Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Switch On! 1-2-3!

While Hawaii is politically part of the United States, I've always thought that we're culturally more a part of Japan than anywhere else.   This is true in our food, our customs, and even with our material posessions.  When it comes to shopping for Japanese goods, there were always 2 big names that come to mind: Daiei/Holiday Mart, and Shirokiya.  

We still call it Holiday Mart, even though Holiday Mart gave up its name a long time ago.    That's mainly because we used to think of the location in Pearlridge as "Daiei", and the location by Ala Moana as Holiday Mart.   Every little kid around my age remembers Daiei as the place where Kikaida first came to visit.  There is that famous photo of Pearlridge completely stuffed with little kids waiting to see their favorite Japanese superhero. 

Kids waiting to see Kikaida at Daiei, Pearlridge 1974
I was at the tail end of the Kikaida generation.   I was still in uteral when those kids were lining up, so I didn't quite make it. But thanks to KIKU, I grew up watching Kikaida, Kamen Rider, and most of all Battle Fever.  I collected dozens of Japanese henshin robos from anime and tokusatsu, and still have them to this day.  This pre-dates the Transformers release in America by half a decade, so American releases of mecha were limited to Mattel's Shogun Warriors.   But thankfully, here in Hawaii, not only were we privy to all of the shows the mainland kids never got to watch, but also a slew of imported Japanese toys as well.   Unfortunately this lead to one of the most traumatic experiences of my youth, when visiting Daiei one day and transfixed upon the glorious bounty of colorful die cast metal, I found myself lost and parentless.   I remember turning around and not being able find my mom anywhere.   My rapture was transformed to complete terror, as I raced all around the store trying to find my mom.   I'm not sure how long I was really lost for, but it seemed like an eternity of loneliness and dread.   So while I adored Daiei for its treasure trove of rare imports, my memories are also spashed with feelings of fright and despair. 

While Daiei was one of the cornerstones of old Pearlridge, in Ala Moana it was Shirokiya.   I will always think of Ala Moana as the triumverate of Liberty House on one end, Sears on the other, with JC Penny's in the middle (even if 2 out of those 3 stores aren't there anymore).   But right next to Liberty House was the pillar of Japanese stuff, Shirokiya.   While Holiday Mart was a huge supermarket, Shirokiya was huge department store (neither of which you could easily find on the mainland).   Shirokiya, whose name literally means the white tree store, looked a lot different back then.   Today, Shirokiya is a sparkling white, sleek, modern looking, high tech wonderland, completely in-tune with Japan's modern, bullet train, uber-clean image.   But when I was a little kid, Shirokiya had a lot more wooden look, like the shops of old Edo.  I even remember them even having a rock garden inside.  It was an older, more historical Japanese look. 

The best thing about visiting Shirokiya though, was the food.  My strongest memories of Shirokiya when  I was little, were wandering around, picking up toothpicks with my little hands and picking up samples of all their little treats.   Salty, sticky shoyu glazed konbu.   Those sweet candied dried little fishes.  The bright yellow sour takuan.  The even more sour, but such a beautiful deep reddish purple ume.  Dozens of types of seaweed in different forms.  I loved all of them, and there were so many different things to try.    I also remember them having this huge revolving bin of candies.  Most them are pretty hard to find these days, like those neopolitan coconut sundaes and the milk caramels.   But if there was one thing that I remember most eating at Shirokiya, it was the steamed chestnuts.   I still remember them being in the far right corner, being steamed on the spot so you could smell the chestnuts from across the store.   I remember the red and yellow stripped paper bag that they would hand them to you in.   I would always want one as soon as we bought them, even though they were still very hot, and you had to crack open the dark brown shell to get to the warm white center.   They aren't nearly as crunchy as water chestnuts, but a softer moister nut than any crumbly dry roasted thing.   It's funny that Mel Torme associated "chestnuts roasting over an open fire" with Christmas, when I always associate them as being Japanese.

Shirokiya today is still a bastion of tasting wonderful Japanese imports.   It's the best place to pick up presents like those azuki bean cakes that are perfect to give to clients and relatives you don't know what to get for.  But if anything, their lunch section is even better than it was before.   Now they've got little stations for every different Japanese food.  There is a mochi station, a takoyaki station (those little octopus balls), a tonkatsu station, a sushi station, stations to get fried things like karaage, stations to get Japanese vegetables that you don't see anywhere else.  They've even got Island Manapua Factory at one station and Korean food at another.   Most of all, Shirokiya is my absolute favorite place to get the most authentic Japanese bentos.

Saba Bento from Shirokiya
One of their newer stations makes these very fancy bentos, with tons of different things in it.   I am partial to the saba at Holiday Mart, because that's where I first tasted it, but the saba bento at Shirokiya is such a thing of beauty.   Look at all the colors, the colors!!  From that deep purple okinawan sweet potato, to the light pink of the ginger, to the minty green of the edamame.  They've even got that elusive gobo in the bento.  It's such a gorgeous plate!

Chicken Karaage Bento from Shirokiya
My favorite bento is the chicken karaage bento from middle station.   The chicken is glazed with this ever so sweet glaze which just brings out the crunchy savory chicken.   But what I like most about this bento isn't the main course, but the sides you get.  That is mochi rice, not regular rice, interspersed wih vegetables giving it such a fragrant aroma.  The nishime there is an older style, with much more subtle flavor.   These are much more rural village flavors. 

Mountain Vegetables from Shirokiya
The best thing at that station though, are their mountain vegetables.  My favorite mix, is this bamboo shoot and fern mix.  For the longest time, I had absolutely no idea what those things were. Just looking at them, I thought they looked like Klingon gagh serpent worms, but they're not writhing nearly enough.  They were clearly a vegetable, I thought.  Right?   Well they don't crunch like a vegetable.  They've got a much more subtle texture, like a mushroom.   For a while I actually thought hey might be blood vessels of some sort.   It wasn't until much later, that I was told that they were fern heads.  Whateever they are, or how they look, they taste wonderful, and I would just keep eating them anyway.

Potato Salad from Shirokiya
To top it off, we are in Hawaii, so we need to have some kind of mac salad right?   But in this case, we're talking the original Japanese dish that mac salad is strives to be.   It's almost like a mix between namasu, and mashed potatoes, with a small bit of mayo and maybe miso.  The crunch and the sweet tartness of the namasu style cucumbers just kicks this thing up.  You know what?  Screw, mac salad!   This is what should be served with every plate lunch in town.   This thing is way smoother and way more flavorful than any mac salad around.  

Time marches on.   Daiei is gone now, having been bought out by Don Quixote.   We nearly lost Shirokiya entirely, when it was becoming unprofitable.   But luckily the Japanese corporation sold the store to the local Hawaii managers, and they turned it back around.   In fact, I think their lunch selection is better than ever!   Sometimes, things do get better as time goes by.

1 comment:

  1. I second the saba plate being really yummy. it's also really healthy for you considering the mix of vegetables in it. =)