Author of ‘Kau Kau’ book on cuisine of Hawai‘i speaks in SF’s Japantown


The cover of Hiura’s book. Image courtesy of Watermark Publishing

Hiura poses with a fan. Photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

On Aug. 8, more than 150 people gathered at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) in San Francisco’s Japantown to hear Arnold Hiura, author of “Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands,” give a lecture on Hawai‘i’s food. Part cookbook, part coffee table and history book, “Kau Kau,” released by Honolulu-based Watermark Publishing earlier this year, includes more than 70 recipes interspersed throughout a colorful exploration of Hawai‘i’s culinary history.

More than a cookbook

“Kau kau,” the traditional all-purpose pidgin word for island food, is thought to be a pidgin take on the Chinese word for food, “chow chow.” It’s an appropriate name for a book on Hawai‘i’s food, itself a hybrid of many influences. Hiura’s take on the topic covers a vast territory of food and food history, from the definition of andagi, “a round, cake-like Okinawan doughnut,” to the backstory of Zippy’s, a restaurant chain in Hawai‘i with a loyal following. His book looks at not only what the people of Hawai‘i eat but why they eat it as well.

Recipes for classic dishes such as laulau (Polynesian pork), lechon kawali (Filipino pork) and Hiura’s mother’s sushi su (sushi rice seasoning) pepper pages filled with photos and illustrations of early Polynesians, plantation life, sampan fishing, farmers markets, and, of course, plenty of food. There is an “Ethnic Potluck Primer” with 100 definitions to help one navigate Hawai‘i’s food lexicon and myriad captions with tidbits about the Hawai‘i of yesterday and today.

The cover of Hiura's book. Image courtesy of Watermark Publishing

The rest of the book follows a mostly chronological path. It begins with what Polynesian sea voyagers brought in their boats — taro root, sugarcane, bananas, breadfruit, pigs; moves through the contributions of sailors, missionaries, plantation workers, soldiers and the tourist trade; and closes with the recent regional food revolution, featuring modern organic farming outfits, ecological entrepreneurs and celebrity chefs.

Along the way, Hiura explains the tradition of omiyage, delves into the murky origin of the plate lunch and expounds on the legend of loco moco. He traces Hawai‘i’s love for salty foods to European sailors, who brought well-preserved meats to the isles long before the arrival of Spam during World War II. And he heralds the mealtime traditions of plantation workers, which included sharing home-cooked foods from a variety of ethnic kitchens. The latter, he asserts, led to a “process of natural selection” whereby dishes, such as Japanese teriyaki, Korean kalbi and Filipino chicken adobo, gained “popularity across ethnic lines” to become part of what is viewed as local food in Hawai‘i today.

The man behind the food

Hiura, a Honolulu-based media consultant and editor, was born and raised in Papaikou, a plantation town five miles north of Hilo on the Big Island. He was inspired to write the book because the topic of food and culture seemed to come up again and again in his circle. “Friends kept telling me, ‘You ought to write this stuff down’,” he said.

Hiura demonstrates how lunch was eaten on plantations with his personal kau kau or bento tin, a.k.a., lunch box. Photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

Writing the sections about the plantation food culture came easiest to Hiura. “That is the part that was closest to me, the part I was most confident in,” he said. “I lived it more than any other part.” However, writing about the contemporary culinary scene in Hawai‘i, was more challenging. “In the beginning, I felt disconnected,” he said. “When we talk about the old days, we couldn’t afford things. We did the best with what we had. But now we talk about having the best.” It required a different mindset about food to research this section, which highlights fusion cuisine and celebrity chefs, such as Sam Choy and Alan Wong. “It took talking to younger people and leading regional chefs for me to make the connection and to be persuaded that this was an important connection, a part of the evolution,” he said.

Although he resists the “foodie” label — “I’m more interested in the history and culture,” he said — Hiura has certainly become an expert on Hawai‘i’s cuisine. He spent three years researching and writing “Kau Kau,” interviewing farmers, chefs and restaurateurs, and hunting through archives for stories, photos and recipes.

Prior to the book, he curated “From Bento to Mixed Plate,” an exhibit on food in Hawai‘i which opened at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu in 1998 and traveled to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Hiura has also taught English and American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i and Punahou School and served as editor for the Hawaii Herald, a Japanese American newspaper in Honolulu, for nine years.

A popular lecture

Daryl Higashi, a board member of the Hawai‘i Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, introduced Hiura at the San Francisco event. “If you love food, and you love Hawai‘i, then you will love this book,” he said. “It captures the essence of growing up — small kid time.”

Hiura brought examples of canned foods beloved in Hawai‘i. Photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

During the lecture, Hiura’s wife, who helped find many of the archival photos used in the book, operated a projector and slideshow. As he spoke of childhood, his grandmother and the history of Hawai‘i’s food, images of huli huli chicken, Spam musubi and the KCC Farmers Market were illuminated on the screen. Food item after food item induced nods, interjections and moans from the crowd. And references to buying treats from the Hilo Candy Company, picking mountain apples, and dipping green mangos in homemade “bug juice” (shoyu, vinegar, and chili pepper), were not lost on the audience, many who had island ties.

Hiura also spoke of many current culinary trends, which, he argued, could be found in earlier incarnations on the islands. The food cart sensation, so popular on the mainland, has long been a beloved 50th state tradition in the form of lunch wagons. And the move toward regional, sustainable agriculture was something that the first Polynesian settlers practiced daily out of necessity.

Hiura wound up the lecture sharing memories of his grandmother, who would give the best food to her family, before eating leftovers herself. He also used koge rice — a Japanese treat of crispy burned rice from the bottom of the cooking pot — as a reminder that the best food is not always the fanciest or most expensive. “Sometimes in the pursuit of good food we sometimes forget the good in food,” Hiura said. “We forget the values. Somewhere in the value system is food as what it speaks to in our character and to who we are.”

Esther Ishiaki (right, with husband Richard) says she was drawn to Hiura’s lecture because her great grandfather, who hailed from Southern China, had worked on a Hawaiian sugar plantation. She and her husband bought multiple copies of the book as gifts. Photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

After the lecture, Hiura answered questions, signed copies of the book and posed for pictures. The three-stop California tour, which included signings in San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles, brought out more people than Hiura and his wife had expected. “We were just hoping a few dozen people might show up,” he said. “But people really seem to connect to the story and the topic. Everyone has some association with food.” Hiura also gave credit for the turnout to an Aug. 3 article in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Arnold Hiura’s ‘Kau Kau’ covers Hawaiian chow” by Patricia Yollin).

Copies of “Kau Kau” sold out before the lecture began, and many attendees ordered books to be shipped later and picked up at the JCCCNC. Arlene Dreschsler, a 68-year-old retired nurse originally from Kahili, Hawai‘i, and her husband Robert, bought four cookbooks to give away as Christmas presents. Dreschsler, who lives in San Francisco, said “Kau Kau’s” references to malasadas, plate lunches and shave ices made her nostalgic for the islands. “It brings back all those memories,” said Dreschsler, who posed for a photo with Hiura after having her books signed. Les Young, a Honolulu native who has lived in San Francisco for 40 years, shared Dreschsler’s sentiments. “Though I am 65, the foods I loved as a kid still remain the same. Local Hawaiian food hasn’t changed,” he said. “That’s what I love.”

Hiura’s next endeavor is co-authoring a cookbook with celebrity chef Alan Wong who has two restaurants in Honolulu — Alan Wong’s and The Pineapple Room, which both showcase contemporary interpretations of Hawai‘i’s many ethnic flavors. The book is expected to come out at the end of the year.

To order copies of “Kau Kau” from Watermark Publishing, visit or call (866) 900-BOOK. Watermark is based in Honolulu.

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