OK, we’ll address the porky elephant in the room first: Yes, Hawaiians love their Spam.
There’s no doubt about that; the state of Hawaii is the primary consumer of the canned seasoned pork product that doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in most of the rest of the country, especially in snobby culinary circles.
But if you were to think that Hawaiian cuisine is limited to Spam, Spam and more Spam, you’d be sadly mistaken, because this is a culinary tradition that has borrowed from many others as it evolved over more than 150 years.
Dorinda Burnet (full name Dorinda Puanami Keola Burnet), first vice president of the Las Vegas Hawaiian Civic Club, is a native of the islands who left for the mainland in 1986 and has lived in Las Vegas since 1993. Clearly a traditionalist at heart, she’s well steeped in the Hawaiian culinary tradition. In the early days, she said, the primary protein sources were limited.
“We eat a lot of pork, because that was actually the only meat source that we had, pork or fish,” Burnet said. “We put it in underground imus, or fire pits. It was shredded and salted (the islands have their own salt mine, she said). Nothing was ever fried; it was either cooked in an underground oven or steamed.”
Rice, which is a staple of the Hawaiian diet today, didn’t grow in the islands.
“We have taro, which is poi,” Burnet said. “It’s a pasty substance, but you have to think of it like a potato. You can’t eat a potato by itself; it’s the same thing with poi. You eat it with some kind of pork, some kind of fish or some kind of vegetable.”
But the Hawaiian diet rapidly began to change, she said, after 1843, when migrant workers primarily from Asia and Portugal came to the islands to work on the plantations.
“That’s when you get the mixture of the teriyaki and everything,” she said. “We just tweaked it a little to fit our palates by adding more soy sauce or more sugar or more ginger.”
The popularity of Spam, she said, arose during World War II, when fresh meat was hard to come by.
“What we’ve done with Spam is pretty much add some kind of sauce to it, either teriyaki or soy, in order to make it more palatable,” she said. “It’s become a staple.”
So much so, she said, that in a culture that doesn’t celebrate the sandwich, Spam musubi — Spam sandwiched with rice and wrapped with dried seaweed — has become a popular substitute.
Frank Abraham, owner of the website cookinghawaiianstyle.com and the related TV show that airs in Hawaii and in Las Vegas on community programming channel Cox96, chose the “style” suffix to differentiate between what is authentically Hawaiian and what has been influenced by other cultures. Abraham also is a native of Hawaii, who left for the mainland in 1984 to go to college.
“My goal was to get my computer degree and rush back to Hawaii, but that never happened,” Abraham said, mainly because of the wealth of tech jobs in California. But he began to long for the islands.
“You start to miss the food and the people, and being the computer programmer and computer geek, I decided to put up a website as a hobby,” he said.
He hoped to get family members to contribute recipes, toward a goal of preserving those that had come down in his family.
“Well, nobody shared any recipes,” he said. “And then strangers started posting recipes,” and the site got attention in the media.
“It was never my intent,” Abraham said. “It just took off very quickly.”
He decided to do a few YouTube videos on Hawaiian-style cooking, and before he knew it, they had evolved into a television show. Which brings us back to the “style” part of cooking Hawaiian-style.
“Hawaiian barbecue? I never heard that term growing up in Hawaii,” Abraham said. “I think that started popping up 10 or 15 years ago.”
Other aspects of Hawaiian-style?
“I don’t eat cooked pineapple. Ever,” Abraham said with an audible shudder, and added that he’s mystified by the idea of “Hawaiian-style pizza,” with ham and pineapple.
But he does acknowledge the value of the immigrants’ culinary contributions.
“A lot of people in Hawaii grew up really poor,” he said. “If you could add rice to it, pasta — anything you can do to stretch the meal. If you could add glass noodles and tomato sauce, you made a meal. Cabbage was the cheap stretcher. That’s why you see dishes like kalua pig and cabbage. A lot of our grandparents had eight children or more, and they didn’t have a farm.”
And thus, he said, was born the plate lunch, which traditionally comes with two scoops of rice and one of macaroni salad.
Terence Fong, chef/owner of Island Sushi and Grill on Eastern Avenue and Zenshin Asian Restaurant at the South Point, is a native of Hawaii who’s lived in Las Vegas for nearly 35 years. He’s seen the Hawaiian tradition — and Hawaiians — increase in the area over the years, to the point where, in fine coals-to-Newcastle fashion, he’s shipping malasadas to Hawaii, where they’re sold at 7-Elevens on the Big Island, to the tune of about 8,000 a month.
Fong said Island Sushi’s business has, for six years, increased each month over the same month in the previous year, simply by word-of-mouth.
“I think we’re blessed to have different things — the Hawaiian plate lunches, the variety of the bakery and the sushi,” he said. “It’s more one-stop shopping than just concentrating on the Hawaiian plate lunch by itself.”
And considering that plate lunches are priced at $6.95 to $10.95, he said, and come with rice and green or macaroni salad, “it’s in that middle-market range.”
Abraham said he’s working to introduce more healthful foods to his show and website. But the high-carb, sometimes-high-calorie traditional foods will be the popular dishes at the civic club’s 24th annual Prince Jonah Kuhio Ho’olaule’a Festival, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Henderson Events Plaza at 200 Water St. in Henderson, at which admission is free.
“The lady who has the malasada booth is Portuguese,” Burnet said. “It’s a family recipe, and of the 24 years that the festival has been here, she’s been doing it for 20 or 21. She has her kids there and all of them make it together.”
Also perennially popular is the shave ice booth. Burnet said shave ice originally evolved from Japanese tradition.
At the festival, she said, a 12-ounce cup of shave ice will sell for $5. And yes, it has ice cream in the bottom.
HAWAIIAN-STYLE SMOKED PORK (KALUA PORK)
3 tablespoons green tea
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons pepper
1 (4- to 5-pound) boneless pork butt, trimmed
1 (13-by-9-inch) disposable aluminum roasting pan
6 cups mesquite wood chips, soaked in water for 15 minutes and drained
Combine tea, salt, sugar and pepper in bowl. Pat pork dry with paper towels and rub with tea mixture. Wrap meat tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours.
Place pork in 13-by-9-inch disposable aluminum roasting pan and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Poke about 20 ¼-inch holes in foil. Using large sheet of heavy-duty foil, wrap 2 cups soaked chips into foil packet and cut several vent holes in top. Make two more packets with additional foil and remaining 4 cups chips.
For a charcoal grill, open bottom vent halfway. Light large chimney starter three-quarters full with charcoal briquettes (4½ quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour into steeply banked pile against side of grill. Place wood-chip packets on coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 5 minutes.
For a gas grill, place wood chip packets over primary burner. Turn all burners to high, cover and heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 15 minutes. Turn primary burner to medium-high and turn off other burner(s). (Adjust primary burner as needed to maintain grill temperature at 300 degrees.)
Place pan on cool part of grill. Cover (positioning lid vent over meat if using charcoal) and cook for 2 hours. During last 20 minutes of grilling, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees.
Remove pan from grill. Cover pan tightly with new sheet of foil, transfer to oven, and bake until tender and fork inserted into meat meets no resistance, 2 to 3 hours. Let pork rest, covered, for 30 minutes. Unwrap and, when meat is cool enough to handle, shred into bite-size pieces, discarding fat. Strain contents of pan through fine-mesh strainer into fat separator. Let liquid settle, then return ¼ cup defatted pan juices to pork. Serve. (Pork can be refrigerated for as long as 3 days.)
What: 24th annual Prince Jonah Kuhio Ho’olaule’a Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Henderson Events Plaza, 200 Water St.