THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Old Bon Odori, new food


The Hawai‘i Obon season has already started in remote locations on the Big Island and will start on the rest of the islands next weekend. What once was traditionally a Buddhist festival to remember those who have passed before us now attracts both Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Some attend for the spiritual reconnection with the deceased, while others simply to engage in cultural activities that aren’t their own. Some enjoy the rhythmic dances and taiko drums, while others are just trying to keep cultural traditions alive. And then of course, there’s the food. Chow fun served in conical shave ice cups. Skewered and grilled teriyaki meat. Grilled corn. Shave ice. Of course, I’d never attend any event simply for the food… yeah, right!

For the past 12 years, Shinnyo-en and the Na Lei Aloha Foundation have sponsored a toro nagashi, or lantern festival, off of Magic Island at Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu. The toro nagashi traditionally concludes the Obon season and lights the way for deceased spirits to find their way back. However, when there’s a blending of multiple cultures, change is usually inevitable and in the case of the lantern festival, it now coincides with America’s remembrance of the deceased on Memorial Day — which means the lantern festival now occurs before the Obon season starts. I guess the lanterns now help to guide spirits for their Obon arrival. In any case, the festival draws in excess of 10,000 people to Ala Moana Beach Park and is usually televised live on the local television stations.

The Only Constant Is Change

While this saying is usually true, there are changes that I agree with and others that, well… Should we always remember the deceased? Definitely, though it shouldn’t simply be an annual ritual. We should care for gravesites, adorn family altars with flowers and remember deceased loved ones throughout the year, not just during the Obon season. Should the “Tanko Bushi” always be a part of Obon? Most definitely, especially since that’s the only dance I can remotely perform. What about the “Baseball Ondo?” Err, well… And as for those brightly adorned priests and priestesses that wear lime green, orange and baby blue robes, I’ll let you decide for yourselves on that one.

However, I see nothing wrong with making small changes to the usual food served at Obon festivals. While copious consumption of butter, saturated fat and cholesterol may have been okay years ago (mainly because we didn’t know what those were or what they did), moderation while consuming these foodstuffs is the key. Therefore in Gochiso Gourmet tradition, I propose my own personal changes to Obon foods that I hold in my memory banks.

Chow Funny

Chow Funny,photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Hawai‘i-style chow fun is very simple to make with just four basic ingredients: packaged chow fun noodles, ground pork, chop suey mix (mainly bean sprouts with a little cabbage and coarsely grated carrots) and Memmi. However, ground pork does carry its fair share of fat and we should always try to consume more whole-grain carbohydrates, so I substituted whole wheat flat pasta for the chow fun and ground turkey breast for the ground pork. That’s why it’s Chow Funny… no actual chow fun but just as delicious. Serve in conical shave ice cups for memories of past Bon Odori at Wailuku Hongwanji.

• 1/3 lb whole grain linguini or fettuccini

• 1 tbsp canola oil

• 1 clove garlic, slivered

• 1/2 lb ground turkey breast

• 1/2 tsp five-spice powder

• 2 cups raw bean sprouts

• 1/4 head small cabbage, roughly chopped

• 1 carrot, coarsely grated

• 2-3 tbsp Kikkoman Memmi

• Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Break pasta in half and boil according to package instructions. Drain and set aside. Mix five-spice powder into ground turkey and set aside. Heat oil, and then add garlic slivers and sauté until just beginning to brown. Add ground turkey over medium heat, breaking up turkey into small pieces. Add veggies and cook just until veggies start to soften. Add Memmi, salt and black pepper, and then toss. Drizzle with pickling liquid from spicy pickled peppers if desired.

Grilled Tandoori Chicken

Grilled Tandoori. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

While the classic skewered teriyaki meat brings back Obon memories, teriyaki meat also carries its fair share of fat. Therefore, substituting chicken breast reduces that to a minimum. But tandoori? Isn’t that Indian? Yes it is, but since Obon is a traditional Buddhist festival, what better food to savor than delicacies from the land where Buddhism originated?

• 1 tray of boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced lengthwise into 1-inch strips (for skewering)

• 1/3 cup plain fat-free yogurt

• 1 tbsp rice vinegar

• 1 tbsp minced garlic

• 1 tbsp ginger root, peeled and grated

• 1 tbsp ground cumin

• 1 tsp ground coriander

• 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

• 1/4 tsp ground cardamom

• 1/8 tsp ground cloves

• 1/4 tsp fresh-ground black pepper

• 1 tsp salt or to taste

Prick the flesh of the chicken all over with a fork. Then, using a sharp knife, cut slashes in the flesh to allow the marinade to penetrate. Place the chicken in a sealed ziplock plastic bag. Combine the next 11 ingredients, and then add to the chicken. Refrigerate eight hours or overnight. (Do not marinate for longer than two days.) Remove the chicken from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before cooking. Wipe excess marinade from chicken, then skewer for grilling. Place on a hot grill and cook on each side for two to four minutes until the juices run clear.

Grilled Corn Salad

Grilled Corn Salad. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

The grilled corn I remember was slathered in either butter, a shoyu-based sauce, or a combination of the two. Corn, good. Butter, not so good — and it gets your mouth and hands a little greasy. Try this grilled corn salad that still has dairy — albeit fat-free sour cream — and won’t give you that greasy feeling.

• 3 cups fresh corn kernels (about 5 ears)

• 3/4 cup fat free sour cream

• 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

• 3/4 teaspoon smoked salt (available at gourmet markets)

• Fresh ground black pepper to taste

• 1 cup finely chopped red bell pepper

• 1 cup finely chopped green onions

Peel back corn husk (but don’t remove); remove corn silk, and then pull husk back over the cob. Place on a hot grill and grill for two to four minutes on each side. Combine the next four ingredients in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add corn and remaining ingredients, stirring to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours before serving.

A Final Word

Making small dietary changes like those highlighted above may help prevent our own family from dancing on our behalf during the summer months of Obon. Of course, as in anything in life, there are no guarantees, other than death and taxes. But it may just delay the time that the Grim Reaper pays you a personal visit. And while it’s important to remember and honor our ancestors, I think it’s just as important to do the same to those that are still with us. This little orb would be a better place if we all tried to accomplish that. Namu Amida Butsu.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco, a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawai‘i and can be reached at

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