Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oh Wow, Lau Lau

When I first went away to college, I got terribly homesick, and hardly made any friends.   So when it came time to go away to grad school, I was determined to make a better go of it and make more friends.  Luckily, in my program there was already a tightly knit group which I happily found myself welcomed into.   Not surprisingly, this group consisted of all of the foreign students.  It wasn't just that I found myself somehow more culturally comfortable with the foreign students over the mainland students, but also while mainland students would inevitably head back to their own homes, jobs, and families, the foreign students were isolated from their homes with no one but each other to fraternize with.   So I found myself happily amongst people from Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, South Africa, and a large group from Thailand. 

As I got to know my group of friends, each one in turn began hosting a dinner every other week.   It wasn't something that they had planned, but simply that they all liked to eat and it was a nice excuse to get everyone together.   So after a month or two, as the representative from Hawaii in this little band, I decided to host a real luau for them.   As much as I had enjoyed eating home cooked Thai food, I really wanted to share with them our culture, and our music, and our cuisine.    Not too far from my school was one of those super Safeways, kind of like the new giant one on Kapahulu (technically, it was a Pavilion, one of the double sized Vons stores).   They had enough world cuisine that I even found "imported" Taro brand poi.   They didn't have Hawaiian salt, but I found other sea salt which although from the wrong ocean, would provide a similar enough flavor.   The one thing that they didn't have was taro leaf to make lau lau with, so my family was kind enough to FedEx me a couple bags of the real article (since absolutely no substitute would do).   It took me 3 weeks of planning, but everyone had a fantastic time.

I had poi.  I cooked chicken long rice (most of the ingredients for which were easily found in their Oriental foods section).    I got some fresh salmon and tomatoes to make lomi lomi salmon with.   I got some cans of coconut milk to make some real haupia with.   Just to be contentious, I made a whole stack of spam musubi's (but as they were all foreign students, none of them had any of the aversion to spam the mainland guys had anyway).   Unfortunately, there was no way that I could actually dig an imu to do a real kalua pig and lau lau's with.   But I found that with some pork butt, liquid smoke, some sea salt (from an unknown sea), you can make some decent tasting kalua pig in the oven.    The star of my meal though, had to be my freshly steamed lau lau.   After all, the taro leaf had to actually be flown all the way from Hawaii to cook them.    I had to substitute aluminum foil in lieu of real ti leaves to wrap them, but they came out tasting decent enough.   I actually cooked for 2 solid days.   Finally, I threw on some Kealiʻi Reichel and some Hapa, to give them a taste of real Hawaiian music, and let the party run it's own course.   If there is one thing I've learned about human behavior, it is that the fastest way to make friends is to feed them. 

So, now that I'm back home, I generally don't bother trying to make my own kalua pig or lau lau.   Unless I'm actually going to go in the back yard with some hot lava rocks, and dig my own imu, then the lau laus that you get at most places are just as good.  So where would I go to find the best kalua pig and lau lau?   Well, my favorite place to go was Masu's Massive Plate Lunch.   But as they're now gone, everyone else's is pretty similar.   Maybe I'm just not discriminating enough with my kalua pig.   It's just all good to me.   So I guess the better question would be, "if I were again in that situation where I wanted to throw a big luau for a buch of out of town guests, where would I go to pick up the kalua pig and lau lau"?   That answer is much more clearly defined for me.   I'd go to Costco.

I actually feel really ashamed to say that.   I almost want to hide.   I feel like I'm losing my street credibility by disclosing that.   I mean, seriously?  There are so many other places with so much more history and character.  Don't you want to talk about Ono's, or Yama's, or Young's, or Helena's, or Haili's, or Highway Inn or something?   What the heck are you going to find at Costco?   Well, if I'm throwing a big party, then pound for pound, going to Costco, is just more cost effective.   Hawaiian food can get kinda pricey you know.  But besides that, the brand Costco carries, Keoki's, is a tried and true local favorite, just like Taro Brand poi.

Keoki's Sweet Potato Lau Lau from Costco
Lau Lau is actually pretty difficult to get really right.   If it is undercooked, then the taro leaves still have that needle like calcium oxylate that scratches your throat and makes it itchy when you swallow them.   (Did you ever realize that this is the same compound kidney stones are made of?)    So lau lau really needs to be cooked well.   But if you cook it too done, the pork inside can get pretty dried out and the inside can be somewhat bland.   So the piece of pork inside must actually be somewhat fatty to keep it moist and flavorful.   However, often you find lau lau with just a big hunk of fat in it, which you discard anyway, and the meat is still dry.   Masu's was great because they always added a nice piece of butterfish to accompany the pork, giving the whole lau lau an extra added flavor.    What makes Keoki's brand lau lau so great, is that they add a nice piece of that purple Okinawan sweet potato in with it (instead of the butterfish).   The addition of the sweet potato, not only gives you another texture (sometimes it was difficult to differentiate the pork from the fish), but it also absorbs all of that wonderful pork, taro leaf and Hawaiian salt flavors.  The sweet starchiness of the potato also works wonderfully with the savory pork.  It's funny that all it takes is a small piece of sweet potato to really set Keoki's lau lau apart from everyone else's.

Keoki's Kalua Pig from Costco
Kalua pig is another story (BTW - the kalua here has nothing to do with the alcoholic beverage of the same sounding name, it refers to the underground burial method of cooking).  To me, to really do kalua pig right, you need to dig an imu.   The reason for that is because when you dig an imu, you are using the entire pig.   Whenever you use a whole pig, as opposed to just a part of the pig, the flavors and juices from the rest of the pig just permeate its whole body.   This give it a whole different, much more robust pork flavor.  The people who do whole hog barbecue down South also understand this concept.   Additionally, the very slow cooking in that ground, with all of that wonderful smoke, just inundates the pork with deep smoky flavor.  It's really the ultimate pig.  But since digging a real imu is such a completely uncommon occurance these days, we just have to settle for the kind that most people produce.   For the most part though, unlike lau lau, it's not generally as difficult to do decently right.   In the worst case, your kalua pig can be a little too oily.  Or it can be a little too salty.   Or it could swing the other way and be a little to bland or a little too dry.   But most kalua pig is thankfully pretty consistent.  

Ocean Salad from Costco
Costco, also has the advantage of a fantastic fish and meat supplier.   So they make a pretty fresh shoyu ahi and limu ahi poke.   It doesn't compare with the expertly cut sashimi grade poke at Gyotaku, but it is very fresh and tasty.  Though their seaweed selection is nothing compared to what you'll find at Tamashiro Market, they also carry some pretty fresh ocean salad.  When they carry it in stock (and they don't always do), they are probably the most economical place to buy poi as well.   Especially with our poi shortage, poi has gotten quite expensive, and being able to buy it in bulk at Costco is quite thrifty.

I don't know the next time that I'll be throwing such a large luau like I did for my friends in grad school.   But it was a fantastic way to not only parade our culture, but to endear some great friends as well.  Never underestimate the dipomatic qualities of a good lau lau. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm just a kotonk (well, half-kotonk :p ), born in CA and raised in NE, so I'm sure I have the least distinguished palate possible when it comes to Hawaiian food.

    But I've discovered that a crock pot with pork butt, swiss chard, rockfish, and of course sea salt is a great way for someone deep in the meat-and-potatoes mainland to scratch the lau lau itch with pretty minimal effort.