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Hawai‘i’s State Dish: Two Scoops of Rice, Mac Salad and a Hot Entrée

Conversation with a Hawaii food historian

By Wanda Adams, Honolulu Advertiser Food Editor

Arnold Hiura ponders the frequently asked question – “Where did the plate lunch come from?” and the origins of the loco-moco.

Adobo (pork) i-1
Pork Adobo (Photo credit: Adriana Torres-Chong)
Arnold Hiura laughed hard when I offered him my metaphor for exploring Island food history.

“It’s like those roads in volcano country on the Big Island where you going, going, ‘den, all of a sudden, you look down and no’ mo’ road, jes’ black lava.”

Hiura, author of the new book “Kau Kau Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands” (Watermark, large format, $32.95), understands culinary dead ends better than most.

“Ey, brah, you t’ink you some kine expert? Lemme tell you the REAL story. My faddah tol’ me. . .”
He recalled his attempts to answer the most-asked question encountered by any local food historian: “Where did the plate lunch come from?”

He began trying to answer this one — the first food mystery he ever tackled — back in 1987, in partnership with another journalist, Wayne Muromoto, when Hiura was editor of the Hawaii Herald.

Author Arnold Hiura (Photo credit: Shuzo Uemoto)
Twenty years later, the O‘ahu writer, editor, consultant and historian still can’t say how two scoops rice, one mac salad and a hot entrée became the state dish of the Islands.  No one can. He and Muromoto did come to believe that these one-plate, multi-course meals may have originated in the 1920s, down on the Honolulu docks.

“In the era before air transportation, the harbor was the focal point of daily life and there were lots of eating places along what is now Ala Moana Boulevard. I think people will remember Tasty Broiler and like that. But even before that, oldtimers talk about pushcarts, and some of the pushcarts later evolved into temporary lunch stands” — a rudimentary shack, a canvas awning, a picnic table. “Wayne talked to a couple of families whose parents or grandparents had done a pushcart business along the waterfront and that’s as close as we could get.”
Arnold Hiura interviews Ernest DeLuz (right) at the family’s cattle ranch on the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast.(Photo credit: Shuzo Uemoto)

Of course, said Hiura, who was awaiting the formal release of his book as this interview was given in early December, there will be those who read his accounts of various foods, dishes and customs and will be waiting for him at the signing table, loaded for wild boar. “Ey, brah, you t’ink you some kine expert? Lemme tell you the REAL story. My faddah tol’ me. . . ”

“There’s always another story, another take on it, information we haven’t found,” he said. And never will find for the reason that most of it simply wasn’t recorded. “There was never any one ‘Eureka!’ moment with these things,” he said. The development of the plate lunch, the creation of lomi salmon or Spam musubi didn’t generate headlines or send researchers scurrying to document the new dish.

Gail Miyashiro (left) and mother, Evelyn, of Hilo’s Cafe 100, where Gail’s father first served his signature loco moco to local boys in 1949. (Photo credit: Shuzo Uemoto)
The closest he ever came to putting a period to a food history story was in looking into the history of the loco moco, which is attributed to a now-defunct Hilo diner called the Lincoln Grill. Over at Café 100, which became famous for its many riffs on the loco moco tune, the Miyashiro family lays no claim to inventing the dish, but they do know that their Dad began popularizing it in 1946 when he opened the Hilo take-out spot.

But was it Lincoln Grill or some other place that preceded Café 100? Was the dish developed to assuage the late-night cravings of local football players, as has been alleged?

Korean-style Kalbi ribs (Photo credit: Adriana Torres Chong)
“Every single story has some qualifications, somewhere that, as you say, you walkin’ down the road and no mo’ road.”
Hiura said there’s a certain romance to the stories that are told about how Island dishes came about — the one, for example, about how local children, greedy for something cold in the hot climate, invented shave ice when they ate the scrapings that flew into the air as workers sawed up blocks of ice for early ice boxes.
Arnold's father-in-law, Larry Nakama. (photo cred: Nakama family)

But the value of studying food history goes beyond romance and nostalgia, he said. “Like any of us who are interested in documenting our history, I believe it’s important to know . . .It’s kind of all we have. When the parents pass away and the grandparents are gone, what else do you have but the memories? And the most tangible memories a lot of time are the food, it is so integral to our daily lives.”

Besides, he said, exploring food history is fun. “People love to talk about, they react to it they just jump in and wanna share their stories,” he said. He tells of his friend and dentist Owen Kawakami, who gets him in the chair and then rants on about foods he loves, dishes that are disappearing, the kids today and how much they don’t know. “The whole time, I can’t say a word but he’s just so enthusiastic.”

“Saimin” is a contraction of the Chinese words “sai” (thin) and “mein” (noodle). (Photo credit: Adriana Torres Chong)
Even young people like to talk about food, urging “Uncle” to try the bento at this spot, the oxtail stew at that place.

Said Hiura: “Old people relate on one level and younger people on another but everybody has a story to tell.” 

Comments from Readers

  1. 376bd0b270103de60721b3f99f4384a5
    Esha on 1/14/2010 at 3:26pm

    Good fun...but what's with the ever-shrinking fonts? Cannot read the end of the story!

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