it all up in your mouth.   It's fantastic when done right.  

When Anthony Bourdain came to Hawaii, Lanai and Augie treated him to some home made beef luau.   When Andrew Zimmern came, he got to sample some 1st birthday he'e luau.   I'm not sure why one got beef and the other octopus, and neither got the more common squid, but watching them eat made me real ono for some myself.   So I set off to hunt down some good squid luau, like I remembered.   Since squid luau is a little less mainstream than kalua pig or lau lau though, it's also a little harder to find.  So I headed straight for my favorite Hawaiian food haunts, the "fish markets".   When a friend of mine was visiting from California he complained to me you just couldn't tell what a restaurant was from its name.  He would've assumed, for example, that Sam Choy's was a Chinese restaurant.  He had no idea what John Dominis or Keo's were.  Names that are so significant to us, were a just plain confusing to him.   So I can imagine that he would've been really dumbfounded, that 2 of my favorite Hawaiian food places, are called "fish markets".    Specifically, Yama's Fish Market and Young's Fish Market.

Yama's is the much younger of the 2 restaurants.   They opened in the 80's, but have since moved to take over where Iwase Books used to be, at the University end of Young Street.   Because of their proximity, they were always the placed we used to go to get Hawaiian food ever since I was in high school.   So they have sort of set the standard of what Hawaiian food tastes like to me.

Squid Luau from Yama's Fish Market
Yama's is one of the few places that pretty consistently carries squid luau.   Their squid luau is very homogenized.  It's almost a baby food mush consistency.  It's also a lighter green color.   Both of which I believe have to do with the greater proportion of coconut milk that they use.   The coconut milk taste is very strong, and almost overpowers the dish.  But eaten with rice, it makes a great dish.    Yama's also has lots of other good, if more modern, Hawaiian tastes.

Kalua Pig & Cabbage from Yama's Fish Market
Their kalua pig is decent.  But the addition of a little cabbage, makes the dish much more flavorful.  The cabbage adds necessary moisture to the kalua pig.   It also gives you a contrasting vegetable texture which works really well with the pork. 

Shoyu Chicken from Yama's Fish Market
Yama's shoyu chicken is also pretty good.  It's tender and tasty, where the skin just melts in your mouth as good shoyu chicken should.    The best part about eating shoyu chicken is always the bottom of your rice ball, where it has absorbed all of the sauce from the chicken.

Haupia & Sweet Potato Square from Yama's Fish Market
As far as Hawaiian deserts go, you really can't go wrong combining the classic tastes of haupia and purple Okinawan sweet potato.  It's a great way to top off a good Hawaiian lunch.

Young's Fish Market by contrast, is a much older Hawaiian establishment (though not quite as old as Helena's).   It was started in the '50s, and the flavors reflect a much more old school Hawaiian taste.   They are the flavors that my dad remembers from when he grew up.   They also have the advantage of being probably one of the most accessible Hawaiian places.   Ono's for all it's fame, has no parking and the lines always run out the door.   Yama's has some parking but has very little seating, so we often wind up going to Old Stadium Park to eat.    Young's on the other hand, being in City Square (where the old Gem's used to be), has a ton of parking.   It also has ample nice air conditioned seating, and a nice old Hawaiian atmosphere.  

Squid Luau from Young's Fish Market
The first thing you notice about the squid luau from Young's, is that it is a much darker green in color.   The second thing that you notice is that the textures in it a slightly more distinct.  The taro leaves are a little less like a consistent mush, and slightly more distinguishable as leaves.   The deep, earthy, green flavor of the taro leaves is also a bit stronger in Young's squid luau.   The real kicker though, is the large, much more intense, pieces of squid in their squid luau.   It's got a very strong squid taste, that reminds me of the dried & brushed with sesame oil squids that my Po Po used to make.   This would be much more distinguishable from the beef or he'e luaus.    The old school flavor from Young's also permeates all of their other dishes.

Kalua Pig Plate at Young's Fish Market
The kalua pig from Young's is nice and juicy, and very smokey.   But the real nice surprise is the pipikaula on that plate.  It isn't dry or tough at all.   It's one of the softest, most moist and flavorful beef jerkies I've tasted.   Their poi is a wonderful smooth texture.   Add to that a nice piece of Okinawan sweet potato and some fresh lomi salmon and you've got quite a meal.

Lau Lau Plate at Young's Fish Market
The lau lau at Young's is also quite good.   Again the taro leaves are more flavorful than at other places.  The pork inside is also more moist and tender.  And like a true good Hawaiian place, it includes a piece of butterfish inside with the pork to add much more flavor.

Beef Stew at Young's Fish Market
The beef stew at Young's is also fantastic.   It also has that old Hawaiian flavor to it.   The meat is incredibly soft.   I would say this beef stew is one of the few that even rivals the one at Fresh Catch (although I would still give Fresh Catch the edge). 

I grew up with Yama's flavor, but I think I would give the edge to the squid luau at Young's.  It has a better texture, and the flavors of the taro leaf and the squid are much more intense.  I can see why people would find squid luau unappetizing.  Just this morning as I was changing my baby's diaper, I couldn't help but notice how the color and consistency of his poop was just like squid luau.   But if you can get past that image, the favor is so wonderfully deep and intense.   Maybe, like the spinach farmers, we just need some muscle bound Hawaiian sailor to champion cause of squid luau.

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