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.
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.