Sunday, November 29, 2009

Much Mahalos: Part III - Smothered with Love

As a Thanksgiving Treat, I thought I would share my recipe for the seafood etouffe, I made on Thanksgiving.   I say share my recipe, but that's not entirely accurate, because I never cook with a recipe.   To me, cooking is all about expression, like painting or playing the piano.  Every time I cook something, I add things dependant upon how I feel that days, and the flavors that I want to try to coax out the food.   So I hate following recipes, which to me, rob the creative aspect of cooking.   But if you want to follow what I did, I'll be happy to share.    

Etouffee is a French / Creole dish that I learned in New Orleans.   It literally means to "smother", so basically it is a seafood dish where the seafood is smothered with a rich buttery gravy.   You can use any type of seafood really, although the classic preparation uses Mississippi mud bugs, otherwise known as crawfish.  Since crawfish is actually somewhat difficult to come by here in the islands (I've only ever seen frozen crawfish tails at Daiei), I've substituted some other mixed seafood.

Here's what you'll need (notice the precise measuring system I use):

Ingredients for Seafood Etouffee
Some Seafood - In this case the seafood mix at Daiei (now Don Quixote).  
Some Garlic (minced or whole is fine)
Some butter
Some flour
Some plain tomato sauce (not spaghetti sauce or tomato paste)
Some cajun seasonings, in this cause I've used Big Kevin's Bayou Blend, but your favorite blend will work

So here's what you do:

Melt a stick of butter in a saucepan on LOW heat (I'd say around 30% heat works fine).  I know, I know.  An entire stick of butter sounds really unhealthy for you.   Yes, you can substitute something like Country Crock, I've done it before.   But seeing as how this was Thanksgiving, I didn't feel like holding anything back, so I opted for the real thing, for the real full bodied taste.    At least I didn't go completely old school and use pure lard.

As in all classic French of Cajun cooking, you start with the phrase, "make a roux".  If you don't know what a roux is, it's basically the basis for all gravy in the world.  You start with the melted butter.  Then, very slowly you sprinkle in a little bit of flour, all the while stirring very vigorously.   I can't stress this enough, you have to stir like a mad scientist on speed.  If you're not meticulous in your stirring, your roux will have chewy little lumps in it, not at all what you want.   Keep sprinkling in flour and stirring like crazy until you get the consistency of pudding (or better yet, 1 finger poi). 

Next you can sprinkle in some minced garlic.  If you like garlic like me and my wife, you want to add a lot.  Unfortunately, my uncle doesn't like garlic, so I limited myself to 2 butter knife bladefuls.  But feel free to add more.  You want to brown the garlic in your roux.  But all the while, you want to keep stirring (although you can stir a little more slowly now).  Never let a roux sit still or it will burn.  You must keep stirring even if it feels like your arm will fall off.   When your roux is the color of a shiny new penny, then you're done.

When your roux is ready, you can add in your seafood.   I used 3 mixed seafood trays from Holiday Mart (I mean Don Quixote).  These trays have a nice assortment of squid, little clams, some shirmp and other goodies.  The best thing is that they're remarkably cheap.   Each tray is only around $3.  You can't beat that for seafood!   Of course if you can, get langostinos or crawfish tails, for the real authentic dish.

After dumping in your seafood, add in your cajun seasonings.   Most cajun seasonings are primarily paprika, but there are many different blends.   The one I use, Big Kevins, I actually get shipped in from my cooking school in New Orleans, so you know that the taste is authentic.   One thing that they taught us in class, is to be liberal when adding seasonings.   I think I dumped in roughly a quarter cup or so.   Again, this is where personal expression and taste comes in to play.

Stir your seafood around for just a minute or two.   Just long enough to cook it "rare".   Then you can cover the whole thing with your tomato sauce.  I used about 2 cans.

Stir it all together.  Then, put the lid on and let is simmer for a while on low heat (I'd say around 10% heat).

The whole recipe is pretty simple (once you get the hang of making a good roux).   And it's pretty fast to cook too.   Total time is only about 20 minutes.   I would say before you start making this, start cooking your pot of rice.   When the rice is done, your etouffee can stop simmering, and you're ready to serve it over the rice.

Of course cooking is a big thing in my family, as everyone (except my dad) cooks at least 1 dish for Thanksgiving (and all major holidays for that matter).  For better or worse, I learned to cook the same way that my mom does.  She never follows a recipe either, and every time she cooks something there is always some slight variation to it.   When she cooks something that comes out really well, she always makes the claim that she's not sure she can ever recreate it, but we know that while it may never be exactly the same, it will still taste great.   I really wanted to pass on this passion for cooking to my children, who already love playing with miniature pans and plastic food.  So this Thanksgiving I encouraged my son to cook his first pot of rice, to go along with my etouffee.   I can't wait for the day, when I can use him as a sous chef to prep everything for me and wash up afterwards.

The seafood etouffee is a spicy, savory, buttery melange that you just can't get easily here in the islands.  Sometimes, when you want something truly special, you just have to make it with your own hands.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Much Mahalos: Part II - 3 Generations Full

While my wife's family always brought Thanksgiving dinner home from Kenny's Restaurant, Thanksgiving dinner for my family was always about cooking at home.   When I was very little, we would actually have 2 Thanksgiving meals.   We would go over to my mom's family for a Thanksgiving lunch, which would be a full turkey meal in and of itself.  Then at dinner time, we would go down to my dad's family for a second, entirely complete turkey meal.   It was a little bit excessive, and when my sister was born, after a many years of having 2 Thanksgiving dinners and being stuffed beyond the capability for free movement, my mom decided to host Thanksgiving dinner, and have everyone come over to our house.   Everyone was a little reluctant at first, but eventually everyone conceded (mainly for the sake of my sister and I).   Eventually, having both of my Po Po's together at the same meal, became one of those really rare and cherished memories that I truly truly treasure.  It was like one of those crazy TV crossovers, like the Jetsons meet the Flintstones, where 2 entirely separate but wonderful universes collide and you're left with a thrilling, dizzying, all kapakahi good feeling.  Those were some of my warmest memories of my youth. 

Even though everyone began coming over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner, everyone still wanted to bring their classic dishes to the meal.   This lead to our most prominent of family traditions, having each one of us cooks one dish for our meal.   It's kind of like a pot luck, except that we're all in one family, and we are kind of aware of each person's niche.   Even when I was very, very little, I tried to create some sort of dish to bring to the table.   Unfortunately, this lead to my most noxious and infamous creation, my attempt at making "weenie gelatin", something that I had discovered Jon making in a 1984 Garfield comic.  While later in life I would discover pates, headcheeses, and other terrines, my concoction was barely edible, and one of those humbling failures that your family never ever lets you forget.   Luckily, I have since then made up for it with some very satisfying dishes.  My first ever successful dish in fact was at Thanksgiving, when I learned to chop carrots, celery, onions, a little chinese parsely, and simmer it with chicken stock and bread crumbs to make some decent turkey dressing.  These days my contributions have been a little more seasoned and practiced, but I still like to use holidays like Thanksgiving to innovate new dishes for my family to try, sometimes more successfully than others.

Thanksgiving Dinner 2009
When my Po Po's passed away, our family dinners seemed to get considerably smaller, and it always felt like something was missing at the dining table.  But since I've been married, and had babies, they have been breathing new life into our old traditions.  It seems like the magic number is to have at least 3 generations at the table, to make it feel like a true family dinner.  This year was my youngest son's first Thanksgiving, so it made the occasion extra special for us. 

Mom's Turkey 2009
Although when I was very little, I remember my Po Po cooking the turkey, for the majority of my life, it has been my mom who made the star bird.  As much as I loved my Po Po's cooking, somehow my mom's turkey tastes even better than my Po Po's did.   My mom's seasoning is just a simple salt and pepper base, but it is always perfectly seasoned to bring out the natural taste of the turkey.  What makes her bird so supreme, is the flawless execution, with even the white meat being extremely juicy and tender.  Turkey is not easy to do right, as it can very easily become dry, but my mom's is unbelievably succulent.  The best part of course is that crispy, salty, delicious skin where all of the flavor is intensely packed.   I am not sure what her secret is, although I do know that she insists upon using the Honeysuckle White brand, as she claims it leads to a moister turkey. 

Turkey Tail, The Best Part!
Even though we've having the same main course as across the country, my favorite part of the bird is something that is generally a Hawaii thing.   My favorite part (which was always my Goong Goong's favorite part too) is the turkey tail.  The turkey skin itself is already a crispy golden, highly seasoned intense goodie alone.  But on the turkey tail, this is concentrated and made even than any other part.   The meat in the tail is supremely tender, as it is probably the fattiest part of the turkey. Inside the very center of this uber tender, juicy meat, are small deposits of fat, which makes eating the tail equivalent to siu yuk (roast pork) or kau yuk, where you have a layer of skin followed by alternating layers of fat and meat.  It's not exactly healthy for you, but it tastes like heaven, and this is Thanksgiving so you might as well enjoy yourself.  While renaissance fairs across the country feature huge turkey drumsticks to enjoy, in Hawaii it is the turkey tail that reigns supreme.   I have seen it sold all over Kalihi, where it is served fried, and all over Chinatown, where it is served char siu style.   However, buying turkey tails from any store is never very good, because they somehow make it very tough and chewy.   What should be the moistest, most tender part of the turkey is almost like jerky, and the fat inside becomes unappetizingly crunchy and congealed.  I don't know why no one else seems to be able to get this delicacy right, but Thanksgiving night is the only night I know I am able to enjoy it.   This piece is just the pinnacle of Thanksgiving to me.

My Cajun Seafood Etouffee with Basmati Rice
For my contribution this year, I opted to dip into my training in cajun cuisine and simmer a buttery seafood etouffee.  I ususally make a side dish like a stuffing or fried rice that goes well with the Turkey.  Being a Chinese family, I often involve some sort of seafood.   Many of the Chinese families I know don't consider a Thanksgiving dinner complete without some big succulent prawns.  This year, I wanted something spicy, buttery, and yummy to add to the meal.  Wanting to pass on our family's Thanksgiving, I decided to have my eldest son help me cook.   So this year, I guided him in washing and cooking his first pot of rice, entirely on his own.   I must say, just knowing that he did it made it taste all that much better to me.

My Wife's Chinese Style Green Beans with 4 Mushroom Vegetable Medley
My wife usually contributes a vegetable dish to the mix.  Her favorite is a mixed vegetable creamy casserole, but this year she decided on green beans, done Chinese style, with a beautiful blend of 4 mushrooms, and topped with crunchy French onions.   It sounds complicated, but really it took her 15 minutes to execute.  She did it absolutely perfectly too, with the green beans being perfectly crisp.   Usually when green beans are too underdone, they have a squeaky quality between your teeth, and when overdone they become limp and soggy.  Hers were the ideal texture, and the little bit of oils and sauces that she used did nothing to mask the full green bean flavor.

My Aunty's Mashed Potatoes
My aunty usually makes the mashed potatoes as well as some kind of vegetable dish as well.  This year, she stuck with just the potatoes, which she was intending to brown on top as a last minute touch, but didn't have time.   Her potatoes need no augmentation however, as they are awesome in and of themselves.   As I've mentioned before, I simply cannot stand mashed potatoes in restaurants because they taste like reconsituted powder from a box.   I absoutely must have real potatoes, simply because Aunty has spoiled us all these years.   Additionaly, just as some people like creamy peanut butter and some people like crunchy, Aunty makes her mashed potoates leaving some good sized chunks of potato in there to let you know they're real potatoes.   Upon my insistence, she also leaves in all of those tasty potato skins.  These homestyle potatoes retain all the potato flavor, or as my wife calls it, the "potatoey goodness".  

My mom also makes simply the best turkey gravy in the world.   This gravy is so spectacular, that when I was growing up, I would be satisfied with just the gravy and rice, and nothing else.   It doesn't taste anything like your standard brown gravy from a can.   She starts with all of the dripping from the turkey itself.   Therefore, as spectacular as her turkey is, her gravy will imbibe all of that awesomeness.  She uses all of the discarded parts of every vegetable she has used in all of her dishes to make a stock which she adds to the gravy.  So every year the gravy is made from the totality of whatever it is she's cooking.  The gravy takes on the personality of the enitre Thanksgiving feast.   It is awesome atop my Aunty's mashed potatoes.

My Mom's Yams
Our feast also has a few other trimmings my mom likes to add.   My Po Po used to always open a can of cranberry sauce, as well as a can of olives, and a few stalks of chilled celery.  While cranberry sauce is traditional Thanksgiving fare, I'm not really sure why she insisted upon having celery stalks and black olives, but this day, Thanksgiving is never complete without them.   She would also bake yummy whole yams along with the turkey.  To me, growing up, my favorite memory of Thanksgiving is waking up to a crisp cool morning, with the smell of the turkey and the yams wafting through the house, and my mom watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in the kitchen while she cooks.  The savory smell of turkey baking in the oven is for most people one of the most poignant memories of Thanksgiving.   Ironically, when I was travelling through China, in one of the most rural little villages that we visited, I remember seeing a scrawny underfed little boy in dirty clothes sitting outside his house eating a whole yam.   As far as we were from America, and as poor as the little boy seemed, the smell of yam instantly triggered memories of Thanksgiving to me, and I knew that the yam was filing his body not just with nourishment, but warmth and his family's love as well. Quite powerful for such a nondescript little tuber.

My Uncle's Sweet Potato Pie
As full as everyone always is after eating Thanksgiving dinner, we somehow always make room for dessert.  When my Po Po was around, she used to make the most awesome pumpkin pie with her signature layer of cream cheese at the bottom.   The cream cheese just seemed to break up the thickness of the pumpkin, adding a creamy sweet contrast to it.  Since her passing, my uncle has been the dessert master in the family.   He's mastered some very beautiful fruit tartlets and pies.   This year was no exception, with a sweet potato pie that was so yummy despite being so full.   In order to lessen the heaviness of the sweet potato, he mixed in a meringue of egg whites, which made the whole filling much lighter and creamier.

Baby's First Thanksgiving
Being my youngest son's first Thanksgiving, he was given as special treat of trying "table food" for the first time in his life.   While Gerber has been good to him, I think he really enjoyed tasting the "real" thing at last.  Being still too young for most of the dishes on the table, his Thanksgiving dinner consisted of my mom's yams (mashed with a little water), and some of Hanalei poi.   He gobbled both down with an appetite worthy of his father, and the promise of many memorable Thanksgivings to come.

To me, food certianly isn't all about nourishment.   It is about culture, memories, and of course pleasure.   Thanksgiving dinner pretty much embodies and exemplifies all of these treasured ideals, and this year was no exception.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Much Mahalos: Part I - Local Lunch Favorites

Everyone has their own Thanksgiving traditions.   While cooking a fantastic Thanksgiving feast is wonderful, it's actually a LOT of work, and there are many families that would just prefer to go out to eat, just so that they can enjoy the day without slaving away in the kitchen.   So there are quite a number of places around island that will cook and prepare an entire Thanksgiving meal for you, and all you have to do is go to pick it up.  Although Thanksgiving turkey is a classic mainland dish, each place that makes it usually has an ever so slight local spin on the flavors.  Golden Coin Bake Shop, the defacto standard for Filipino fast food on the island, offers a complete Thanksgiving meal, which presumably has a little bit of Filipino flavor to it.   My favorite little plate lunch place, Regal Diner, also offers a complete Thanksgiving meal, and being a Chinese owned place presumably has just a touch of Chinese flavor to it.   You can go to a fancier place, like Pacific Beach Hotel or the Willows, both of whom make elegant dinners with creative and haute side dishes to accompany the standard Thanksgiving fare.   Or you can to go a more simple local place like Zippy's, to pick up your Thanksgiving dinner.

For my wife's family, the tradition was to always get their Thanksgiving dinner from Kenny's Restaurant in the the Kamehameha Shopping Center.  The line on Thanksgiving to pick up a complete Thanksgiving dinner from Kenny's is always ridiculously long.  It usually extends all the way to the other end of that side of the shopping center.  If long lines are any indication of quality, the loyal following at Kenny's would be the equivalent of 3 Michelin stars.  My wife's family would always brave those long lines to pick up their turkey dinner and head up to her Goong Goong's house for Thanksgiving.  For her Goong Goong, no dinner was ever complete without having a bowl of soup as well.   Regardless of what kind of meal they were having, Thanksgiving or otherwise, he would always supplement it with a pot of soup, either Knorr or Noh.   A lover of pies, her Goong Goong would also make sure that there were at least 3 different pies for desert afterwards.  For what Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without 3 slices of pie?  

Ever since we've been married, and her Goong Goong passed away, traditions have been a little different for her family.  Originally, we faced the dreaded connundrum that all newlywed couples face of which family to spend major holidays with.   After much experimentation, negotiations, and sore tempers we finally achieved a delicate balance between families for most of the major holidays.   Thanksgiving is one of the tougher ones because while with Christmas and New Years you can split between the Eve's and the Day's, there is only 1 Thanksgiving dinner.  However, often times her parents would find themselves visiting her siblings on the mainland, with of course the requisite stop for all Hawaii seniors in Las Vegas.  For those years when they are home, they usually have dinner with her Aunty, and we have been having Thanksgiving lunches with them. 

Anticipating a rather large turkey feast for dinner, we usually opt to go to a more simple and casual place for lunch.   We would generally pick an old school local favorite, where just sitting in the booths is like wearing a pair of really old comfortable shoes.  The most frequent of these places would naturally be Kenny's, but we would also visit Like Like Drive-Inn or Zippys as well.   Although each of these places would offer a worthy turkey plate, with mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce, I would rarely get the turkey as I know I will be having turkey again for dinner.   So I would try to go for a nice local favorite instead.

Pork Chops at Kenny's Restaurant
At Kenny's, I asked the waitress what she recommended as her favorite dish.   The two that she said were most popular, where the stuffed cabbage, and the pork chops (although I have been curious to try their local boy stew).   Admitedly their pork chops are tasty, if not as tender as other places.  They are actually pretty salty, but the salt brings out the pork flavor a lot.  The mashed potatoes, however, aren't something I'm really fond of, as they have the texture of reconsituted mashed potoates from a box.   My aunty makes the most fantastic mashed potatoes (with REAL potatoes of course), so I'm kind of spoiled and just can't eat mashed potatoes from a box.  I am also not really fond of (and never have been) the frozen corn, diced carrot, and green bean mixture you get at most diners.  In my mind, it is that awful frozen vegetable medley that makes kids not like vegetables in the first place.  At Gyotaku for example, they serve a corn and edamame mix, where both the corn and edamame are fresh and crisp, and kids actually want to eat them.   But in any typical diner, the frozen vegetable medley is par for the course I suppose.

Saimin and a Cheeseburger at Like Like Drive Inn
The bright neon sign outside of Like Like Drive Inn is as icon is as the rotating "A" atop Arnold's Drive Inn at Happy Days.  Named after the royal Hawaiian princess (and pronounced "li-ke li-ke" NOT "like like" as tourists are prone to doing), the old time diner is another of my wife's family's favorites.  Rather than try my luck with boxed mashed potatoes and frozen vegetable medley, the last time I was at Like Like I decided to try a classic Hawaii lunch of saimin and a burger.  The saimin being advertised on their bright neon sign outside, sadly isn't nearly as good as the awesome saimin at Hamura's on Kauai.   It is however the standard local style saimin that you get at most places, and you just can't go wrong with a bowl of saimin.   Their noodles are the nice curly saimin noodles, but their broth is somewhat ordinary and a tad on the salty side.  Their cheeseburger is quite taste.   The meat is extremely soft, almost too soft in fact.  There is hardly any texture difference between the bun and the burger itself, which isn't quite meaty enough for my taste.   But it is quite flavorful, and with the melted cheese makes for one of those wonderful small kid time favorites.   The classic combination of a bowl of saimin and a cheeseburger that teenagers have been eating for over half a century just can't be beat.

Fried Chicken & Chili Plate at Zippy's
This year, we opted to go to Zippy's (the sit down side, not the fast food side) for lunch.   I just had to have my absolute favorite thing at Zippy's, their fried chicken and chili plate.   Whoever dreamed up this little mixed plate was pure genius, because they simply combined 2 of Zippy's most popular items on a single dish.  Normally I don't like chili.  I don't like the beans in chili, as they usually have a crumbly or powdery texture I just don't like.  Chili is also a widely varied dish.   On the mainland, especially in the Southwest, chili is meant to be a spicy dish.  It is typically filled with typical Southwestern spices like chipotle, which gives it a spicy, almost burned, taste.  Filipino chili on the other hand, has a very sweet taste.   For many people, the sweetness is a little disconcerting and unappetizing.  Zippy's chili is neither of those.  It has a very mild meaty taste.  It is so mild, that it wouldn't even be considered chili in the Southwest.  For locals however, it is one of the most popular foods in the State.  Their mild, yet completely irresistable chili, is paired perfectly with my favorite fried chicken in the world.   While I do love the greasy, finger lickin good, original recipe at KFC, and the spicy crunchy chicken from Popeye's, neither of them can compare with the totally non-oily, crispy, oh so delicious chicken thighs from Zippy's.   Possibly because it is a difference of Southern flavors vs. Japanese flavors, but the okazu style chicken from Zippy's is what I grew up with and my absolute favorite fried chicken anywhere.  The two of them make an irresistable combination.

None of these places are what anyone would consider haute cuisine.  But for locals, they are not just comfort food, but comfort places.   They are just the kind of easy, casual, lunch favorites that are prefectly satisfying before having a gut busting Thanksgiving feast later on.   Most of all they are the relaxed, comfortable times spent with family that embody the spirit of the holiday.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Laissez les bon temps rouler

When I was in grad school, as homesick as I was, I really wanted to take the opportunity to explore the mainland.  So my good friend Jim and I decided to spend our Spring break exploring the Big Easy, New Orleans.   Though not as typical a Spring break destination as say, Daytona Beach, everything we knew about New Orleans indicated a city rich in culture, history, music and food, that was just about foreign to anywhere else on the mainland.  I instantly fell in love with the place.   It was everything that we were expecting but 10 times greater.  Las Vegas may be known as Sin City, but it seems almost like a children's theme park, compared to a place where the girls are more than willing to expose themselves to you for a string of plastic souvenier beads, and every meal is a completely sinful guilty pleasure.   I loved food.  I loved the jazz.  Most of all I loved the stories.

Maybe it was because I was homesick, I immediately drew a number of very interesting parallels between New Orleans and Hawaii.   From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was greeted with a warm, humid air, that instantly made me feel like I was back home in the islands.   Their culture was also based upon the grand plantations that existed there in the past.   Although their plantations were run with slave labor, and our plantation workers came here of their own free will seeking a better life, my Po Po would probably tell you that they worked equally as hard.   Their climate, being so similar to our own, meant that they grew crops like sugar cane, and that, like us, rice was the staple of their diet, not potatoes like everywhere else in the country.  They have a very spiritually charged culture (although their spirits were Voodoo spirits and ours Hawaiian gods), and just walking down the street you could feel a spiritual presense even before hearing all of the ghost stories, worthy of Glen Grant.  The Cajun people themselves were hearty, outcast Frenchmen who, for political reasons, were estranged from even their fellow French colonists, very similar to our own Hakka Chinese who were shunned by our Punti Chinese.   There was even a small population of Cantonese Chinese workers who went to work on their plantations, exactly the same as our own.  The term "creole" refers to the French settlers born in the new world, similar to our own nissei.  They mixed with the other ethnic groups that populated the area, and they spoke a mixture of languages not unlike our own Pidgin.  Here in Hawaii, we call it to "talk story", whereas in New Orleans they call it "gumbo ya-ya".  The outrageous beignets at the famed Cafe du Monde seriously reminded me of the malasadas at Leonard's Bakery (substituting granulated sugar for powdered sugar).  These days tourism is a huge industry for them, just as it is to us, and their French Quarter is akin to Waikiki.  But they welcome guests with the famed Southern hospitality, which is equivalent in spirit to our own aloha spirit.   But probably the single thing that made me relate most to the people in New Oleans, was how although we're both part of the United States, we're so culturally distinct it feels like being in a foreign country. 

Although there were parallels, the culture and food in New Orleans is nothing like our own.  Whereas our local food is a melting pot of various Asian cuisines, theirs is a melange of French, African, and Native American.   I loved their cuisine so much, that I took several classes at the New Orleans School of Cooking, so that I could enjoy it at home.  After practicing the techniques, and with the help of some imported spices, I have really come to master my own style of classic Cajun/Creole dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and etouffee.  Unfortunately, aside of cooking it on my own, authentic Cajun food is really difficult to find here in the islands.

As much as I enjoy Popeye's, its really a fast food chain that has been watered down to mainstream tastes.   There was a kiosk next to Daiei called Kelly's Cajun Grill, but for some really bizarre reason, that always tasted much more like Chinese fast food (similar to Panda Express) than it did like Cajun cuisine.   Their bourbon chicken was a glazed chicken piece that but for a light change in seasoning could've easily become kung pao chicken.  For a while, there was a small place in the Makai Market food court in Ala Moana Center (whose name I really can't remember), that did slightly better.  I did enjoy having a bowl of their gumbo, some of their creamy Cajun chicken penne, spicy Cajun fried chicken, and a side of dirty rice.  They even gave you  a little hush puppy with your mixed plate.   While it wasn't really Cajun, I did lament its closing a little more than the loss of Kelly's.  Probably the closest thing that we've ever had to authentic Cajun cuisine is the A Taste of the Bayou restaurant on Kapahulu Ave.

Just like Taste of New York Deli was created by New York transplantees that longed for a taste of their home in Honolulu, A Taste of the Bayou was created by a Chef from Louisiana that wanted to fill the Cajun void here in Honolulu.   As a big afficionado of Cajun/Creole food, I have to say that he does a very good job, although he does miss the mark on a few things.  To begin with, once you walk through the door you're greeted with music that is truly Cajun.  It isn't the brass filled jazz of New Orleans, that I actually prefer, but the accordian and washboard music from the Cajun bayou.  The decor is a mix of the glittery mardi gras colors (purple, green, and gold), and the beautiful French architecture you'd find in the Garden District.

Cornbread Muffins at A Taste of the Bayou
As your anticipation grows for real Cajun food, they serve you some deliciously warm Southern cornbread muffins.  The muffins are steaming and soft, and not mealy the way that bad cornbread can be.

Cafe au Lait at A Taste of the Bayou
It's not Cafe du Monde, but they do serve a wonderful cafe au lait, served in a beautiful French style class.  The coffee is a real French roast with the distinct chickory flavor that makes New Orleans' coffee so unique.  The dark roast blends really well with the milk so that it is not overpowering and leaves a much more subtle yet robust flavor.

Alligator Tenderloin in Alligator Sausage Piquant Sauce at A Taste of the Bayou
As an appetizer, they even feature an alligator tenderloin in piquant sauce.  Where else in Honolulu are you going to find real alligator tenderloins on the menu??   Alligator is such a delicious and really light meat.  People always say that it tastes like chicken, but to me it tastes much more like a very delicate lobster.  The problem with most places is that they either deep fry it (making it taste like everything else that is deep fried) or they turn it into sausage (which usually has more to do with the spices than the meat).   So it is rare to find a good place that serves alligator where the alligator flavor really comes through.   If you've never eaten alligator before, this is one dish that is not to be passed up.

Red Beans and Rice at A Taste of the Bayou
My dad opted for the monday night favorite of red beans and rice (tradionally a dish made with the leftover meat from a Sunday night family dinner).  Here there is a bit of interpretation difference.   The traditional Cajun version of this dish is distinctly spicier than the traditional Creole version.  And I prefer the more buttery less spicy Creole, to the very spicy Cajun version that Taste of the Bayou offers.  However, the one thing that both versions have in common are really soft beans that are practically creamy in texture when you put them in your mouth, but are not so overcooked that they turn to mush.  In my travels, I came across these perfect beans at the Desire Oyster Bar and Bistro, right on Bourbon Street, that were supremely rich, creamy, and subtlely seasoned.   The beans at Taste of the Bayou, sadly fall short, still maintaining a slightly hard, crumbliness and an almost overpoweringly spiciness.

Catfish Po' Boy at A Taste of the Bayou
My wife decided to order the catfish po' boy, something she really enjoyed during our travels to New Orleans.   I've been to many po' boy places in New Orleans; Magazine Po' Boy, Serio's Po' Boy, and even the famous Mother's Po' Boy.   My favorite though is a little place right on the edge of the French Quarter called Johnny's Po' Boy.  As I've said before, the most important thing in a sandwich is the bread.  The crust on Johnny's bread is not like the crunchy toasted french bread you get on a Vietnames banh mi, but it is a delicately crispy and flaky crust on a super soft loaf of bread.   On top of that they've got fantastically seasoned fried oysters, and all sorts of other goodies.   This is again where Taste of the Bayou falls short, with a hard, chewy, roll that is nothing like the pillowy heaven that was Johnny's.  They've even got tomatoes on their po' boy, something that you traditionally wouldn't get in New Orleans because tomatoes wouldn't really grow well.   Probably the worst thing though, is that their spicy mayonnaise simply overpowers everything else in the sandwich.  Here they fall into the trap and misconception everyone has that all Cajun food needs to be really spicy.  It doesn't.  My wife and I travelled throughout New Orleans, tasting really authentic Creole cuisine, and she was always able to enjoy herself.   Unfortunately, she couldn't say the same thing at Taste of the Bayou. 

A Taste of the Bayou Sampler a A Taste of the Bayou
For myself, I opted to get a sampling of the 3 most classic Cajun dishes, red beans and rice (like my dad's), gumbo, and jambalaya.   I really did enjoy all of them.  Gumbo is a favorite of mine.  Whenever I land in New Orleans, the first thing that I will want to do after checking in to my hotel is run off to the Gumbo Shop to have a bowl of their chicken & andouille gumbo.   The warm, savoriness of the thickened soup is just the thing to reset your body after a long flight. The gumbo at A Taste of the Bayou shares much of that same savoriness and spiciness that relaxes and re-energizes your whole body.  Although, I do have to say that my own gumbo, simmering for hours with tons of vegetables, chicken, sausage, and various seafoods, is way better, it takes a ton of time and effort, and just wouldn't be economically feasible for any restaurant to offer.  So if I want to relax and have someone else cook the gumbo, this may be the next best thing.

The best thing about Taste of the Bayou, is that the spice blend that they use, really is the authentic flavor that you would get in New Orleans.   I would say that aside of cooking it myself, the spicy, savory, buttery flavors at A Taste of the Bayou are the closest thing that I have found on island to the authentic tastes that I fell in love with in New Orleans.   Although they are a bit heavy handed with their spices, I am happy to have them here to fill the niche in our culinary landscape.

My wife and I travelled to New Orleans just before our son was born, one last hurrah before settling into parenthood.  Fatefully, this was just a few months before Hurricane Katrina devastated the entire city.  But like Kauai rebuilding after Hurricane Iniki, their culture and food is simply too powerful to be supressed.  Perhaps that is the strongest parallel of all between us and them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Y'all Come Back Now

Many of the foods that we hold dear as "American" foods, are in fact Southern foods.   From fried chicken to barbecue to country fried steak, the South has made quite the culinary contribution to our country's heritage.   While they've had their share of social problems, primarily racial tensions, the famed Southern hospitality and culture is very much genuine, and somewhat akin to the aloha spirit.  Although they are still working on the racial harmony that we pride ourselves on, their cuisine is still a mixture of the various ethnic groups that populate the area, albeit a completely different racial mix than our own  (although it may surprise you to know that Georgia has one of the largest Korean populations outside of Korea).    It is very hard to imagine a major American holiday, like Thanksgiving, without having some influence on the table from the South.

Although we are all the way on the other end of the country from the South, we still have our share of Southern style food.   The main reason for its popularity is, of course, the major military influence that we've got here.   Very often, our military personnel are either from the South or have had some connection to the South.   My father-in-law, for example, spent a good deal of time in Buloxi, Mississippi, and consequently developed a taste for Southern food.  The few Southern restaurants that we do have, especially the fast food ones, are always flooded with military personnel in uniform. 

Fried Chicken at Popeye's
Fast food chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen, are perhaps the easiest places to get a fix of Southern cuisine.   We don't generally tend to think of KFC as Southern food, but the "K" does stand for a major Southern state, and the iconic Col. Harland Sanders is famous for his gentlemanly Southern attire.   However, the seasonings at Popeyes were always a little truer to the flavors that you would get in the deep South.  Their spicer, crunchier batter along with their more distinctly Southern sides (like thier tasty green beans) give them a little more uniqueness than the international fast food that KFC has become.  Popeye's was always a favorite of my wife's Goong Goong, again probably due to his military connections, and visiting there always reminds her of him.   Even while maintaining their Southern roots however, both restaurants have naturally adopted to local tastes as well.   Visiting Popeye's on Dillingham, you can get your fix of chicken livers & gizzards, as well as chicken curry, both done to Filipino tastes.   KFC offers May's teriyaki chicken besides their standard snackers.  More importantly, every KFC restaurant in Hawaii is adorned with old photos of Col. Sanders wearing a lei during his visit to the islands.  The image of him wearing a lei over his old Southern suit, is the perfect symbol of adopting Southern cuisine into our local melange.

Besides the fast food restaurants, you can visit sit down restaurants like Bubba Gump's Shrimp Company.   Despite the many years since the popularity of Forrest Gump, the themed restaurant that bears his name is still going strong.   Frankly, I was always suprised that they would even make a restaurant based upon a one time movie that isn't even a major tentpole property (like Star Wars or Harry Potter).   But I can't complain, seeing as how I really do enjoy eating there.   I'm particularly fond of their "Bucket o' Boat Trash", with little bits of lobster, fish, and shrimp.   It's like a little mixed plate, with all the good stuff. 

Although I do enjoy eating at Popeye's or Bubba Gump's, they really are Southern food catered to the mainstream palate.  Their authenticity extends only as far as general mainstream American tastes will allow.   For the real Southern goodness, you have to venture into a small restaurant like Dixie Grill.    I always used to patronize the location on Ward Ave., but sadly that location is gone and has subsequently changed restaurants several times ever since.   But thankfully, you can still find Dixie Grill out in Aiea, just as you get off the Pearlridge offramp.  

Gumbo at Dixie Grill
Dixie Grill actually has some really authentic Southern cuisine.   You know you're in a real Southern restaurant, when the waitresses have a true Southern drawl, and they call your iced tea, "sweet tea".  The decor is also fantastic, looking like something out of the Dukes of Hazzard.   I particularly love their handwash basin, that looks like an old galvanized metal washtub, where you turn on the water by depressing  a foot pedal, and thus your barbecue sauce covered hands never touch the faucet.  Ingenious!   But besides the atmosphere, their cuisine is actually pretty accurate to tastes I encountered in my travels down south.   Their gumbo in particular (while not nearly as good as my own) is a spicy, savory blend, that actually has the requisite okra to be called gumbo.  In addition, it's got some tasty sausage in it.  The one detractor is the presense of some tomato (which you would never actually find in real gumbo). 

Crunchy Potato Crusted Mahi Sandwich at Dixie Grill
Just ordering a crunchy potato crusted fish sandwich, you can see the quality that they put into their dishes.   The fillet of mahi mahi they put in it is just huge, about the size of a greeting card.   It's very crunchy, with a batter almost similar to Popeye's, and the fish inside is a perfect flaky, moist texture.

Southern Fried Catfish at Dixie Grill
The truly authentic Southern fish at Dixie Grill, however, is their awesome Southern fried catfish.   This really brought me back to my travels, as its hard to find places that do catfish really well.  The texture of catfish is much more meat-like than any other fish.  It's as flaky or delicate as mahi, but has its own tender unique flavor.   I really love catfish, and they season theirs just perfectly the way I remember it down South.   Next to that, you've got a super savory bowl of collard greens, that has just enough bacon flavor to accentuate the soft dark greens.   As in all real Southern collard greens, the best part is drinking the pot liquor at the bottom of the bowl.   The creole rice next to it is the only item that doesn't really capture the buttery flavor of true creole rice, but that's easily overlooked while enjoying the catfish itself.

Probably the best thing on Dixie Grill's regular menu is their "Trash Can Buffet".   Just like the Bucket o' Boat Trash at Bubba Gump's, this enormous platter of food (served on an actual trash can lid), is a feast for 2 people with a little bit of everything that they do so well, fried chicken, catfish, ribs, etc.   But even this massive platter seems ordinary during the month of June, when Dixie Grill holds its annual CrabFest.   They've got a ton of crab dishes: soft shell crab jamabalaya, crab po' boys, etc.   But the most awesome thing that Dixie Grill offers is their crab platter during Crab Fest.   It's got huge servings of Alaskan king crab, Japanese snow crab, dungenous crab, and blue crab.   It's so rare that you get to try all 4 major different types of crab on a single platter, in such generous portions, and seasoned so perfectly with their Southern spices.  It is a crab lover's dream!   Crab happens to be my uncle's favorite food in the whole world.   We can easily satisfy him on any special occasion with the inclusion of some crab.   So I really wanted to take him to Dixie Grill for their crab platter.   The only drawback was that his birthday is in December, whereas Crab Fest is held during the month of June.   But after a little bit of pleading, they accomodated us by making the platter specially for his birthday (although not at the regular June pricing).  I think it may have been one of the most satisfying birthday dinners we've taken my uncle to.

Despite not being from, nor having lived for any long period of time in, the South, somehow Southern cuisine is so comforting to me.   Maybe it's just that the concept of Southern hospitality is so pervasive, that it permeates their cuisine, even so far from the South itself.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Brunch and the Beach

When my friend came from living in New York for many years, she had asked me one day where we could go to get brunch.   Being the middle of the week, I thought she was being a little extravagant for a weekday meal.  After a little discussion, I realized that brunch in New York was a little more commonplace than the extravagant Sunday brunch buffets that we're accustomed to here in the islands.   In New York, brunch was also an everyday casual meal eaten in a cafe or bistro that wasn't necessarily a huge buffet.   It was simply mid-morning and crossed the barriers between breakfast and lunch items, finding a niche of its own dishes.   Not being really big here, we opted for a dim sum brunch that was just what she was hoping for.

While we don't really have a lot of restaurants that specifically carry a casual brunch menu, I really do enjoy the big brunch buffets that are all over the island, primarily for special occasions.  I like throwing on some nice aloha attire, but something a little more colorful and breezy than the type of aloha shirts that we typically wear to work.  I like matching my aloha shirts with my son, and of course I love seeing my wife in a holoku.  I like all of the variety that we have in our buffets, with influences from around the world, including cheese platters from France, dim sum from China, sashimi and tempura from Japan, good ol' American bacon and eggs, our beloved Hawaiian food, and so much more.  I like relaxing afterwards and walking along the beach to digest.  Somehow eating a big buffet in the mid morning, gives you a lot more time to digest than at dinner time when you're probably going to drop off to sleep soon afterwards.     With all of our fancy hotels in Waikiki, there is no shortage of good places for a Sunday brunch buffet.   They may not exactly be cheap, but it's a wonderful way to celebrate a birthday. 

There are a few brunch buffets that stand out in my mind than others.  Of course, I love visiting the Willows.  You can't beat them for greenery, Hawaiian music, and Hawaiian food.  I adore the Prince Court in the Hawaii Prince Hotel.  They may have one of the most elegant settings in Waikiki.  I really love going to Hoku's in the Kahala Resort (formerly the Kahala Hilton and then the Kahala Mandarin Oriental).   I distinctly remember going there for my Aunty's birthday one year, and they had these oysters that were sizzling in their own juices on the half shell over an open coal grill.  They were so plump and juicy, and the smell of the oysters was just carried in by the sea breeze.  They were fantastic.  And of course after you're done, you've just got to walk around the Kahala.   It's such a beautiful resort, that my best friend was married there on the beach.  I love their gorgeous rock stairwell that is completely covered in all different types of blooming orchids.  There's one orchid there that smells exactly like chocolate!  I love the waterfall that they've got right outside Hoku's.   I love walking their own private strip of Kahala beach, just about the perfect beach.   I love flopping down in their rope hammock and listening to the surf wash ashore.  But most of all, I adore the 4 dolphins they have in their lagoon.  My wife and I used to take moonlit walks on Kahala beach, just to come visit the dolphins at the Kahala, and do some snuggling and stargazing in the hammock.   We love them so much, that on our 5th wedding anniversary we decided to forego eating at Hoku's entirely, and decided to just have a swim with Kolohe and Niele.  

Swimming with the Dolphins at the Kahala Resort
While I adore the Kahala Resort, there is one other buffet that we tend to patronize more than any other place for Sunday brunch.   That would have to be the Oceanarium restaurant in the Pacific Beach Hotel.  While I've got great memories at the Kahala, I have a ton at the Pac Beach as well.  Pac Beach is where I had my junior prom in high school (with the girl I had a crush on since I was 11).  Pac Beach is where we spent countless birthdays, Easters, and Mother's Days.  When my wife worked at This Week magazines, they would frequently give her bonuses in the form of credit at Pac Beach, so we would find ourselves taking guests to Oceanarium frequently as well.

The 3 Story Aquarium at the Pacific Beach Hotel
Of course, the most striking feature of the Pac Beach is their 3 story tall aquarium.  Growing up, my wife was neighbors with the family that owned and designed the tank at the Pac Beach.   Even when I was a little kid, I remember having dinner at the Pac Beach and staring endlessly at all of the fish in the tank.  Nowdays, I see my son doing the same thing, utterly fascinated with all of the fish in the aquarium.   Both of us particularly love the giant stingrays that they have, which glide so effortlessly and gracefully through the water.   My son also likes it when the puffer fish comes up to him, for it appears to have a built in smile on its lips.  He also loves watching the diver come by every hour to feed the fish.  Although I have never understood how so many of them like nibbling on lettuce, when lettuce obviously isn't part of their natural diet.

Fish Feeding in the Aquarium at the Pacific Beach Hotel
For as long as I could remember, the Pac Beach had 3 restaurants near the aquarium.  Diners at the Oceanarium could view the colorful reef fish at the bottom of the tank.   The middle of the tank created the illusion of the deep open ocean, more appropriate for the seafood lovers at Neptune to view larger fish wandering about.  The waterfall at the top of the tank was the perfect addition to the Japanese decor at Shogun Restaurant.    My wife always loved Shogun, because she likes to keep her food separate (something I found extremely funny that the TV character, Monk, has in common with her).  So she really appreciated a Japanese buffet that featured bento boxes with distinct chambers, something you don't find in many places.   Sadly, the Shogun closed a few years back, but at least the other two are still there to enjoy.

Out of all the restaurants there however, it is the Oceanarium that we tended to visit the most.   Not just because you could see more of the fish in the aquarium, but also because we really love the brunch buffet there.   Whenever I go, my first plate will inevitably be a plate with all the different types of cheeses they've got.  I love cheese, and having a spread of cheddar, swiss, jack, gouda, and brie is like heaven to me.   I always follow that up with a cold plate of all their fresh seafood items, poke, sashimi, oysters, mussels, and shrimp cocktail.  Admittedly, the oysters are nowhere near as plump as the ones I remember at Hoku's, and the sashimi is nowhere near the quality of a place like Yanagi Sushi, but they're decent and usually whet my appetite for everything else.   My favorite thing at Oceanarium will come next.   I love the made-to-order omelette station they have there.  I always have mine with some Portuguese sausage, bay shrimp, olives, mushrooms and cheese.  Now, I'm a pretty good hand at making omelettes myself (something I do every Mother's Day), but it's nice to have someone do it for me.   Plus they use a lot more buter in theirs than I do, so it's always more rich.   As far as eggs go, they also make a very good eggs benedict (or is it eggs florentine?).  Usually I don't like eggs benedict, because the hollandaise sauce usually makes the english muffin all soggy and when english muffins get soggy they get very chewy.   But the ones I've had at Ocenarium are always still pretty toasty and crisp.  They've also have a great mix of breakfast and lunch items, from bacon to coffee infused tenderloin to seafood pasta.   But if you're serious about getting the good stuff you head straight for the prime rib carving station or the snow crab legs.  My son really likes the snow crab legs, as long as his Goong Goong will sit there and shell it for him.  To top it all off, they've got a lot of nice desserts, but my favorite was always their hang yen tofu (or almond float).  A lot of places that make almond float make it too thin and watery, and rely on the fruit cocktail to give it flavor.   Other places I've had it make it kind of hard and there's almost an unpleasant crispness when you bite into it.   But the one at Oceanarium is almost (not quite) how my Po Po used to make it.   It's firm, like very firm finger jello (not the jiggly regular jello), but when you bite it, it instantly becomes very very creamy.   It has a yummy milky taste, similar to white rabbit candy.  It's just the thing to top of a great meal there. 

Sunday brunch may not be the casual everyday meal that my friend was thinking of, but it was also a great way to welcome her home, when I eventually took her.   Walking the beach in your Aloha shirt after enjoying a great Sunday brunch, may be the idyllic vision of Hawaii that everyone dreams of, but that only we get to enjoy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Little Touch of Heart

When I was in high school, one of my best friends found an old picture of himself in a swimsuit that made him completely disgusted with himself (which he nicknamed "the whale").   He ultimately took the drastic action of eliminating virtually all fat from his diet.  He began subsisting almost entirely on bread, rice, and more than anything else cereal.   He took his diet and athletics extremely seriously, and he transformed into one of the most lean and toned individuals I've ever seen. 

Because of him, we always had to keep Costco sized boxes of cereal at our house.   Whenever he would come over (which was pretty frequently), cereal would be the only thing that we could enjoy together.  Although I'm a huge fan of Frosted Flakes, everything would have to be the fat and sugar free cereals (meaning no nuts or dried fruits either).  You'd be surprised at the cereals you THINK are healthy, but actually have a lot of sugar or fat in them, like Cracklin Oat Bran.  But there is still a surprising variety in this criteria; Cornflakes, Cheerios, Chex, Special K, Wheaties, Mini Wheats, Kix, and Grape Nuts to name a few.   Out of all of them, I never really liked Grape Nuts.  Although they withstood milk the best, they were just hard little pebbles that tasted way too earthy for my taste.  But I found that I really liked mixing Grape Nuts with Prego spaghetti sauce.  Don't ask me how that got started, but something about adding a little savoriness to the mix just made them a lot tastier.

Although we kept huge boxes of cereal at our house for our frequent guest, I've never really liked having cereal for breakfast.  To me, it was always a late night snack with my friend.  Something about having cereal with cold milk in the morning upsets my tummy.   Breakfast to me, has to be a warm and yummy thing.  Actually, cold cereals themselves are only a century old phenomenon.  It wasn't until the Kellog brothers invented Corn Flakes and granola, that such a product even existed and became popular.   Prior to their innovation, everyone ate oatmeal or porridge.   In the old world, porridge or gruel was made with oats, barley, or wheat.   Most people think of porridge as a European peasant food, but in actuality, all of the Asian countries also had an equivalent.   But there the porridge is made with rice.   Here in Hawaii, we know this dish for it's Chinese name, jook.

Sau Yuk Pei Dan Jook at Royal Garden
If you go to Hong Kong, or pretty much any other country on that side of the world, jook is the defacto breakfast item.  But here in Hawaii, jook has never really had the same connotation.  I was pretty surprised to see jook being eaten for breakfast everywhere I went in China.  Here, jook is most frequently associated with 2 other things.   It is the most popular way of dealing with Thanksgiving leftovers (something I'm very much looking forward to next week).  And it is the end all cure for the common cold, similar to the way that chicken soup is perceived on the mainland.   I remember whenever I got sick when I was younger, my Po Po would make me the best jook in the world.   After she passed away, and my mom had no time to make it for me, they would always stop at Kwok's Chop Suey on Waialae and pick up a container for me.   Unfortunately, when Hung Won took over from Kwok's, they no longer maintained a supply of jook on the menu.  But these days whenever I get sick, my wife will stop off at Mini Garden on the way home and pick up a bowl for me.   It really does make you feel better when you're sick and miserable.

Besides "Thanksgiving turkey" jook and "chicken soup for the local boy" jook, you can find nice steaming bowls of jook at dim sum.    Dim sum in Hawaii also has different connotations from dim sum in Hong Kong.   Originally created as a snack food for travellers visiting roadside inns, "dim sum" translates to a little touch of heart (although there is some debate as to whether it is touch as a verb meaning "to touch", or touch as a noun meaning "just a touch").  In the Orient is eaten all day long, but frequently enjoyed as "siu yeh" or a midnight snack.   Dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong serve dim sum 24 hours a day, and frequently at 1AM you can find a dim sum restaurant packed with people.   Here in Hawaii, dim sum is primarily a brunch occasion.  For a Chinese family, dim sum is the traditional Sunday brunch, and that is when you'll find most the most people at Chinese restaurants.

My favorite dim sum restaurant when I was very little was the Oceania floating restaurant.   It was a gorgeous Chinese restaurant built on a boat and docked at the harbor near the Falls of Clyde.  As I recall, the ship was built as a sister ship (or a clone of) the famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong.   Unfortunately, it didn't do well, and it's bankruptcy financially devastated and marred the reputation of the late great Sen. Hiram Fong.  I was very little at the time, but distinctly remember how cool it was to be eating nai dan bao and grass jelly rolls on such a gorgeous boat.   As I was growing up, I would always favor Sea Fortune (whose chef moved on to build Happy Days), and of course the always crowded Legend Seafood Restaurant in the Chinese Cultural Plaza (probably the king of all dim sum places in Honolulu).   But these days, I also look for a little bit of ambiance, someplace a little nicer to take visitors and clients alike.   Although it isn't as cheap as eating dim sum in Chinatown, a little bit of elegance, and very high quality food, make the difference worth it.    For this extra touch, I like visiting Royal Garden in the Ala Moana Hotel.  

Baked Char Siu Bao at Royal Garden
Just walking in to Royal Garden, you're greeted with a beautiful display case of some of the more exotic dried Chinese delicacies.  They've got enormous dried doong gu (black mushrooms).   They've got some really expensive dried birds nests.   They've got dried abalone the size of softball, and dried scallops the size of golf balls.  Most impressively though, they've got one of the largest pair of shark fins that I've ever seen, that look to be taller than my baby boy.  Around Moon Festival time, they also bake an enormous mooncake which is the size of about 200 regular mooncakes and takes up an entire table.

Sau Yuk Pei Dan Jook with Yau Char Gwai at Royal Garden
When it comes to jook, Royal Garden has some of the best in town.  It's not as thick as my Po Po's was.  It's a little thinner, but it's got a nice smooth consistency.   There are some places where the jook is way too watery and the rice kernels still too distinct, so it's more like a rice soup than a jook.  Royal Garden is also one of the few places in town that serve it with the crispy fried dough (called yau char gwai).  For the Chinese in Hawaii, being originally farmers, jook was a working man's breakfast or lunch.  They really didn't have the little extras that Hong Kong style dim sum brought on, like the crispy fried dough.  Although not having it growing up, I really like dipping the cruncy little things in my jook.   It's similar to dipping saltine crackers in your soup, having the crunchiness play off of the flavorful soup trying to make it soggy.   It's a nice contrast of textures.   My favorite jook at Royal Garden has to be sau yuk pei dan jook (or pork with preserved egg).   The thousand year old egg (which is actually only several months old, preserved in clay and ash), has such a strong, salty flavor.  I once made the mistake of entering a pei dan eating contest, where I had to devour 2 straight whole pei dan, and it was quite overwhelming.   It tasted like putting pure salt and ash in my mouth, and I wound up gagging.   But in the jook, the flavor mellows and blends perfectly well with the rice.  People from the mainland may find it disturbing to eat a jet black egg, but to me the dark sheen of the egg "blacks" and the marbled greenish tinge of the yolks is just a beauty to behold, like black onyx agates.

Jellyfish Salad at Royal Garden
Besides jook, Royal Garden has a huge variety of dim sum.  But besides the regular dishes like char siu bao, lo bak gou, and noh mai gai, they've got some of the more elegant dishes.   They have nice cold appetizers like their jellyfish salad.   Jellyfish actually a little crunchier than you'd expect it to be.  Kind of like daikon or cucumber in it's crunch.  But it's almost tasteless.  Instead it imbibes the flavors of whatever you dip it in, in this case a slightly spicy sesame oil.  It's such a beautiful light taste, just the thing for whetting your appetite.

Yuu Jyuu at Royal Garden
They also make an amazingly killer roast pork.   But this is NOT siu yuk as we're normally accustomed to here.   This is yuu jyuu, or suckling pig.  Because it's such a young pig, it doesn't have layers of fat that you get with siu yuk.  However, also because it's such a young pig, the meat is so amazingly tender, you don't need the fat to moisten it.   Instead you're left with an extremely crunchy (but not oily) skin, and some tender lean meat, with a very delicate flavorful pork taste. 

Roast Duck at Royal Garden
Probably my favorite thing at Royal Garden though is their roast duck (or siu ngap).   Their duck may possibly be the best roast duck in town.   It's first of all quite lean, yet still tender.   It's also quite meaty, not just all bones.  The skin is crisp, not oily, and intensely flavorful.   But what it really has is an incredible duck flavor, which is kind of hard to describe in English.   In Chinese, we say a flavor like this is very "herng" or fragrant (this is also the first word in Hong Kong or herng gong meaning "fragrant harbor"), as if the smokey flavors of the duck transcends your sense of taste and intoxicates your sense of aroma as well.   This duck is certainly the most fragrant in town.  To top it all off, it's served on a bed of candied azuki beans, that just sit there and absorb all of the fantastic duck juices and flavors.   So you've got this amazing combination of candy sweet azuki bean flavor mixed with the smokey duck flavor.  My son will sit there and just pop them in his mouth, one by one, with his little chopsticks and be perfectly content.

Whether it is just a simple bowl of jook, or a full dim sum brunch, having a Chinese breakfast is such a nice change of pace from bacon and eggs.  A little touch of heart that fills you up for the rest of the day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gravy Crazy

Anything with an egg on it instantly makes it breakfast right?    Even if you feel like eating something as substantial as a steak or a country fried steak, all you have too do is add an egg to it, and you've suddenly got a viable breakfast option.  Steak and eggs.  Country fried steak and eggs.   Hamburger steak and eggs.   That last one was so popular in Hawaii, that it grew into a famous dish in its own right, the loco moco. 

Just how did something ridiculously drowned in gravy come to be a viable breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) option?   Simple.  Financial scarcity.  As I've mentioned before, times were tough in the old days.   Both my dad and my wife's dad would recall how you were lucky to be able to afford just a small piece of meat, and that small piece would need to be shared with your whole family.   Making gravy out of it, was a way of making it last longer.   Even if you weren't able to have a lot of real meat, you could at least have the taste of it with your rice.   My dad often recalls (with some surprising fondness) his childhood days, where he would wander into the school cafeteria and order just a rice ball covered with gravy for a snack.   Lean times meant that gravy became engrained into culture, even when times got better and meat got more affordable. 

Nowdays, people look upon gravy laden dishes with understandable disdain.  Even I don't need my sister to tell me that that much gravy is unhealthy for you.   Just looking at it is enough to send your arteries whimpering away in fear.  But like everything, an occasional indulgence won't kill you.   It does taste sinfully good after all, the whole reason it's so popular in the first place.  As a local boy, I can't help but have a sentimental fondness for the gravy drenched goodness. 

When I was away at grad school on the mainland, my friend Sean and I decided to skip school and spend a week at Comdex, at one time the biggest computer convention in the world.   It was so huge that it took up 4 convention sites in Las Vegas for a week.   Imagine the entire Blaisdell, the Convention Center, the University of Hawaii , and the Hilton Hawaiian Village all running the same expo for a week, and you've got roughly the size of what Comdex was.   We were there in my 3rd month away from home, so naturally I was starting to get a little homesick.   Luckily, we were in Las Vegas, also known as the 9th Hawaiian island for the frequency with which local people visit.   So I dragged my friend to the bastion of Hawaii people in Vegas, the California Hotel & Casino.  There, I introduced him to the wonders of the plate lunch and specifically the loco moco.  Being from Taiwan, he was always dismayed with the meat & potatoes cuisine on the mainland.  It took him a long time to become accustomed to having that much potato on the menu, and he never really developed a fondness for it.   So when he tried the rice based loco moco for the first time, he was instantly enamored.

Naturally, when Sean came to visit the islands, I had to take him to have a true loco moco from one of our local hot spots.    We visited a number of places, but the one he liked the best, was probably my favorite plate lunch place in the world, Regal Diner.   The long time resident of McCully Shopping Center, gave me quite a scare a while ago, as I was walking to their location at the far Ewa end of the strip and discovered a vacant space with a "for rent" sign.   I was instantly and completely dismayed.  My favorite little plate lunch place was gone??   With all of the local places that we've lost recently, I was devastated to lose another favorite.   I wandered down the strip heartbroken and hungry, only to find that they weren't closed, but had moved to a new, bigger, much prettier location on the other end next to 7-Eleven (where Coldstone used to be).  Overjoyed and relived, I hurriedly ordered a loco moco and sat down to enjoy my lunch.

Loco Moco at Regal Diner
I really have to concur with Sean that Regal Diner has the best loco moco on the island.  His reason for liking it was because of their seasoning.  He said that somehow they had a more Oriental flavor to him than other places I took him too (which makes sense considering that I always speak to the owner behind the counter in Cantonese).   I kind of knew what he was talking about, as the gravy in their loco moco is somewhat lighter and has a subtle sesame oil flavor to it.  I had also taken Sean to Karen's Kitchen, but while huge, their loco moco was somehow heavier and not as flavorful.  Besides the gravy, Regal Diner uses some of the best hamburger patties anywhere.  Their meat tastes like real, quality beef.  Unlike other places that have a lot of filler in their patties.  I loved Masu's Massive Plate Lunch, but while their Hawaiian food was da bomb, their hamburger steak was probably the worst in terms of over breading.   Also, just because a loco moco is covered in gravy doesn't mean that the hamburger can't be dry.   I once orderd a loco moco at UH, that had a couple of really small dry burgers, a dry overcooked egg, dry hard rice, and the tasteless gravy couldn't make up for it.   Regal's hamburger on the other hand is always very meaty and very juicy.   Add to that an egg that is so perfectly fried that its got just a touch of brown crispiness to it, a yolk that is cooked just enough that it isn't runny but thick, sticky, yummy goo, and absolutely no air to give it any unwanted fluff.   Then lay that on some nice soft rice, and you've got a perfect classic loco moco.

Ahi Loco Moco at Sugoi
These days, people have been trying a lot of variation to the classic loco moco too.   Sugoi, in City Square (where the old Gem used to be), has a really great ahi loco moco.  Sugoi offers brown rice and tossed salad with all of their dishes, but honestly, we're talking about the loco moco here.  The infantesimal health benefit that you would gain is completely pointless, so you might ast well just enjoy yourself.  But their ahi is perfectly cooked.   It's a very thick and moist fillet, and even beneath all of that gravy you can taste the ahi flavor.  I'm no sure it is the batter around the fish or the gravy, but there is also a hint of sweetness to it as well.

For the true, authentic, quintessential loco moco however, you must travel to the island of its birth, the Big Island of Hawaii.  It is long debated whether Lincoln Grill or Cafe 100 were originators of the loco moco.   With Lincoln Grill long gone, Cafe 100 certainly has no real competition to the claim, and they are now the de facto place for a loco moco in Hilo.  Named after the famed 100th Battalion, one of the most decorated units in World War II, Cafe 100 certainly has a huge menu of variations on the classic loco moco.  The one to get is of course the "Super" loco moco, as it has all of the classic loco moco components, plus spam and Portuguese sausage.  Now there's a breakfast that will just put you back to sleep after eating it.  Getting a loco moco at Cafe 100 is also decidedly cheaper than getting one here on Oahu, as they are generally under $5.  

For all of its fame however, I didn't really think that Cafe 100 was the most flavorful loco moco.  They were good yes, but honestly I think I preferred the loco moco at Regal Diner better.   A little disillusioned, I asked my friends at the Hilo PD for their recommendations.  Figuring that cops always know the best places, cheapest, most local places to eat, I expressed my dissatisfaction to them, and they directed me to a little hole in the wall called Koji's Bento Korner.   They said that Koji's was by far much more flavorful, and the hamburger much more high quality.  Naturally, they were right.  The Koji Loco was super flavorful.  Koji's makes a fantastic, fresh, hand made burger patty with premium meat.  On top of that, it's a teri burger, so the teriyaki flavor blends with their gravy making it extra tasty.   Add some crisp Portuguese sausage, some kim chee, and wow, that thing was ono.

You just can't run out and grab a loco moco all that frequently, but when I do I can appreciate my dad's affinity for good gravy and rice.   The poor man's answer to leaner times endures even in the best of them.