“Aloha. Have a seat.”
It’s one of our first interactions with a Hawaiian local, but one of the most typical. Aloha means love, kindness, unity and patience…a philosophy of going gently and living in joy every day.
Hawaiians are some of the friendliest people in the world, renowned for their welcome and their love of food; surely both are reason enough to go visit this group of islands, the 50th state of the US.
Today there are 1.3 million people on Oahu, an interesting mix of many ethnicities.
Of the many and varied ways to find out about the culture you are visiting, a food tour must be one of the most enjoyable. Not only that, but while you eat, watch and listen, you’ll gather lots of peripheral information about history and culture, tips about restaurants and dishes to try, and you’ll meet other people with similar interests.
‘Hawaii Food Tours’ runs several food tours, including the ‘Hole in the Wall’ tour, a great introduction to Hawaiian food haunts within easy reach of Waikiki, where most tourists stay.
Besides the obvious military presence and tourism-centric activities, food has been one of the main industries on the island. There’s still evidence of sugar cane and pineapples, formerly grown as major crops. Our guide points out the former Dole (pineapple) Cannery, a major employer for many years, with founder James Dole at one time growing 75% of the world’s pineapples.
Our first stop is The Royal Kitchen, a humble bakery that makes the best manapua on the island according to our guides Dennis and Krystal. Dating back to the 1800s, manapua were introduced by Chinese workers as a quick snack to eat for lunch before they had to go back to work on the plantation. A Chinese-Hawaiian fusion dish based on Chinese bao, these meat-filled soft sweet buns (similar in consistency to a milk bun) became so popular that when the Chinese workers’ contracts finished, they continued to peddle manapau on the streets, carried in baskets on poles across their shoulders. Today they’re so popular that they’re even sold in 7-Eleven shops but, as always, Dennis tells us, fresh is best. The Royal Kitchen’s version is highly regarded with a choice of ten fillings baked inside the bun, including char sui, kalua pig, chicken curry, lup chong (Chinese sausage), Portuguese sausage, and sweet versions with black sugar, coconut and sweet potato.
Hawaiians love their sweets! We discover another local obsession on our next stop: the coco puff. Liliha Bakery’s puffs are renowned, with about 5,000 puffs sold daily. With a choux pastry-like crust, the chocolate-filled puffs topped with Chantilly cream are served cold.
With savoury and sweet treats on board, it’s time to hit Chinatown. More subdued than many other Chinatowns around the world, there’s still plenty of commercial activity going on, more local-based than tourist oriented. We pass souvenir, lei and flower shops, as well as traditional medicine and acupuncture specialists as we head into the centre of Chinatown.
Centred around Kekaulike and N. King streets are several famous markets which you might recognise from movie sets, such as Skull Island. More importantly to locals, they’re a place where vegetables and fruit, fish and meat can be purchased far more cheaply than in town.
We’re here to sample more Chinese specialties: rice noodles (those yummy flat noodles eaten at yum cha all over the world) made by hand at Look Funn Factory, and apple banana lumpia in caramel sauce (a sweet version of spring rolls), half-moon dim sum filled pork, shrimp and water chestnuts with dipped into spicy mustard sauce.
We’ve had several versions of poke on the island, however Dono’s Café is the best tasting version, if not the prettiest; rich tuna belly served simply with scallions, sesame oil and sweet Hawaiian soy. Delicious!
We finish the stop with some tropical fruit: rambutan, pineapple rolled in lee ling (salty plum) powder (the way that locals love to eat their fruit), which they also serve in their fruit juice. Perhaps there’s an influence there on the salty and more savoury sweets beginning to appear on Gold Coast menus.
No Hawaiian food tour would be complete without malasadas, Hawaii’s answer to the doughnut. These deep-fried balls of yeast dough rolled in sugar can be purchased throughout the island, however there are only a few places where they’re made to order, Leonard’s being the most famous. This family-run restaurant commenced trade in 1952, their pink boxes easily identifiable around town.
Three and a half hours after setting out, we return to our hotel, richer in our knowledge of the island, holding a list of restaurants and shops we’d like to return to and ready to sample more of the island’s produce.
Rum and pineapple juice. As the sun sets and light fades over the ocean at Waikiki, they’re ‘need-to-know’ agricultural products as we tuck into one of the best Mai Tai we’ve tasted at the Royal Hawaiian’s Aloha Hour. They may not carry the honour of best Mai Tai for 2017 in the annual competition, but that bar is on our list for later!
Read more of Marj’s reviews on Good Food Gold Coast foodgoldcoast.com.au