Traditional Hawaiian Food: This is “the” place to go
Having seen Anthony Bourdain at Ono a few years ago on a segment of his food network show, I made this a “must stop” part of our Honolulu itinerary in January. He had said it was a little obscure “hole in the wall” and I was somehow expecting it to be hard to find. Silly me. Anything that gets onto one of Anthony Bourdain’s programs will never be hard to find.
But, I was happy to see that it was still definitely a hole in the wall, unchanged, and as traditional and humble as it could possibly get. This family owned restaurant remains a blast from the past and if you are on the quest to experience traditional Hawaiian food in a restaurant setting, this is the only place to go. When I saw the mother come out of the kitchen, I had to get her photo. I was so excited! Her mother works in the kitchen, too. Her son is the “host”, helping and hanging around the small room greeting guests and keeping the line up in order. We arrived at the stroke of 5 pm purposely to find no line up and no one else there. Within minutes, it was crowded.
I hadn’t researched any of the foods, or looked on any websites to have a preconceived notion of what to expect. I did not expect the meal to be served on the old 1950’s melmac dishes. If I had been in town longer, I wouldn’t have been so surprised, as the food culture in the entire island of Oahu is a 1940’s-1950’s food culture. It is like they have been frozen in time in many ways. Certainly, the cultural preference for the plate lunch ( some kind of meat, 2 scoops of rice, and one scoop of really creamy macaroni salad) is very starch heavy and “old” trend-wise. The traditional fare on this table was simple and delicious. Below is the poi: taro root steamed in an umi, pounded with water to a desired consistency.
The son of the owner told me that this used to be a staple for all Hawaiian babies, and still is, in many families, so that it is something everyone just loves to eat. It is extremely nutritious and considered to aid in digestion. Therefore, it is eaten as a side, or dip, at every traditional meal, and a very important part of the taste and texture profile of traditional Hawaiian foods. Recently, research has suggested that poi may help fight colon cancer by killing cancer cells in the colon, and that italso benefits people with celiac disease. When it is fresh, it is sweet, but tends to become sour and bitter as it ages. Some people add sugar to it. I found it very bland and nondescript. I recall my mother coming back from Hawaii years ago making a wry face at the mention of it. To me, it was a little cloying and not flavourful. Knowing how nutritious it is would definitely motivate me to use it in cooking if I lived there.
Laulau, above, is pork wrapped in the taro leaf (or laulau leaf) which you can see at the top corner of the first photo. Traditionally, the ends of the luau leaf are folded and wrapped again in a ti leaf and placed in an imu, or underground oven with hot rocks on top of it covered with banana leaves. Nowadays, the dish uses taro leaves, and si steamed on the stove. It is a is a typical plate lunch dish aserved with a side of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. This pork goes into the category of “the best pork I have ever eaten” and this is the best laulau you will find on the island. Probably on any of the islands. You are to eat it with some of the leaf, dipped into the poi. I did enjoy the leaves, too. They were very flavourful and delicious with the meat. The poi added nothing to the mix for me. I did really enjoy a little raw onion with each bite which is another common option and very delicious to have the crispy aromatic crunch with the unctuous flavourful sweet pork. The rice was a simple starchy addition that was pleasant.
The pipikaula, not pictured in the first photo and borrowed from Saturday Night Foodies photo, was almost beef jerky like pork and very flavourful, but didn’t seem to fit the meal unless the meal was just about the most traditional foods from the culture.
Lomi salmon looked like a tomato salad, but is a very traditional dish served almost everywhere with almost everything. It is prepared by mixing raw salted, diced salmon with tomatoes, sweet Maui onions or green onion sometimes over crushed ice. I found it to be fishy and not too pleasant which is unusual as I enjoy all of the ingredients in the dish. Maybe it is that the fermentation process had begun which is appealing to the Hawaiian palate and not to mine. I like everything less fishy. Massaging the salted fish with other ingredients by hand (lomi-lomi) is how the dish got its name, and maybe what brings out the fishier flavour.
Interestingly, haupia is a white blob of opaque and dense gelatinous coconut flavoured jell-o. It is not sweet and refreshingly tasty, actually. Of course, for dessert, the Canadian palate would like to see more sugar added, yet I was charmed by the texture and flavour of this traditional Hawaiian meal finalé. It was almost addictive. It used to be made with mothers beating the pulp of young coconuts, but the mix it is now purchased in 2 kilogram bags at the local Honolulu Costco (the busiest Costco in the world). I couldn’t believe the size of the bags of it that I saw there.
This was definitely not the best meal I have ever eaten; however, it was a significantly personal and memorable experience for me. I revel in the opportunity to taste any culture and while in Hawaii, it was my quest to eat the flavours of this vast and varied culture. And what fun that was.I should add, that we shared this meal. It was theoretically a meal for one person and was only 11 American dollars. This was a lot of food. Below, is a short video from Youtube that will take you through the same meal we had.
Ono Hawaiian Foods 726 Kapahulu Ave Honolulu, HI 96816 Neighbourhood: Kaimuki (808) 737-2275