Sunday, December 6, 2009

Da Poa-Ta-Gee Food

Although most of the cultures of Hawaii are from Asian origin, the one European group that really did have a strong influence in Hawaii were the Portuguese.   The Portuguese, or as they're affectionately called in Hawaii, "da Poa-Ta-Gee", came to work on the sugar plantations along with the all the others.   As a result, they were one of the few European groups that had a significant contribution to our culture.  Even the ukulele, the definitive icon of Hawaiian music, was originally a Portuguese instrument.   When the Hawaiians saw the Portuguese playing this instrument, they gave it the name ukulele (or jumping flea), to describe the rapid finger movements in plucking the strings.  

Having such a great influence on our culture, I really wanted to visit and explore a popular, beloved, old school Portuguese restaurant.   The strange thing is, while there are tons of Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the islands, there just don't exisit any definitive Portuguese restaurants anywhere.  I can't fathom why, with the large Portuguese population that still lives in the islands, there aren't any true Portuguese restaurants.  Have they simply become so integrated, so assimilated that they no one feels the need to showcase the cuisine of Portugal?   In fact, even though we call them Portuguese, in my mind I don't really associate them with Portugal at all, but rather simply as da Poa-ta-gee, a separate ethnicity local to these islands. 

The only significant place that you can purchase Portuguese cuisine, is from the bakeries that they've established long ago.   The most beloved of these are of course, Agnes' Portuguese Bake Shop in Kailua, and the legendary Leonard's Bakery on Kapahulu.  It is from the Portuguese that we developed our love of butter and of sugar (because none of the Asian communities used either of these ingredients in large quantities).   Like all the plantation communities, the Portuguese loved to share their food, and at the start of Lent, the catholic Portuguese needed to use up all of their butter and sugar before the great period of fasting.  In Brazil, this custom lead to what's now called Carnival.   In New Orleans, this custom lead to Fat Tuesday, the beginning of Mardi Gras.  In Hawaii, this custom lead the Portuguese to make their beloved malasadas and give them away to their neighbors.  Thus in Hawaii, Fat Tuesday is otherwise known as Malasada Day.  

Malasadas from Champion Malasadas
Similar to the French beignets (famous in New Orleans) or Mexican churros,  the Portuguese malasadas are so prevalent at every school carnival, every state fair, delivered to clients before a business meeting, and all kinds of other occassions that we almost forget that, like the ukulele, they are Portuguese in origin.   Of course the famous Leonard's Bakery is de facto place to get them.   Their only real competition is Champion Malasada, which as I understand it was opened by ex-Leonards employees, or affiliates, or something of that nature.  But while they taste pretty much the same, nothing compares to the history and heritage that you get biting into a malasada from Leonard's.   Malasadas absolutely must be eaten hot.  Right outside of the bakery, or the tent at the carnival.   Having them hot let's you savor the slight crunch of the granulated sugar, the crispness of the exterior of the dough, and the warm, almost gooey softness of the dough inside.  You would never want to waste this glorious texture dunking one into your coffee.   Once they get cold, the sugar gets absorbed into the dough, and all crispiness is lost, and they just don't taste as good (so you can go ahead and dunk if you want).  No other doughnut comes even close to fresh and hot, right out of the fryer, malasada.

Kings Hawaiian Sweet Bread
Of course malasadas weren't the only thing they baked.    The Portuguese also contributed another beloved Hawaii staple, the pao doce, otherwise known as sweet bread.  In other parts of the world, when people mention sweetbread, they are usually referring to the internal organs (usually pancreas) of calf or lamb.  But in Hawaii, when you say sweet bread, we only think of the literally sweet bread made by the Portuguese.   Modified from the bread that Portuguese sailors used to bring on long voyages through the Pacific, sweet bread literally has a delicate hint of sweetness to it (though not nearly as overt as a cake).   Sweet bread is the most fluffy and pillowy bread in existence.  It's almost cotton like texture is to bread, what angel food cake or chiffon is to other cakes.  The most famous of these breads is of course from King's Bakery right on King St. and McCully.   For decades, the beloved little coffee shop was the best place on Oahu to buy their big round loaves of light airy goodness.   It's been a while since coffee shop on King St. closed, but they've expanded their wholesale operation in California and make more bread than ever.   If you want to the freshest, locally made bread however, you've got to go to the Big Island, to a little bakery in Hilo called Low International Foods.   They shape their sweet bread in a more conventional loaf shape, but they've got many different tropical flavors added to the bread.   The best one of course, is the rainbow bread, which has swirls of guava and mango in the sweet bread.  A slice of bread itself is a beauty to behold with gorgeous hues of magenta and dreamsicle swirled artistically throughout.  The flavoring is very faint, giving only a subtle hint of the fruit to accent the soft bread.   It is a true Hawaiian classic.

Redondo's Portuguese Sausage
Of course no mention of Portuguese food would be complete without mentioning linguica, or as it's known here, Portuguese sausage.   Like King's being the de facto brand of sweet bread, Redondo's is probably the classic brand of Portuguese sausage.   Even though it's got "Portuguese" right in it's name, this local favorite has been so adopted into our cuisine, that I sometimes forget that it is Portuguese in origin.   It has such a prefect blend of spicy, slightly oily, meatiness that very few sausages can compare.  The only one that is slightly similar in my mind, is a good authentic cajun andouille.  The similarity is such that, I have often used Portuguese sausage as a local substitute in many of my cajun dishes with little variation.   But this also gives my dishes a uniquely local flavor.

Portuguese Sausage, Sweet Bread, & Eggs
Of course all of these foods combine to make the ultimate local breakfast plate.   Even McDonald's offers a supreme breakfast platter including Portuguese sausage and spam.   I have always maintained that my favorite local breakfast consists of fried rice, eggs over easy, and Portuguese sausage.   But to make it truly Portuguese, you must substitute the fried rice for a big piece of sweet bread.   Sweet bread also makes the ultimate french toast.  Or just plain slightly toasted sweet bread and butter is a simple but perfect breakfast.

Portuguese Sausage Omelette Sandwich from Zippy's
What I really like though, is combining these elements all together, with maybe a little bit of mayo or some cheddar cheese and making a Portuguese breakfast sandwich.    In fact, Zippy's offers a fantastic Portuguese sausage omlet sandwich on a sweet bread roll, for just a few dollars.   It is my favorite thing to grab on the way to the airport, before catching one of those early morning neighbor island flights when I have work on the outer islands.  But it tastes even better making it yourself, because you can stuff it with as much Portuguese sausage as you want.   The combination is fantastic.   If there is one meal that the Portuguese just dominate in Hawaii, it's breakfast.

My Own Portuguese Sausage & Egg Sandwich on Sweet Bread
I suppose I should make mention of the other big Portuguese contribution to our diet, Portuguese bean soup.   But as a little kid, I just never liked the texture of beans, so I've never been fond of the stuff.  But it is most certainly a local favorite.

Although there are no real Portuguese restaurants on island, many Portuguese foods have been so assimilated into our cuisine that we forget that they are European in origin.   But perhaps the fact that they are so firmly entrenched, is a sign of just how significant the Portuguese influence has been here.

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