It has been decades since I actually lived in Hawaii, but it is where my mother lives and where my father is buried. It is where my sister Mary raised her wonderful, beautiful daughters, Sarah and Emily. And it is where I go “home” three or four times a year to reconnect with old friends and share wonderful food.
I have traveled the world, and I can say with confidence that there are few places where social and cultural interconnections are more defined by what tastes really, really good. Not food fads, not obscure ingredients, not equipment (although some of my dearest friends have lots of cooking equipment), but HUGE TASTE. One saying is “broke da mouth.” No pretensions.
That is what you aim for.
At potlucks in Hawaii, you often see some of the same foods recurring: grilled chicken, kalbi, macaroni salad, kim chee, sushi, poke, lots of dessert. But usually those golden standards are based on someone’s aunties secret recipe, made with great care, and served with aloha. These are dishes that have evolved over generations, sometimes into different species of the same genus.
Nearly every Buddhist Temple or ethnic women’s club has published at least one, or even ten, cookbooks. Nearly all are 5 ½ by 8 ½ inches in size and bound by plastic or wire binders. In the early days, the books featured lots of casseroles and things to make with ketchup, canned corned beef and cans of cream of mushroom soup. But nestled within are also some amazingly luscious creations.
I’m going to share some of my favorites today, and would sure like to hear back from you if you have some favorite “broke-da-mouth” potluck recipes.
Here’s one from my friend Jocelyn’s deceased Aunty. Her original recipe did not include actual specifications for quantities, so I am putting in my best guess.
JOCELYN NAKASHIMA CHING'S AUNTY SHINACHAN'S MACARONI POTATO SALAD
Cook up about two pounds yellow potatoes and a pound of macaroni (she liked Creamettes), and 4 or 5 boiled eggs, chopped. Mix it all with a can of crab, a half stick of chopped kamaboko, 2 T grated onions, a grated carrot or two, 3 or 4 diced celery stalks, a cup of sliced nappa cabbage, 1/2 to 3/4 cup of Best Foods mayonnaise, a spoon of mustard (she used French’s Yellow, I would use Dijon), ¼ tsp of sugar and a teaspoon or so of pickle juice. If you use Dijon mustard, you might be able to get away without the pickle juice.
And here is a recipe that just blows me away, from my culinary hero Gordon Lum.
GORDON’S COLD GINGER CHICKEN
First, make a sauce by finely slicing 3 bunches green onions (short of a half pound) then coarsely chop again. Set that aside. Then put 2 cloves or chopped garlic and ¼ lb of peeled, chucks of ginger into a mini-food processor and chop fine.
Combine everything together with Hawaiian salt with just enough vegetable oil to saturate the mixture. Mix and refrigerate overnight to allow the salt to dissolve. Add more salt IF needed; this will make a little over 2 cups of sauce.
Pour some of it over cold shredded poached chicken breast.
Gordon also introduced me to Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku, past the North Shore of Oahu. This dish is luscious and dangerous. Here’s my take, but you have to go there yourself to experience the slightly crisp crustaceans swimming in a little red and white cardboard dish of garlic lemon butter, crowded onto a picnic table, swatting at flies. Or maybe not.
MY ODE TO GIOVANNI
I would use at least two or three pounds of prawns. If your prawns are frozen, I would defrost them in a brine of 1 tsp. salt and a few cups of water. This seems to make them taste fresher.
First toss huge, peeled and deveined prawns in a coating made of ¾ cup flour, 2 T smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper to taste.
Heat up a big skillet or wok over low heat with a cube of butter, a smashed and chopped full head of garlic (sans peels) until it all starts to smell amazing.
Then turn up the heat and add your prawns and cook it till it is pink and firm, but not too firm. Squeeze at least a half a lemon over the whole thing. Salt it to taste and sprinkle with chopped green onion and parsley.
I would serve this with a really cold smoky gin martini with a lemon twist. (Smoky scotch instead of vermouth with a London Dry Gin --such as Beefeaters-- shaken until your hands turn numb.)