The unique food traditions of the Hawaiian Islands have remained remarkably consistent for hundreds of years, even though the introduction of foreign edibles and beverages has been continuous since is “discovery” by Captain Cook in 1778. New food ideas over the years have brought about a remarkably diverse and delightful cuisine seen today, but the basics remain the same.
Paul Christiaan Klieger, PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. Chancelor of the Royal House of Hawaii, curator at the Hawaii State Museum.
The seagoing Polynesians rapidly populated the far-flung islands of the Pacific Ocean in a relatively short time. They brought with them several food stables to cultivate in their new lands. The selection of plants and animals that could survive the migration across the ocean’s vastness helped determine the basis upon which Polynesian and subsequently Hawaiian cuisine is based. From Southeast Asia came such staples as the chicken, pig, dog, coconut, yam, sugar cane, breadfruit, mango, taro, and candlenut. The sweet potato possibly came from the New World. Local produce on the new islands included reef and deep-water fish, mollusks, and seaweeds.
This universe of foods was regulated by an elaborate social convention known in Hawai‘i as the kapu (taboo, sacred) system. One of the most profound of the regulations was the restriction of dietary habits between men and women known as the ‘ai kapu. Men and women could not eat together, and women could not eat certain foods sacred to the male gods (women had female goddesses). The forbidden foods included pork, which was a form of the agricultural god Lono; most species of banana, a manifestation of Kanaloa, the god of the underworld; coconut was a form of the war god Kū; even the staple taro root was forbidden to women as a form of Kāne, the god of creation. In addition, the consumption of certain fish species was restricted according to gender and their harvest limited to certain seasons. The kapu system also regulated the relations between the rulers (ali‘i) and the ruled (maka‘āinana).
The kapu system was abolished in 1819 when King Kamehameha II sat down with his mother and aunts to share a dinner. Although it had a monumental effect on social relationships, the end of the ancient regulations generally changed only who ate what, not the overall diet of the Hawaiian people. That would be accomplished with outside influence.
The World Rushed in
With the introduction of the outside world since the islands’ “discovery” by James Cook in 1778, foods such as beef, potatoes, and wheat flour were introduced to Hawai‘i. A Spanish settler brought in pineapple, now an inseparable part of the lexicon of modern “Hawaiian cuisine.” American Puritan missionaries brought turkeys, pumpkin, and cake-making skills. By the mid-nineteenth century, the table of the royal Hawaiian court was designed to impress Western dignitaries and was modeled after the best of European cuisine, with expensive imported comestibles, fine wines, and spirits, brightened by the abundance of fresh Hawaiian fruits, flowers, and local meat and fish. Later, immigrant labor hired for the burgeoning plantation business introduced rice and soya products from Japan, Cantonese cuisine, Korean picked vegetables, and Portuguese and Filipino delicacies.
Following the popularity of the Hawaiian Islands as a popular tourist destination after the 1930s, American restauranteurs Don the Beachcomer (Ernest Gantt) and Trader Vic Bergeron created a craze for exotic “Polynesian” cuisine and “tiki bars” across the United States. Mostly based on standard Cantonese food recipes and powerful rum-based beverages, it was skillfully marketed as authentic “Hawaiian” and Polynesian fare well into the 1980s.
The fusion of cultures has resulted in many interesting food combos, including such currently popular items as Spam musubi (a sushi-like rice roll with canned pork luncheon meat and nori seaweed), plate lunches with traditional steamed pork, Japanese rice with soya, and American macaroni salad, and the “loco moco,” a hamburger patty over rice topped with a fried egg and gravy. For wealthy hotel clients, the preference for expensive imported foods, prevalent for over a century, finally began to fade by the 1990s, influenced strongly by chefs dedicated to utilizing local, fresh produce (the New Hawaiian Regional Cuisine).
Yet through all the introduction of foreign foods, Hawaiian cuisine is still centered on the original produce brought to the islands over a thousand years ago. Although roast dog disappeared from the Hawaiian diet by the late nineteenth century, the roasted/steamed pork, taro poi, steamed lau lau, marinated fish poke, and coconut pudding (haupia), remain largely as they were in the days of the ancient Polynesians. You will find all these at any modern hotel lū‘au in the islands, and you won’t find anything called “Hawaiian” pizza with pineapple and ham. This continuity should be credited to the ancient kapu system that regulated dietary restrictions for centuries.
In Memorial of our friend Paul Christiaan Klieger, WGI Delegate Ambassador of Hawaii.