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.

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