Friday, December 4, 2009

European Edibles (or Lack Thereof)

Hawaii has an amazing array of cultures and corresponding cuisines.   Every culture that came to work on our plantations added their uniqueness to our collective heritage.  However, while we have a greatly varied mix of cultures, they are primarily Asian cultures.   The European cultures, are far less represented, primarily because having only primarily British and American controlling influences in our history, the other European countries simply didn't have a major presense.   It's true we have our share of Italian food but that is mainly because Italian food has become so popular and pervasive, that it everyone across the country eats it.  Even then, our own style of Italian food is somewhat influenced by the Vietnamese restauranteurs who own these places.   Other major European countries, such as the German, Polish, Scandinavian, and Spanish countries have very little presence in our food scene.   Those that do exist are never really challenged in terms of their authenticity, simply because we don't have enough population from any of those countries to dictate authenticity.

Perhaps the most beloved European eatery that was on the island, was a little place in Niu Valley, called Swiss Inn.   For nearly 20 years, the Swiss Inn had a very loyal following in the East Oahu community.  It was only a small little neighborhood restaurant, but it is very fondly remembered by its clientele.  I only had the good fortune to visit the place once, just prior to its closing.   It was a few years after I had visited Switzerland on tour with my sister, so I was by no means an authority on authenticity, but their wiener schnitzel was absolutely delicious.  Weiner schnitzel, despite how the name sounds, has absoultely nothing to do with sausages of any kind (and certainly nothing to do with the hot dog chain on the mainland of the same name).   You could see the influence the dish had on things like chicken fried steak or chicken cutlet, but the herbs they used made it taste exotic and foreign.   Their tart, tangy, and herby potato salad, on the other hand, was just too tart for my taste (and of course completely different from the mac or potato salads that we're used to in the islands).   Even after just one taste, I could tell what drew such a loyal following to the restaurant.   Sadly, it's closing also meant that one of the islands' only true portals into European cuisine was lost forever.    Recently, also in the Niu Valley shopping center, a new little French restaurant called Le Bistro, opened up and I have heard good things about it.   Hopefully they are able to main the same degree of authenciticy, and attract a similar loyal following.

Besides the German influenced cuisine at Swiss Inn, the residents of Kahala always knew when proper European dishes would be offerred for dinner specials at the Patisserie in Kahala Mall.  When I was doing my doctoral program at UH, I had a great professor and mentor who was Hungarian by birth.  He was an incredibly tall, intimidating man, who swam 2 miles a day in Kailua Bay, and was never afraid to call a spade a spade.   Intrigued about his heritage, I decided to visit the Patisserie for dinner one night when they had Hungarian goulash as a dinner special.  Hungarian goulash is entirely different, from the hamburger macaroni that we're served in elementary school of the same name (although I really love that kind of goulash and my wife has perfected making it just for me).   Hungarian goulash is more like a tender but very herby stewed beef dish.  The big hunks of beef were quite herby, but tender and beefy.  On the other hand, I didn't care for the many types of saurkraut that accompanied the beef and potatoes.   Saurkraut may be one of those very definitive European things that just don't cross over into an Asian palate.   While the Japanese have tsukemono, saurkraut is just too tart for my taste and lacks the sweetness of its Japanese counterpart.   It was a great experience, but sadly the Patisserie closed to make way for the giant Whole Foods that has taken over that side of Kahala Mall.   There are other Patisserie locations, but the dinner specials were really a Kahala thing, and the other locations are much more strictly French bakeries.  Although when I was little my mom would occasionally buy eclairs from the Patisserie, I never really cared for the texture of their pastries compared to the Japanese pastries at St. Germains. 

On the other side of the island, Aiea residents would frequent the British fish & chips pub called Elephant & Castle.  There are a number of restaurants on the mainland with the same name, but I'm not sure that the one in Aiea had any affiliation with any of them.   Despite having a strong British influence during the days of the Hawaiian monarchy, stemming from the influence of Captain Cook, there really isn't that much British influence in our cuisine.  Kidney pie is as foreign and somewhat unappetizing to us as it is to our fellow countrymen on the mainland (somewhat ironic since na'au stew is on our Hawaiian menu).  So the fish & chips pub in Aiea was one of the few dominantly British establishments.   It's closing, again meaning a loss of representation in our food scene.

We do have a few Irish pubs, namely Murphy's Bar & Grill, and Kelley O'Neal's. But while they are prominent watering holes, I wouldn't stake much claim on the authenticity of their Irish food.   Sure on St. Patrick's day, everyone will crowd into either place for a pint of Guiness and some corned beef & cabbage, but corned beef & cabbage is really the adaptation of Irish Americans that found beef to be plentiful in the new world.   While this doesn't necessarily make the dish less Irish (that's something I would base on its popularity with Irish Americans, and not just the mainstream populace who think it's Irish food), it's not really a dish you would find in celebrations in Ireland itself.  For myself, I find that I like the corned beef and cabbage made by the Chinese cooks my favorite little plate lunch place, Regal Diner.   I would much rather go there to have their savory (if somewhat fatty) corned beef, rather than cram myself into a noisy pub.  It's actually one of my favorite dishes there.   I guess it just says something about our island when my favorite place to go for an Irish American interpretation of an Irish dish is at a plate lunch place run by Chinese cooks.  

Corned Beef and Cabbage from Regal Diner
European food is something that really is foreign and exotic to me.   Even in this day and age, geographic differences still do separate and isolate us from some parts of the world.  But that just means, there's more out there to explore and enjoy.

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