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A Pordagee Abroad: what you like eat?

Friday, January 22, 2016 4:32 PM

There is a very communal quality to food. Just look at how we eat: stadiums, mess halls, cafeterias, parks, restaurants, streets, dining room tables. Even when we migrate to these places alone, we may end up sharing a meal with someone and with it polite greetings, awkward moments, and sometimes even conversations about the shared mundaneness of the everyday. Nowadays, sharing our food [via social media] is just as important as eating it. And with food trucks, pop-ups, and traditional take-out and sit down restaurants in Hawai`i serving everything from Ethiopian to Jamaican-Fusion delicacies, it’s easy to digest how food reduces boundaries and brings people and cultures together. Food connects us. So when my wife and I got to London, it was the food that I was the most worried about.

What're we going to do without guava juice? Li-hing mui? Lu`au leaf?

“The best fish and chips in the world,” people would tell us, but to be honest, neither of us is very fond of a greasy plate of cod and vinegar soaked French fries.

Yet that was exactly what we ate [sans the fish] that first day. Exhausted from the plane ride over, the anxiety of having our dogs fly in cargo, and the insanity that is driving on London’s roads, we forked over the equivalent of seven dollars for a paper boat of salad and a parcel of chips, paying extra to trade the vinegar for ketchup. We found comfort in the familiarity of the meal, sitting with our legs crossed on the hotel bed, knowing that 7,000 miles from home there was still salt and Heinz.

Over the next several days, while we searched for an apartment [the stress of which I will save for another post], we discovered a London that is rarely seen on television or in the movies—the London of Mediterranean mezze and Indian takeaways; imam bayildi [eggplant stuffed with cheese and peppers] and paneer tikka shashlick [an indian cheese grilled in a special blend of spices with onion, tomato and bell pepper, cooked in a clay oven, and served on a skewer]. Here we found a hot pot of world cuisine: Italian, Caribbean, Lebanese, Malaysian, Pakistani, and Russian. Japanese, Thai, Korean, Japanese. As the weeks passed, we even found a Kua `Aina Burger situated in the heart of London’s West End, serving everything from seared ahi and huli huli chicken to grilled halloumi [a brined cheese]. Pass Da Secret Salt [literally]. At Japan Centre a few minutes away, we found packs of Sapporo Ichiban noodles, Hi-Chew, and Angelo Pietro dressings. Unfortunately, there was no Tomoe Ame to be found.

Perhaps even more than Hawai`i, London’s gastro-scape is a cultural mix plate. This is further evident when stopping into the grocery store. In the “World Foods” section and in other areas, you’ll find lilikoi and guava juices. Coconut milk and arare. In the refrigerated section, you can choose from a variety of SPAM fillets. The produce section is even more diverse, so much so that I had to google my way around the vegetable chiller and fruit aisles.

Yet even with a container of vegetable gyoza and veggie spring rolls, I can’t help but wonder, what’s missing? Or to put it another way, what makes the same foods in Hawai`i so distinct, so “local”? Could it be the ingredients? Possibly, but with 85 percent of Hawai`i’s foods brought in from elsewhere I doubt it. Perhaps it’s the small twists, how the recipes change when cultures meet. Like Hawai`i, it’s easy to see where traditional and modern diverge, and where the distinct character of a food is lost in the hopes of appealing to geography and demographic. Here, coleslaw’s as common as mac salad, but really both are more or less just mayonnaise. Chinese restaurants sell fried chicken. Pizza places sell fried chicken. Every shop on every corner sells fried chicken. McDonald’s has vegetarian options and KFC serves rice boxes and French fries. Not that I would label any of the aforementioned as “authentic,” but you certainly get the idea. A search of “Hawaiian restaurants” [the one type of food that we have yet to find] pulls up four that claim Hawaiian cuisine but are clearly serving Asian-fusion. As in Hawai`i, globalization is everywhere. It also sells fried chicken.

Politics aside, I’m beginning to realize that "local" is less about the food that we eat and more about the connections that we have to that food--

Local is:

preparing ________ at ________’s house,

eating ________ with ________ after ________,

laughing over ________ of ________ outside of ________.

Food nostalgia in Hawai`i is like a local game of Madlibs, insert your memories where you see fit. We all have our favorite places and secret spots. You know the ones that you share with friends who tell you that “it’s good, but...” before suggesting the hole-in-the-wall a couple blocks from their house.

I don’t remember much about my childhood, but I remember the food that my parents cooked. I remember the bentos and styrofoam containers that my father brought home from Kalihi. When I got older, I remember asking for my favorite recipes or hunting down those spots and sharing them with others.

It’s been about four months now. We cook at home most of the time, experimenting with new recipes but often going back to the cookbook in which we’ve accumulated food knowledge from both sides of our family and from our own experiences. Sadly, we have yet to find any lu`au leaf. No poi. I made a tray of haupia, but it wasn’t the same. Instead, our taste for home is sustained by care packages, our own ingenuity, and the meals we share with each other. Thankfully, no matter where we go, we’ll always have that.



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