Kau Kau: the all-purpose Hawaiian pidgin term for food (derived from the Chinese “chow chow”).
I’m very pleased to welcome Arnold Hiura to alphabet soup today, not only because he has written a fabulous new book about Hawai’i’s culinary history, but because this interview has given me the opportunity to reconnect with an old college classmate.
Arnold and I were both English majors at the University of Hawai’i, where we took the same Shakespeare class in grad school. I was no fool — I made sure I sat next to him, hoping that some of his brains and writing talent would rub off on me. ☺
After graduation, Arnold taught English for a few years at Punahou, a prestigious private school on O’ahu. One of his students was none other than a certain Barry Obama. Fast forward to last December, when the Obamas were in Hawai’i for Christmas. They dined at one of their favorite restaurants, Alan Wong’s in Honolulu, at which time Chef Wong gifted the President with a copy of Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands. I love how things come full
circle — how small and friendly the world can be, how food brings people together.
Mrs. Obama once said, “In order to understand Barack, you have to understand Hawai’i.” I say, in order to understand Hawai’i, you must understand the food. What do Hawaiians eat and why? Where do the dishes come from? How were they adapted to suit island living? How have the different ethnic groups retained their distinct identities while forging a common bond through the evolution of a “local” style of cooking? Moreover, how have Island cooks, through time, shaped local society?
Take any food closely identified with the Islands — the iconic Spam® musubi, saimin, barbecue (teriyaki), kimchee, plate lunch, manapua, malasadas, shave ice — at its heart there is a fascinating story, an ethnicity, a social dynamic, a heritage, a place, a period in history, and countless anecdotes local people love to share.
In Kau Kau, Arnold examines these different facets by profiling local food pioneers, farmers, chefs, restaurateurs, and business owners. His chapters on the roots of Hawai’i cuisine, immigrant plantation culture, the effects of WWII, and the Hawaiian Renaissance provide a broader context for the numerous ingredients that have contributed to Hawai’i’s mixed plate.
There are 70+ authentic recipes (everything from simple comfort food to Hawai’i Regional Cuisine chef dishes), as well as interesting sidebars (“Kau Kau Connections”), offering simple activities for those who want to have some fun with local food (Arnold rhapsodizes about loco moco; his wife, Eloise, shares her father’s famous teriyaki recipe; there’s even advice on how to order shave ice and plate lunches). Even though I grew up with this food, I learned a lot from Kau Kau, and came away with a new appreciation for Hawai’i’s unique food history.
Arnold is an independent writer, editor, and media consultant, originally from the sugar plantation town of Papa’ikou on the Big Island of Hawai’i. He currently lives and works in Honolulu. For many years, he was Editor of the Hawaii Herald and Curator of the Japanese American National Museum. It took about three years to complete Kau Kau, during which time he freely engaged in serious research of the most delicious kind.
Congratulations on the publication of Kau Kau, Arnold! It looks like you’ve been having a lot of fun with booksignings and television interviews. How are people reacting to the book so far?
Borders booksigning (photo courtesy of Watermark Publishing).
I was a little nervous about the booksignings at first because I didn’t know what to expect. However, the events so far have been a lot of fun. Depending on the island and store location, I’ve been surprised by friends, relatives and even some old classmates I haven’t seen in many years. In general, people are eager to talk about where they are from and what their favorite food memories might be. We offer a simple snack of saloon pilot crackers drizzled with sweet condensed cream as a lure for folks to step up to the table and chat. It’s kind of funny to hear the P.A. announcement at Borders announce the signing and describing the saloon pilot cracker/cream as “a special plantation dessert”!
What sparked the idea for Kau Kau? What are some of the unique challenges of putting together a coffee table book?
The idea for the book grew out of conversations I had with some friends I grew up with on the island of Hawai’i. We shared similar upbringings in neighboring plantation towns and attended the same schools. One of them kept saying, “You’re the writer; you ought to write this stuff down, man.” He just happened to have entrée to the publisher, so the project moved from concept to reality.
Windward O’ahu family preparing for a luau, circa 1910 (Hawai’i State Archives).
I started writing things down in a more anecdotal style – the publisher’s desire to produce a coffee table book forced me to expand the scope of the story and include recipes. The art and photography were important, of course, and I was fortunate to work with my good friend, Shuzo Uemoto, who accompanied me on all of my interviews. Most of the food shots were done by Adriana Torres Chong, a chef and food photographer.
Which do you enjoy most: research, writing, or promotion?
The interviews were fun, because it took us on the road, island-hopping, and eating well. I learned a lot and met a lot of great people. Writing? Well, you know how that goes, Jama … you lose sleep thinking about things, struggle to get stuff down, and hope that once in a while bits and pieces come together.
Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo specializes in mochi and manju (Co-owner, Nora Uchida, center). Photo by Shuzo Uemoto.
You dedicated the book to your wife, Eloise, mentioning that she “worked as hard on this book as I did.” Please tell us a little more about her crucial role in making this book happen.
Arnold with Eloise (left) and friend, Michelle, at KTA Superstores booksigning, December 2009 (photo courtesy of Eloise Hiura).
She is my sounding board – often helping me find the core message of an interview. She’s the first person to read something I write. She also did most of the searching and selection of recipes and old photographs at the Hawai’i State Archives.
It’s obvious you did tons of research, some of it decidedly delicious and highly caloric. I’m guessing it was part book/periodical/newspaper/internet research, part interviews, part collecting anecdotal tidbits, part personal experience. How did you keep track of all the information you gathered?
Yes to all of the above. I’m not a very organized person in real life – skillfully misplacing things and endlessly searching for things I know I should have. The best I can do is to pile things in general areas – which I did with my notebooks, cookbooks, and CDs relating to “Kau Kau” for the past several years. I’m better when it comes to organizing electronic files on my computer, backing things up, and creating a system of folders. Periodically, I would rework my outline to see where I was and what might be missing. Later, I stuffed things in a binder that allowed me to physically reshuffle some of the topics into chapters to see how it felt.
Kau Kau is full of wonderful vintage images, like this 1941 postcard depicting Felix’s Florentine Gardens (courtesy of DeSoto Brown private collection).
I especially enjoyed learning about all the local people involved in Hawai’i’s food industry (chefs, restaurateurs, bakers, grocers, farmers, ranchers). Of all the interviews you did, does any one in particular stand out? Did you know any of your interviewees personally prior to working on the book?
I consciously tried to interview people I didn’t know, believing that would help to expand my perspectives and corroborate notions that I held about local food. Of course, especially in Hawai’i, you can’t avoid people you already know. This was especially true of the Big Island, where I grew up. People like Derek Kurisu of KTA Superstores and Allan Ikawa of Big Island Candies are close friends. I like to talk about one memorable interview that took place on Maui, where two older guys in a parking lot got into swapping tales about how poor their families were, until one finally said, “We were so poor that we ate grass!”
Arnold with pals Allan Ikawa and Derek Kurisu at the Book Launch Party.
Book Launch Celebration buffet (yum)! (photos courtesy of Watermark Publishing)
Though I was also raised in Hawai’i, there were a lot of things I didn’t know until I read Kau Kau. Can you share a few things you discovered that you found especially surprising or fascinating?
I embarked on this journey on the island of Kaua’i, where I identified salt (Hanapepe) and taro (Hanalei) as two of the most basic elements in our food culture. I was fortunate to have Mr. Masa Fujita show me the intricacies of saltmaking at the actual site. It was a most auspicious start.
Masa Fujita tends salt beds in Hanapepe, Kaua’i (photo by Shuzo Uemoto).
As people from Hawai’i emigrate to the mainland and other countries and bring many of their favorite foods with them (plate lunches, Pacific Rim cuisine, etc.), do you see Hawai’i gaining a more global influence in food nationally, and perhaps internationally?
I think so. I’m old enough to remember a time when no one really knew anything about local kau kau, except perhaps some stereotypical views of “Hawaiian” food perpetuated by tourists (poi that tastes like paste, a pineapple ring on a piece of ham, a tropical drink with an orchid and an umbrella stuck on top). I think the ‘70s were a transformative time, when the so-called Hawaiian Renaissance led to new respect and appreciation of the Hawaiian language, music and dance, as well as local literature, Pidgin English and local food. The Hawai’i Regional Cuisine movement has its roots in this period. Today, it’s amazing how active the Internet is with food bloggers documenting and reviewing restaurants around the world that feature local style food.
Arnold with Chef Alan Wong at the Book Launch Party.
(photo courtesy of Watermark Publishing)
Do you have a favorite chapter from the book?
Hmmm, I don’t really have one favorite chapter, although I did start writing about the plantation era. I guess that might be closest to my personal experience. In the book, we ended up calling some of the more personal reflections “Kau Kau Connections.” I chose to end the book with an essay about my grandmother (“Epilogue”) because I thought it best captured the heart of what I wanted to convey about food and culture. I think there are many Grandmas who might fit the story.
Are you a good cook? If so, what is your specialty?
No, I don’t consider myself a good cook. I do fine with “survival cookery,” though. I can throw stuff together with the best of them – simple but filling stuff like an omelet or stir fry. I like to eat well, but don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it.
Please share a favorite childhood food-related memory.
Oh, way too many to choose one. In general, I think about how little of what we ate was bought from a store. People had vegetable gardens and fruit trees, raised chickens and pigs, went hunting and fishing, and gathered stuff. People exchanged stuff all the time, too. Much of this is hard to fathom today. I was also fortunate to grow up in a truly multiethnic setting, so eating all sorts of food was ingrained in me from the beginning.
The Haraguchi family on their 50-acre taro farm in the Hanalei Valley (photo by Shuzo Ueomoto).
How has working on this book stretched you as a writer?
I’ve helped others put books out, so the process was not new to me. It’s the first time I put something out that I chose to write about with my name on the cover, however. That involves a different sort of responsibility. Finally writing my own stuff also freed me to truly use and develop my own voice, rather than trying to make stuff fit someone else.
Chazuke – hot tea and rice – or anything similar, like okai, chagai, or jook…
Shave ice flavor.
Snow cap (sweet condensed milk)
Plate lunch entrée.
One local food you’d take if banished to a desert island.
Beef jerky (pipikaula, smoke meat)
Pot luck dish.
Any new projects you’d like to mention?
Keeping up with my usual assortment of writing, media and PR projects as I’ve been doing for the past 18 years (articles, newsletters, websites, etc.) plus promoting Kau Kau is keeping me very busy for now. I also work on exhibit projects, with three different ones currently on the table. I’m very lucky to stay so busy doing stuff that I enjoy.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Arnold! You’ve made me very, very hungry and anxious to make some of the recipes in Kau Kau, especially this one, since it’s your favorite plate lunch entrée:
photo by Adriana Torres Chong
1/2 c. shoyu
1/3 c. sugar
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 T finely minced ginger
1 T Ko Choo Jung bean paste
1 tsp. sesame oil
2 T thinly sliced green onion
1 tsp sesame seeds, toasted
4 lbs. beef short ribs
Combine marinade ingredients in a saucepan and heat until sugar dissolves. Cool sauce. Pour over ribs and marinate overnight, turning meat 2 or 3 times. For best results, grill meat over charcoal or gas, 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
♥ Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands can be purchased directly from the publisher, or through any of your favorite online booksellers. Watermark Publishing’s webpage includes links to some great online reviews and articles.
♥ Be sure to check out Kau Kau’s Facebook Fan Page for lots more photos and updates.
♥ The official book trailer is here.
♥ Special thanks to Dawn Sakamoto, Watermark Director of Sales and Marketing!
♥ Three pieces mochi, one bowl miso soup, 2 slices fried Spam®, one scoop rice, 1/4 cup taegu, and three pieces sub-standard won bok kimchee were consumed during the making of this post. It’s hard work, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Mochi (my favorite!), photo by Shuzo Uemoto.
“Soup, like Guzman’s mother’s fish sabao, is one of the most universal comfort foods in the world. All around the globe some kind of chicken soup, miso soup, bean soup, oxtail soup, jook (rice soup), tomato soup, noodle soup, vegetable soup, pig’s feet soup or chowder heads the lists of comfort foods. Soup just seems naturally disposed to the role: It is flavor; it is aroma; it is texture; it is instant warmth that fills the body and stimulates the brain.” ~ Arnold Hiura, Kau Kau
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