It’s a good thing Moana is such a good movie. Disney’s latest epic musical is a sweet story, heartfelt, and with a hint of exoticism—I don’t mind watching it for the 57th time. Really. And it got me interested in Hawaiian food. I’ve learned that taro root and coconut are key to local cuisine. I’ve heard rumors of spam being oddly popular. But what else is on the menu?
The history of hawaii food
Polynesians arrived by boat to the Hawaiian Islands sometime between 200 and 500 AD. The islands were previously uninhabited, and while there was fish and vegetation in abundance, ancient Polynesian traditions and even food supplies sailed the ocean with them. Thus early Hawaiian cuisine was likely identical to the foods of other Polynesian islands.
This changed in 1778, when Captain Cook’s expedition wound its way throughout the south pacific. When he sailed on, he left behind a ram, a goat, a boar, some ewes, an English sow, and seeds for onions, pumpkins and melons. It is unusual that a place would be so isolated that the very moment produce or traditions were introduced can be clearly documented, but Hawaii is such a place, so remote that it required long, expert sea voyages to reach, so nothing arrived in a haphazard manner. With Captain Cook, the islands became a colony, Western traditions were imported (including preserving techniques, like salting), and international workers arrived to provide labour.
This resulted in the local traditions melding with imported ones from around the world: England, Portugal, China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and more.
Fish and roots
The Polynesian settlers based their diet on fish and pastes made from roots, particularly mashed taro root, called poi. There were said to be over 300 varietals of taro in Hawaii, and this low-calorie, but filling starch was the bulk of most meals.
Another filling starch was likewise imported: Breadfruit, or ulu, which has a mildly sweet taste and can be used either in sweet or savoury cooking. Coconuts were also brought over and, as the song performed by Moana’s father in the movie tells us, this is perhaps the most useful ingredient on the island.
Today, a coconut pudding called haupia is a descendent of this tradition. A parallel to haupia is kulolo, a similarly-shaped and textured boiled fruit pudding, baked in ti leaves, made with taro root, or the breadfruit version, called imu, or the sweet potato version, poipalau.
There is a particularly beautiful purple sweet potato in Hawaii, one of some 200 varieties grown there. And cooking in leaves, from coconut, taro, or other vegetation has long been popular, a way to both flavour the dish and keep it moist, while traditionally protecting it from the coals of the fire pits in which leaf-wrapped meat and fish was buried to cook.
Preserving meat and fish
When whalers and naval ships began to use Hawaii as a base of operations, they needed to stock up on supplies that would last for months, which meant preserving ingredients, like salting fish. Lomi is a cold fish salad made of cubed cured raw salmon, tossed with tomatoes, peppers and onions. This dish can be dated in origin quite specifically, since it was only in 1791 that tomatoes and peppers were imported to Hawaii and cultivated there.
The man responsible was Don Francisco de Paula Marin, a botanist from Spain. Just a year later, the first cattle arrived, courtesy of Captain George Vancouver, and paniolo (cowboys from Mexico) were invited to herd and raise them.
In order to preserve the beef to fuel long voyages, it was hung to dry, in the style of beef jerky. This is called pipi kaula, and it is still popular today. The cattle actually caused a problem, since they were without predators and there was a dramatic overpopulation, resulting in an over-abundance of beef. Pineapples first arrived in 1813, with beer brewed on the island a year before, and coffee plantations laid four years later. Much of the importing and cultivation of fruit and vegetation was down to Marin, nicknamed “Manini,” who was special advisor to the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha I, and is largely responsible for the wondrous produce for which Hawaii is now known.
Our exploration could burst into myriad directions, if we include dishes that post-date the 18th century. The numerous immigrants on the island from that time brought forth their own traditions with them, and took Hawaiian cooking in many directions (including some that involved spam, imported as part of the rations kit by US soldiers and a big hit, with dishes like spam musubi, a type of sushi topped with sautéed spam).