THE GOCHISO GOURMET: For Maui Auntie ‘K’ and Uncle Ogi

About a month ago, my fishing mentor on Maui passed away. Uncle Ogi taught me the simple lessons of tying a fishing line, where to cast your bait in the surf, and what speed to reel the line. In fact, he even provided me with his own fishing lead, which he would produce after retrieving pound upon pound of store-bought lead that generations of fishermen left on the ocean floor. He would salvage these lead sinkers during diving trips, then melt and recast them. I enjoyed these annual summer fishing trips.

For the past couple of years, however, Uncle’s memory wasn’t there. In fact, Auntie “K” passed on just last year and I’m not sure how her memory was faring. But such is life — a never-ending cycle, and though friends and family physically leave us, we still remember them.

I remember trying to enjoy lunch in the confines of Uncle’s car while a wicked rainstorm pelted the car with rain and sand on the Maalaea mud flats. I say “trying” because while the teriyaki butterfish (which I’ve never been able to duplicate) from the old Noda Market in Kahului was delicious beyond words, the several flies who also found refuge in the car perpetually pestered me to get a bite from my lunch. And Maui flies do bite (and draw blood), so Uncle set a tray of butterfish bones on the dashboard as a sacrificial offering… which didn’t dissuade them from continuing their relentless attack on us.

I remember the molasses-like fragrance that emanated from the Puunene sugar mill. Though it bordered on decomposing vegetation at times, that fragrance meant Maui to me. And specifically a vacation on Maui. So though it may not have been the most enticing fragrance to the passing visitor or local, it was still “memorable Maui” to me, which meant spending a week or two with Auntie and Uncle.

I remember noshing on the Ooka Supermarket bento — and I use the term loosely, as their “bento” simply started as an affordable meal for employees. It was packaged on those 5” by 5” Styrofoam trays on which one pound of ground beef is usually wrapped, and it consisted of a baseball-sized musubi, a large piece of teriyaki or fried chicken, half a Maui hot dog, a small teriyaki hamburger patty and several slices of kamaboko and takuan. And the cost was just $1.79. What first started as an employee benefit eventually spread by word of mouth (gossip travels faster than the speed of light in Wailuku) so that the “bento” were offered to the public on a limited basis. However all good things must come to an end and the Ooka family eventually stopped the bento — as I imagine that their labor costs alone exceeded the selling price, never mind adding in the product costs.

I remember Auntie’s lomi salmon after a long day of fishing, carousing or bamboo picking. I often told Mom that Auntie’s lomi salmon was the BEST and Mom often questioned Auntie about her “secret.” Auntie honestly couldn’t recall any “secret” — she often attributed its popularity to being a dish that simply was cold when a cold dish was relished. Or maybe a salty dish when a salty dish was needed. I still can’t figure its secret myself. Maybe it was that Auntie had the perfect hand in blanching the salt salmon to remove the perfect amount of salt. Maybe it was the best Kula Maui onions at peak sweetness. Perhaps it was Uncle’s homegrown egg tomatoes picked at peak. Or a combination of everything, the perfect alignment of the lomi salmon planets.

I remember eating at Tasty Crust for the first time. This occurred many, many years after my first trip to Maui as a toddler, mainly because it looked like a greasy spoon, and it still is, so Mom forbade us from dining there. Of course, once I started visiting Maui as an adult, I had to try the “forbidden” café. And you know what? It was good. Even the Mrs. enjoyed dining there on return trips. Local style fried rice, good loco moco and steak for around $10.

I remember “enjoying” cake doughnuts from Nashiwa Bakery for breakfast… I say “enjoying” because on one occasion, someone mistook the salt for the sugar. When Auntie asked me how the doughnuts were, I said they were okay but tasted a little strange. After everyone tried them, it was agreed that the sugar coating also contained a fair amount of salt. But because I loved cake doughnuts, I continued to ask for them on subsequent trips. And I would still trade that taste for a lifetime supply of hot Krispy Kremes.

I remember thinking that Archie’s was a Chinese restaurant — mainly because everyone pronounced it “Ah-chee’s” instead of “Ar-chees.” Therefore I thought the restaurant was Ah Chee’s. Mom loved their saimin, though Uncle confided in me that Auntie scolded him whenever he ordered the pork tofu because “you can eat that at home.” His reasoning was that as long as the dish was good, why bypass it just because you can eat it at home? Therefore he would act like he intended on ordering some other item on the menu, but once the server took the order… “pork tofu.”

I remember picking opae (small shrimp) at Nasca to be used for bait while whipping for papio with Uncle. He would slowly “trawl” his opae net in the shallow calm waters of the harbor, scooping as much seaweed as possible, then unloading the catch on the sand. Various juvenile crustaceans resided in this safe haven, including opae. We’d quickly harvest the larger “bait” sized opae, then return the whole mass of seaweed back to the shallow waters for future propagation. I was always amazed at the multitude of marine biology life in just a pile full of seaweed — crustaceans, invertebrates and fish. Uncle then carefully placed the opae on clean newspaper lining a custom-made wire rack in the cooler, and though the shrimp weren’t in water, the cool environment kept them alive for hours on end. At the end of our whipping sojourn, Uncle or Auntie would quickly pan fry the leftover “bait” with salt and pepper for our evening pre-dinner snack — with a frosty beverage from the downstairs refrigerator, of course.

I remember Auntie always packing several boxes of Sam Sato’s manju in our take-home omiyage box. Along with several pounds of ripe mangoes from Uncle’s tree. And several jabon from his tree. And if we were really lucky, Auntie’s pickled mango during bumper crop seasons that had several li-hing-mui or Chinese dried pickled plums. Auntie always made the BEST li-hing-mui pickled mango. And as additional filler, Auntie might pack some Akahi brand Portuguese sausage or authentic Maui hot dogs (with the natural casing that “snapped” when you bit into them) or the sweetest Kula Maui onions (the sweetest and mildest are the wide, flat variety).

I remember debating whether to bring back Shishido mochi as omiyage or simply sticking with the Sam Sato or Homemade Bakery manju. Mainly because Mr. Shishido TOLD you when to pick up your order. He would ask you when your flight was, then tell you when to pick up the order. You NEVER told him when you wanted to pick up the order. But the mochi was delicious so you had to live by the mochi “rules.”

I remember barely making it to my flight home at almost every summer trip, mainly because on that last day, Uncle and I would enjoy a beer… actually two, since the beer was stored in the outside refrigerator several flights of stairs below the kitchen, and due to the long trek to retrieve them, Uncle always brought a pair of beers for each guest. And this pair of icy beverages were always accompanied by Auntie’s ono pupus or appetizers. Sometimes fried fish, sometimes sautéed Maui hot dogs and Maui onions, sometimes fried tako. In fact when I close my eyes, I can still smell the oil which collected on the newspaper that Auntie lined her stovetop with to catch the splatters of oil. Or still taste Uncle’s homemade chili pepper water sprinkled liberally on just about anything.

During their last several years, Auntie may not have remembered my many visits to Wailuku, and Uncle probably didn’t recall any of our fishing exploits, but that is immaterial. They both created a lifetime of Maui memories for me. I remember. And I’ll always remember my Maui Auntie and Uncle.

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

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