Sunday, January 06, 2013

State-by-State Redux: II of X - Hawaii Revisited - Get Down, Musubi-Ub-Ubi

For our next redux post, we make our way from the Northern to the Southern Pacific, from the Last Frontier to the Aloha State.  I eagerly took Hawaii back on because the last time all I did was look at poi and a Spam-tastic twist on lumpia.  There is just so much more to Hawaiian cuisine that I had to take another look.

Snacking State-by-State Redux II of X: Hawaii

Official Name: State of Hawaii (Hawaiian: Mokuʻāina o Hawaiʻi - Hawaii has two official languages, English and Hawaiian)
State Nickname: The Aloha State
Admission to the US: August 21, 1959 (#50 - Ah, still has that new state smell)
Capital: Honolulu (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Hilo (2nd largest), Kailua (3rd), Kāne‘ohe (4th)
Region: West, Pacific; Pacific (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Taro
Bordered by: The Pacific Ocean (all sides)
Closest land mass: California, almost 2,500 miles away
Official State Foods and Edible Things: none
Some Famous & Typical Foods: poi & taro, pork, much local seafood (such as mahi mahi), macadamia nuts, tropical and "lu’au" foods (pineapple, coconut, etc), Asian and Native Hawaiian fusion cuisines, Spam and foods made from it (musubi, Spam stir fries, etc)

Hawaii has the country's largest Asian-American population - almost 40%, in addition to the 10% who are Native Hawaiian.  So it's no surprise that the food of modern Hawaii is a mixture of Polynesian, East and Southeast Asian cuisine (though it's surprising to most of us on the mainland how important Spam is in the islands).  As both a nod to Hawaii's demographics and a convenient way to compartmentalize all the foods I found for this post - because I simply could not choose just one - I'm putting several small dishes in a bento box, that compartmented lunch box that we find in most Japanese restaurants.  Most are in fun shapes that are convenient to bring to work or school.  However, I got one of those lacquer-looking ones that you can't microwave, a cheaper model for about $20 on Amazon.  I had some fun with this.

The recipes I cobbled together come from a variety of source: a few from Alan Wong's New Wave Luau, the fabled Taste of the States cookbook (finally) and, yes, a website about squooshing white rice, nori and slices of fried Spam together - amazingly popular in Hawaii, from what I gather.

By the way, you will want to save yourself from burnout by making each of these at different times, not all together.  I have these recipes listed pretty much in the order in which I made them, with a wee bit of overlap.

The Meal: Hawaiian Bento Box - Ginger Mahi Mahi, Wasabi Taro Smash, Pineapple-Macadamia Nut Relish and Spam Musubi

For the first recipe I use a resource that I really should have used during the regular State-by-State series: Hilde Gabriel Lee's Taste of the States. Lee has extensive sections on every region and state in the country with recipes for each one.  Instead, I rebuilt the wheel.  More work but I learned more that way.

The first piece of this bento box is mahi mahi, or as Lee points out "a variety of dolphin that is found in Hawaiian waters.  It has become synonymous with Hawaiian cuisine, although it is somewhat scarce in the waters around the islands" [Lee 1992: 283].  Which is why Trader Joe's frozen mahi mahi fillets, which I picked up for about $7, are from the waters off Peru I guess.  Her recipe for ginger mahi mahi is on page 283 of her Taste of the States book.  Only she calls it "Mahi Mahi with Ginger Sauce".  It's really more of a "Mahi Mahi Baked in Coconut Milk and Ginger", but whatever floats her moku.

The Recipe: Mahi Mahi with Ginger Sauce

Assemble the following components (I more or less halved her recipe):

* mahi mahi fillets (again, not terribly prohibitive at Trader Joe's for about $8 or $9 per lb, since I'm not making much of these)
* coconut milk (a can works out fine.  I was surprised to find that the can of organic coconut milk that I bought at Wegman's actually ended up being a few cents cheaper than the standard Thai Kitchen variety.  Go fig.)
* ginger (fresh, not powdered or - gack! - candied.  Even this humongous nob, of which I only used one small end, cost me only about $2.50.  A pound of ginger is a lot more than this apparently)
* cornstarch (had it)
* butter (had it)
* flour (for dredging the mahi mahi.  Had it)
* macadamia nuts (most people will have access to the jarred kind, but Wegman's fortunately had these in bulk.  I got about a dollar's worth for this and the following recipes in this post)
* salt and pepper (had 'em)

Thaw your mahi mahi and dredge in flour.

Next, brown the fillets up in butter.

As they are frying up, finely mince your ginger - or here, I used a lemon rinder.

Mix the ginger with the coconut milk and cornstarch in a bowl, and pour over...

...your mahi mahi in a baking dish.  Set in a preheated 350° oven for about 10 minutes.

While the mahi mahi bakes, crush your macadamia nuts.  In retrospect, I should have pan-toasted these as well.

Put the fillet on a plate, spoon over some sauce and sprinkle with the crushed macadamia nuts.

This actually tasted better after a few days.  The mahi mahi is firm and you taste the coconut with time.  I honestly could not taste much of the ginger - it really stands out to me as mahi mahi in coconut milk sauce.

The next few recipes I chose are side dishes to go with the mahi mahi, both coming from one of Honolulu's most noted chefs and restaurateurs, Alan Wong.

The Recipe: Pineapple-Macadamia Nut Relish

Alan Wong is a master and cheerleader for what he notes as Hawaii Regional Cuisine.  One of several chefs who created it, the Hawaii Tourism Authority explains it thus:
In 1991, 12 Hawaii chefs established Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a culinary movement that inventively blends Hawaii’s diverse, ethnic flavors with the cuisine of the world. Hawaii Regional Cuisine takes advantage of the freshest island ingredients: cattle raised on the upland pastures of Hawaii Island, fruits and vegetables grown from rich, volcanic soil in Upcountry Maui, and some of the best quality fish in the world, to name a few. [Hawaii Tourism Authority 2012]
Wong is prominent among their list of Hawaii's most prominent and nationally known chefs, a list that also includes Peter Merriman, George Mavrothalassitis and Roy Yamaguchi, the last of whom being the first Hawaiian recipient of the James Beard Award.

But back to Wong.  He has a passion for his Hawaii Regional Cuisine and says that his family and his love of food is part of what inspired him to cook the way he does.
My Chinese paternal grandfather always cooked for the family, and he was an excellent cook.  My Japanese mother raised me on wonderful Japanese cooking.  It was interesting to see my mom's style of cooking evolve as she learned about Western cooking after we moved to Hawaii.  Being raised in the cultural melting pot of Hawaii, you get exposed to a wide range of ethnic foods. My warmest memories of growing up, besides home cooking, were the picnics at the beach, the backyard hibachi barbecues, and the potlucks where all the uncles and aunties tried to outdo each other. [Wong 1999: xiii]
After being overwhelmed by the myriad of recipes in his Alan Wong's New Wave Luau - a book this Mainlander will be adding to his bookshelf soon - I finally settled on two, a smashed taro recipe and this one: a ridiculously simple relish featuring mango, water chestnuts and pineapple.  Wong notes that it is "best eaten the same day it's made" [Wong 1999: 132], though I got mileage out of it for a few days.

To make Wong's pineapple and macadamia nut relish, which you can find on page 132 of his New Wave Luau cookbook, you will need the following:

* mango (I believe Wong wants you to use the fresh variety, but I ended up with dried - about $3 or so at Trader Joe's.  It still made for a nice, if different, relish.  You will need to chop or cut this up into smaller pieces)
* pineapple (crushed - a can at Wegman's cost less than a dollar)
* water chestnuts (this can cost a little over a dollar)
* macadamia nuts (had them from the previous recipe - crush or chop these again)
* parsley (fresh, from my front porch.  Chop this)
* olive oil and balsamic vinegar (had them)
* salt (had that too)

Toast the crushed macadamia nuts.

And mix them together with everything else.  Let sit for a few minutes to blend the flavors, and eat as immediately as you can.

It tasted good even with the dried mango, and went wonderfully with the mahi mahi.  Gave it a wee bit more personality.

For the other recipe, I honestly could not choose between Wong's smashed taro and his wasabi smashed potatoes.  So I didn't choose, and smashed the two together.  I have used taro before, that fundamental part of Polynesian cuisine long before any outsiders came to the islands.  Of course, the only taro I could find was the purple fleshed kind at H Mart.  Normally you can find this stuff at Wegman's, too, but there is apparently a taro shortage in my area.  Maybe it's all sitting at H Mart?

The Recipe: Wasabi Smashed Taro

Again, this is an easy mashup of Wong's Wasabi Smashed Potatoes on page 137 of the New Wave Luau and his Taro Smash on page 135.  It wasn't difficult: just make the Taro Smash and add the requisite amount of wasabi paste from the Wasabi Smashed Potatoes.  My guess is Wong has done this before, but I'm not taking credit for it anyway.  Wong also notes that for maximum effect, add the wasabi just before serving [Wong 1999: 137]

Assemble the following (again, I halved his recipe):

* taro (only about a dollar at H Mart)
* russet potatoes (get about half as much as you get taro - again, less than a dollar)
* wasabi paste (I picked this up a little while ago at Wegman's with one of their pre-made sushi roll dinners, because they never put enough wasabi in there.  It had to have been less than a dollar)
* butter (had it)
* cream (had some left over from some mashed potatoes I had made about a week before)
* salt (had it)

I also added a dash of coconut milk, but couldn't really taste it.  Next time I'll add more and lower the cream.

Peel the taro and potatoes and cut into chunks, and arrange in a bamboo steamer (any vegetable steamer will do, but this thing becomes handy for such tasks).

Steam for about 45 minutes, or until the taro is thoroughly steamed through.  Remember to constantly add water to the bottom of the pot or pan, lest you want the fragrant smell of burnt bamboo permeating your kitchen.

Mash together with the rest of the ingredients, and serve as soon as possible.

I really enjoy wasabi, so this was a nice flavor combination here - the taro with the potatoes and the wasabi: mmmm.

For the final component to my Hawaiian bento box, I made a snack that is, apparently, the most popular thing to eat in the islands.  This is the famous musubi, a slice of pan-fried (not deep-fried, don't worry) Spam sandwiched between two layers of sticky white rice and sprinkled with furikake seasoning, all wrapped inside a sheet of nori.  It made Andrew Zimmern retch in a recent Hawaii-based episode of his Bizarre Foods show.  Surprisingly, and perhaps disturbingly, I actually found it quite interesting.  And I would actually eat this stuff again.

The Recipe: Spam Musubi

Spam is well-loved in Hawaii - I am not kidding about this.  There are Spam festivals, and dishes featuring Spam can even be found everywhere from convenience stores to some of the finer dining establishments [Stradley 2004].  It comes from Hawaii's large Japanese-American population, which made this pseudo-sushi so popular (technically not sushi, since the rice is not vinegared) [Wisegeek, no date]. [rsagawa 2011] is just one of many websites that outlines each step in the not-so-arduous musubi making process, and this is the website I used to make my very first (and who knows? Maybe even Maryland's first) Spam musubi.

To make Spam musubi you just need the following:

* Spam (natch - a can cost almost $4)
* steamed short grain white rice (I decided to save myself time and be lazy by buying one of those steamable Nishiki rice bowls for about $1.50.  Note again that this does not have to be vinegared up, so this makes the musibi-making process quite less time consuming than most sushi would be to make.  Brown also works, and I did make some musubi with brown rice)
* furikake (an all-purpose Japanese rice seasoning composed of such things as shaved bonito,, sesame seed and soy sauce.  I went with the wasabi-flavored kind for extra kick)  A jar cost about $3 at Wegman's)
* nori sheets (about $4 at Wegman's, probably much cheaper at H Mart)

It would also be very helpful to purchase a musubi mold.  Since they don't really sell these locally anywhere (I haven't seen 'em at H Mart but I could have missed this) you'll need to order one online.  I was amazed at the price - a mere $1.50 for this thing before shipping and handling, so it actually cost less than some of my ingredients.  If you don't want to do that, many websites suggest that you can technically get away with using the empty Spam can.  You must at some point press down on the rice and Spam though, so I don't know what you could use to do that.  Get creative.

The Instructables website also suggests making a teriyaki sauce for your Spam out of sugar, soy sauce and mirin (Japanese cooking rice wine).

Lay your Spam down on its side (long side down on the cutting board) and slice it from the top down, in pieces about 1/4 inch thick.

Mix your teriyaki sauce...

...and pour over the Spam once you have set it in your pan.  Pan-fry for a few minutes.

While that's cooking, cut your nori sheets in half (skip this step if you have a musubi mold that is as long as the sheet).

Now to prepare your musubi.  Set the mold - which should be a little wet with water on the inside, to make it easier to remove from the rice - on top of one end of a half-sheet of nori.  Layer a bit of rice in the mold - about 1/4 to 1/2 inch.

Sprinkle some of the furikake on top.

Then place one slice of Spam on top of that.  As you can see, the Spam slice fits snugly inside the musubi mold.

Sprinkle more furikake on the Spam.

Finally, top the Spam slice with more rice, enough to get to the top or almost the top of the mold (if you were doing it right, again about 1/4 to 1/2 inch).

Take your press (this comes with the mold) and push down until the whole filling is compact.  Again, if you are using a Spam can, I'm not sure what you can use to do this.

Next, carefully wrap your musubi filling in the nori, wetting the edges of the seaweed to make it more likely to stick.  Set for a few minutes on the end to let the heat from the rice and Spam seal it shut.

I don't like Spam all that much, I admit, but this stuff is damn addictive.  I actually liked the flavor of the brown rice musubi better.  And it's not that difficult to make either!

So how do the different above dishes fit together?  Well, I don't know, but I think it looks cool.

All this food together, even in these small proportions, was a lot for me.  The musubi alone filled me up like you would not imagine.  The pineapple-macadamia nut relish went nicely with both the mahi mahi and the wasabi taro smash.  To finish it off, I garnished most of this with dried mango and toasted macadamia nuts.  All the flavors of wasabi and coconut, mango, ginger and - yes - Spam all blended together in a nice mixture of Hawaiian dishes.  And thank God for this bento box, because you need portion control with all this stuff you're serving up.

- - - - -

What we start for the next few of these posts is a region-by-region sample of dishes either from or inspired by the regions they come from.  First stop: the Pacific states.  That means we are technically not leaving Hawaii, but we are heading back to Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington along with it one final time.


Hawaii Tourism Authority.  "Hawaii Regional Cuisine".  Copyright 2012 Hawaii Tourism Authority.  All rights reserved.

Lee, Hilde Gabriel.  Taste of the States: A Food History of America.  Howell Press: Charlottesville, VA, 1992

rsagawa ( user).  "How To Make Spam Musubi".  Copyright 2011 - 2012  All rights reserved.

Stradley, Linda.  "Spam® - Hawaiian Spam Musubi".  Copyright 2004, What's Cooking America? All rights reserved.

Wisegeek ( "What is Spam musubi?".  Date unknown.  Copyright 2003 - 2012 Conjecture Corporation.  All rights reserved.

Wong, Alan, with John Harrison.  Alan Wong's New Wave Luau.  Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 1999.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Hawaii" page and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "Hawaii".


theminx said...

I hate Spam, but your musubi looks really good.

John said...

It totally surprised me.