Friday, October 9, 2009

Ma-na-pua!! Pe-pe-iao!!

On the mainland, every kid remembers the ice cream truck.   The trucks would roam around the neighborhood, broadcasting their familiar whimsical tune and kids would flock to the trucks to pick up a frozen treat.   Well, here in the islands, we had something similar, but with a little more substantial payoff.   It was the manapua man.    My dad would tell us how, in the old days, the manapua man would come walking down the street, carrying two giant steamers over his shoulder (with a bamboo pole in between), chanting his familiar sing-song chant of "Ma-na-pua!!  Pe-pe-iao!!"   You should really hear my dad do the cry, I could totally imagine a bunch of local kids running up to this old Chinese man to buy some manapua.

Sometimes what my dad tells me is so whimsical, I can't help but wonder if it's true or not.   For instance, he told me that he figured out what manapua actually meant.    He said that "mana" means power or energy, so he figured that manpua meant "power bread".  I almost spit my drink when I heard that one.   I replied, that by that logic, "pua" means flower, so manapua really means "flower power"!   I'm not really sure if he was kidding or not.  But my Po Po collaborated his stories about the manapua man, so I knew they must be true at least.   In actuality manapua is a contraction.   The original Hawaiian name for it was mea'ono pua'a.   That makes more sense right?   Some "delicious pork pastry"?    Pepeiao of course meant "ear", which is what the Hawaiians originally called the ear shaped dumpling, fun goh.    For that matter, Hawaiians used to call siu mai, okole (something my Po Po used to do too).   But I guess calling something an okole wasn't very appetizing and it kinda fell out of fashion.  

Over the years, as cars became more numerous and neighborhoods became more developed, the manapua man stopped walking the neighborhoods and people actually had to go to his shop to pick up some manapua, pepeiao, or okole.   But which shop would it be?    Well, in Hawaii, there is one shop single shop that pretty much clearly defined our style of manapua.   That shop would have to be Char Hung Sut, on Pauahi St. on the Mauka most edge of Chinatown.   Char Hung Sut, is such a non-descript little hole in the wall, that unless you're looking for it, you'd easily pass it by.    They've got almost nothing of signage, nothing at all to market themselves.  No neon lights.  Window displays.  Nothing.  There is just a door in the middle of a brick wall.   And yet.... everyone knows where it is.  

Char Hung Sut, is like the granddaddy of our local style of manapua.    Every single manapua shop in town, has tried to emulate their contribution to our culinary heritage.   If you go to dim sum at a Chinese restaurant, and order char siu bao, you'll notice that it is much smaller, with the seam at the top, and the bread is a lot lighter.   Char Hung Sut's manapua is more than twice the size of a regular char siu bao, and has that nice seamless bun look that we're all accustomed to.  

Manapua from Char Hung Sut
Is our style of manapua really that different from anyone else's?   Let's put it this way, last year we hosted some 5-star chefs from China.  They were from Beijing and Shanghai as I recall, and when they tasted our dim sum, they were confounded as to what was wrong with it.   They looked at our manapua and said, why is it so big, with so much bread?   They looked at our fun goh, and ha gao, and asked me, why is the pi (or wrapper) so thick??   Well... I had to explain to them (as my dad once explained to me) that the Chinese in Hawaii were all decended from Cantonese farmers who came to work in the sugar cane platations.   As they were farmers, they were a) poor, and b) needed something substantial that would keep them going as they worked the sugar cane fields.   So the style developed by the manapua man, and Char Hung Sut, was a bigger bao with thicker breading.   It was more cost effective, for the poor farmer, and it was much more filling.   Nowdays, we lead such a sedentary lifestyle, and we look for cuisine that allows us to "taste more" while "filling us up less", as was the case with the 5-star chefs.   But this is a modern luxury that people did not have in the old days.   People were happy that they could pay a dime, and get something much more substantial and filling.   Thus our manapua was made to fit the bill.

Char Hung Sut has a very special place in my heart.   When I was a little kid, or even now for that matter, char siu bao was one of my favorite things to eat.   I was most definitely a "bao boy".  And whenever I wanted to eat it, my Goong Goong would run all the way to Chinatown to buy it for me.   It didn't matter that Kwong On was much closer.   He only wanted the very best for his grandson.   Originally this meant hopping into his '55 chevy, and driving there.  But as he got older, well into his 80's, he would still insist on going all the way to Char Hung Sut for me.   This meant that in the morning, he would hop a bus, take an almost hour long ride to Chinatown, buy a box of manapua, then hop another bus and another almost hour long ride home.   In his 80's.   Just to bring me some manapua.   There are a lot of things that my parents and grandparents did for me that you'd consider being spoiled.   In my mind though, it wasn't how much they would money they would spend on me, as much as the time they devoted to me.   This ridiculously inconvenient trip was how much my Goong Goong loved me, and I will never forget it.

Manapua, Pepeiao, Siu Mai, and Ma Tai Sou from Char Hung Sut
Was it worth it?   Going all the way to Char Hung Sut for some manapua?   To me, nothing will ever compare to Char Hung Sut's manapua.   Yes, the bread is pretty thick.   But that doesn't mean that it's stale, tough, or something you'd want to rip off and throw away.   It's nice and soft, but chewy enough to be filling.   No, it's not as light as other people's manapua, but that wasn't the point was it?   The meat inside, isn't really filled with sauce, it's not really bright red or anything.   It's a much simpler, natural brown, but totally flavorful meat.   It is so finely minced, not chunky like other manapuas.  The best part is that there are no fillers.  No unsavory chunks of fat.  No hard chunks of meat.  No weird crunches of onion or chestnut or antyhing else.  Not like some other places, where you bite into it, and will spit out a small piece of some unwanted filler.  There is nothing here but pure finely minced meat.   It's the style that my Po Po and Goong Goong would (and did) approve of.

Manapua from Char Hung Sut
Besides the manapua itself, the pepeiao was fantastic.   I'm not usually a fan of pepeiao.   The reason is, that other places who try to copy Char Hung Sut's style, will make that same really thick pi and it's usually kind of tough.   I usually don't like chewing through it, as it's way too starchy it just doesn't taste very good.   On the other hand, even now, biting into the pepeiao, I was surprised at how fresh and soft the pi is.   It looks thick, but it's amazingly soft.  The siu mai, well, it's just a beautifully big stuffed pork hash, again with no fillers that you bite into and just want to spit out.    The ma tai sou (or water chestnut flaky pastry), was beautifully flaky.   Other places that make ma tai sou, just make it too dry, and it's hard to swallow.  Char Hung Sut's is light and flaky with yummy moist filling. 

The other thing that I always like from Char Hung Sut (which was missing from this menu), is their yip jai, the little char siu filled mochi wrapped and steamed in a ti leaf.   Once again, Char Hung Sut makes the best, because their mochi is the softest, and their finely minced char siu doesn't have any of those unsightly fillers.   The beautiful thing about yip jai, is again how local it is.   The char siu is totally Chinese, the mochi is so Japanese, and the ti leaf is such a Hawaiian touch.   It is such a wonderful reminder of the blending of our cultures.

Tastes change and evolve, and as we no longer toil on the sugar cane fields, there may be a day when we look for a less filling manapua.   But Char Hung Sut, and the manapua man, have certainly left their legacy on our culinary heritage.   Much the same way my Goong Goong and Po Po left their impression on me.

1 comment:

  1. You may have been Goong Goong's bao boy, but I was his dumpling girl. He'd jump on the bus to Chinatown, just to get his little baby a box of yip jai. which was even more impressive/spoiling to me, cause he was older by the time I came around.

    Also, if you believe all of daddy's stories, then apparently they had no water growing up, and he probably only owned one shoe, had to walk across a razor blade hill to school, then cross a rubbing alcohol river. But, the manapua man is true.

    Btw, you can't always afford to eat as if you were a plantation worker if you lead a sedentary life. it's not good for your body. so, either start changing your sedentary lifestyle or eat that stuff less.