Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Old Friends And New Foods

In all the years I have lived in and visited Hawaii, I had never tasted certain Hawaiian foods. Oh, I had been to a commercial luau many years ago, but I can't call that true Hawaiian food, and the one I went to didn't include laulau or purple sweet potatoes. So, when my friend Litheia invited us to join her for lunch at the Pacific Club and they offered a Hawaiian plate, complete with lomi salmon, poi, laulau and purple sweet potato, I was eager to try it in this kama'aina (native born) establishment. 

The Pacific Club in downtown Honolulu is a funny one - once a bastion of white power, physically very open and elegant, but socially closed until fairly recently. It allowed no non-white members up until the 1960s and even later to allow female members. It had to be dragged into the modern era. It retains that special air of old money and privilege, which I have to admit I enjoy, but now it is much more inclusive. Now my dear friend Litheia, who is of Chinese heritage, can belong and the lunch crowd there was very mixed in that special, delightful way that is so happily Hawaiian.

I met Litheia when I worked at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, my first job out of college. I was a general dogsbody there, laboriously typing catalogue cards in the Robert Allerton Art Library, writing tiny catalogue numbers in black India ink on pottery sherds with a quill pen, and doing the annual inventory of the collections (which, by the way, is the best job on earth, as I got to handle and admire every single piece in the collection at least once a year). Litheia, or Mrs. Hall as I called her back then, was the secretary to the Director of the museum, a post she held through at least five Directors and 50+ years. She knows where all the bodies are buried, she has all the dirt about the local elite, and she keeps it all to herself. Discretion, thy name is Litheia.

Over many years, Litheia has become a dear family friend, first as a friend of my mother's when Mom was a docent at the Academy, then as a mixed doubles tennis partner with my Dad. Now that Mom and Dad are both in heaven, she and I still get together whenever I am in the Islands to "talk story" and catch up, and she is a frequent guest at holiday dinners at my brother's house. Litheia would not thank me for telling you her exact age, but she has left her eighties in the dust and she is still playing tennis every day. She is a wonderful woman.

But I was going to tell you about the food, wasn't I?  Like all of Hawaii today, it was a mix of cultures. The pork was truly Hawaiian, salted, wrapped in leaves and cooked in an imu (a hole in the ground lined with rocks heated by fire), then shredded. Laulau and poi are also cooked in the imu along with the pork.

The laulau is native to Hawaii, butterfish and pork wrapped together with taro and ti leaves, then steamed. The taro leaf imparts a unique flavor to the contents of the wrap, a strong, almost sea weed flavor foreign to my tongue, but rich in vitamins. 

The poi, also a Hawaiian native and very important in early Hawaiian diets, is made from cooked and pounded taro root. It can be bland and almost tasteless when first pounded or fermented to a sour state a few days later, as the Hawaiians like it. Ours was "three finger" poi, very bland and thinned with water to a thick soupy texture, so we used spoons to eat it.

The lomi salmon, raw salmon with onion, tomato and herb mince, features a fish not found in Hawaiian waters, but it has become quintessentially Hawaiian anyway. 

The purple sweet potato was simply baked and served sliced - an import from Okinawa in Japan that tastes like any other sweet potato but has a beautiful deep amethyst color.

We could only eat about half of all the food on our plates as we talked story and enjoyed the quiet gardens just outside the dining room. The puakenikeni lei we had given Litheia sent a waft of delicious scent on every breeze and cheeky mynah birds cackled in the trees. For a Hawaiian experience, it could hardly be beaten. 

*Sorry about the quality of the photo - the light was so strong that I couldn't see the screen to frame the picture.


Blogger Katie Zeller said...

It's been ages since we've been to Hawaii - half way around the world from us.... Mon mari's brother lives on the Big Island. The only thing I've had is the lomi salmin What a nice post

Tuesday, July 09, 2013  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

That sounds like such a wonderful experience. Jealous.
Next time, check out Ono Hawaiian Foods, a funky, adorable restaurant in Kaimuki. You can get everything you want.
Also, do you follow the food blog Ono Kine Grinds? The owner has been a bit sporadic lately, but it's good for reading and drooling (and crying a little).
What a shame your professional luau skipped out on the laulau. Don't they know the words from "Hukilau"? "Where the laulau is the kau kau at the luau." ;)

Tuesday, July 09, 2013  
Blogger Zoomie said...

Thanks, Katie. We have considered moving to thr Big Island.

Cookie, thanks for the leads. Will check them out.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013  
Blogger Diane said...

I loved this post, learning more about when you lived there. And what an amazing woman your friend is...playing tennis every day. Love your writing!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013  
Blogger Zoomie said...

Diane, you have made my day! Thanks for the praise and I'm glad you enjoyed reading about my friend Li.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013  

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