“Jack of all trades, master of none” – this is the mantra that befell me as a young entrepreneur in the early 1980’s. In the days before lawn services were de rigueur, I started out cutting yards. (And may I take this opportunity to publicly apologize if it was one of your yards I was responsible for.) Later I took my turn keeping the local superette dynasty running smoothly. It was there I developed a taste for late-night chili cheese dogs and lemon drop ice cream. I even participated in a cutting edge agricultural project at MSU’s North Farm titled, “Will hoeing keep weeds down in a corn field?” That is, until the day we were cross-pollinating and I blew up into an enormous allergic hive. I learned a lot from each position, but the best summer job ever had to be the one I took in a kingdom far, far away – the Kingdom of Kamehameha – Hawaii.
I wasn’t much of a foodie that early in my journey – this was nearly 25 years ago – but somehow I managed to work up the gumption to try lots of new things anyway. Because Hawaii is such a crossroads of Pacific cultures, there were plenty of first-time tastings.
Perhaps the most famous of all truly Hawaiian foods is poi. Poi is essentially the root of a taro plant which has been pounded into submission and made into a paste. It can be eaten by itself, but I remember it being combined with other foods at the luau, which is where it is usually found. My advice is to eat it once, check it off the bucket list, and move on to the other “P” words at the feast: pineapple and pig. Speaking of “P” words, my best recollection of poi was that it reminded me of purple wallpaper paste. But hey, it was 24 years ago and my taste buds have matured. I’d try it again.
One of my most vivid food memories of that summer was the wide variety of Asian cuisines that were readily available. The Korean barbecue was excellent – who knew something with that name could be done well so far away from the Mason Dixon line? At a Chinese restaurant I had a lemon chicken dish that I have searched for ever since I returned to the mainland – to no avail. I got hooked on Japanese tempura. But the place I went back to over and over was the Mongolian Barbecue. Here I could pile my plate high with meats, veggies, spices and sauces – the variety lover’s dream – then watch the cook stir-fry it all on a giant hot disk. Awesome.
I’m sure it was my first week on Oahu that I learned the difference between sushi and sashimi. I was relieved to discover that sushi did not necessarily involve raw fish. That didn’t keep me from taking a deep breath and trying some sashimi, which certainly does involve fish that is not battered and fried as God intended. Been there, done that, moved on.
Of course there was lots of fresh fruit, too. We stopped at the Dole plantation and got fresh pineapple and pineapple whip, the frozen, creamy dessert. I developed a new respect for those who made a living picking this prickly fruit. It’s even harder than hoeing cotton. There was a papaya tree at one of the homes I visited, too. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I did give it a fair shot.
A big surprise that summer was the breakfast menu at many of the family-type restaurants (think Shoney’s, Denny’s, etc.) I was reading the options for breakfast meats – bacon, ham, sausage, SPAM. SPAM? I thought it was a fluke, but they all had it. Then it was on to the breads – toast, biscuit, hash browns, rice. RICE? Yep, and I was one of the few folks in the place not ordering it.
Before I got there, I had read in a travel book about the Hawaiian shave ice tradition, and particularly about a place called Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa. I found it and was very happy with the quality of the shave ice as well as the ice to syrup ratio. (Very important in a snow cone!) But that was just the beginning. The daring eater could up the ante of sweetness by ordering the shave ice atop vanilla ice cream. If you were really feeling like a local, you could swap the ice cream for a sweetened mix of azuki beans, or just pile it all in the cone together. Yes, I tried the triple combo, and yes, I still can conjure up a full body shiver from the memory of the sugar rush.
It took me eighteen years to get back to the islands, this time with my wife. We only had a week to eat our way across Oahu this time, but that’s another story for another day. I’m hereby campaigning for a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant in the Cotton District, and a pineapple project at North Farm. And if you ever find that lemon chicken, please let me know.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .