Now that we’re into the full summer tilt, there are unmistakable signs of the season: predictable unbearably hot summer weather, the return of termites, with their inevitable swarms on those windless nights and the sound of the taiko from the yagura on weekends commemorating the start of the Obon season. Though it started as a Buddhist custom to celebrate those who have already passed, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike now attend this summertime festival. But then again, remembering those who have passed, especially the sacrifices they made for us has no religious, national or ethnic boundaries. Here in the 50th, we’ve even crossed the Obon custom of ending the season with the toro nagashi or lantern festival to help departed souls back by starting with the toro nagashi on Memorial Day to meld America’s Day of Remembrance with the traditional Obon season of remembrance. I’m sure my ancestors know where and when to return since we’ve been sending them off even before they arrive.
Obon in the Past
Because mom originally hailed from Wailuku, Maui I spent many a summer vacationing on Maui. That means most of the Obon festivals we attended were on the Valley Isle. As a child I never pondered the meaning or significance of the Obon season; it simply was another carnival-like setting where you could get local style foods. Whereas the 50th State Fair on Oahu offered the same food that you might find stateside, including hot dogs, burgers and ice cream, Obon season on Maui meant shave ice with ice cream and azuki beans, chow fun, fresh corn grilled with shoyu and sugar and pickled mango. I fondly remember consuming loads of chow fun from the standard conical snow cone cup (heck, a single cup served as food holder for multiple dishes).
Of course, the season meant more than just traditional Obon fare. It also meant Nashiwa Bakery cake doughnuts, Komoda Bakery cream puffs, Noda Market shoyu butterfish and fried noodles, Ooka Market bento packed on a Styrofoam tray, Takamiya Market poi and okazuya style pre-packed foods and Tasaka guri guri. Or maybe Tokyo Tei’s chicken sukiyaki or Archie’s saimin or Tasty Crust’s fried rice or breakfast at Hazels’ or Maui Boys or Sam Sato’s dry saimin.
Often the food memories simply came from Auntie K’s kitchen. Closing my eyes, I can still smell the heated oil to fry fish that Uncle Ogi caught just hours ago or the Maui hot dogs with sweet Kula onions and see Auntie line her stovetop with newspaper to soak the bits of splattered cooking oil. Or maybe it’s the aroma of molasses from the Puunene Sugar Mill or the salty goodness of ocean water and limu (seaweed) while picking opae (shrimp) to use as bait while whipping for papio on the Lahaina and Kaanapali coast.
Food from the Past
My mom has been making this recipe as long as I can remember — she specifically always made it for my Uncle To-Shan (my mom’s older brother whom I was named for) as part of Thanksgiving dinner. He remembered this dish as a family favorite that my Maui baban (grandmother) made and apparently my mom made not just a reasonable facsimile but also an outstanding rendition of it. The only problem was that my Maui baban never measured anything (maybe that’s where I get it from) and simply cooked by taste, smell and appearance “use this much” or “until it smells like this” or “until it looks like this.” Therefore, my mom had to come up with the recipe simply from memory since nothing was written down. Be forewarned that even mom’s version has several options to choose from and because the chicken is floured, the “sauce” can get quite thick and scorch if you don’t carefully watch the liquid level. So making its worldwide appearance is Maui baban’s and mom’s konbu chicken:
Maui Baban’s Konbu Chicken
• 2 lb chicken thighs or chicken tender (fat, skin, veins removed) cut into halves or thirds
• 7-12 dried shiitake rehydrated overnight
• 3 one ounce packages of dried nishime konbu rehydrated in shiitake liquid
• 4-5 heaping tbsp of flour
• Vegetable oil for frying
• Salt and black pepper to taste
• Lipton Onion Soup Mix with a little water
• Knorr Chicken Flavor Bouillon cube to make 2 cups
• Knorr Consommé mix to make 2 cups
After the shiitake is rehydrated, remove stems and slice thinly. Rinse excess salt and “slime” off of the konbu then slice thinly. Place sliced shiitake and konbu in shiitake rehydrating liquid, bring to boil then lower to simmer.
Marinate chicken with salt and black pepper or marinate with Lipton Onion Soup Mix overnight. Coat each piece with flour shaking off excess flour then fry in vegetable until golden brown. As the chicken pieces brown, place them in shiitake/konbu liquid. If this mixture begins to dry out, add chicken broth or consommé to maintain moisture level. Once all the chicken has been browned and added to the shiitake/konbu pot, simmer for about 1 hour, always making sure there is enough liquid in the pot to prevent scorching (adding chicken broth or consommé). The liquid does thicken due to the flour on the chicken pieces.
Moving a generation closer, this next recipe is from my mom (which I’m sure came from one of the many Hongwanji cookbooks available in Hawai‘i) but it’s become one of my favorite chicken recipes. It is a bit humbug (mendokusai) to make but you’ll be rewarded by the taste. Don’t even be tempted to substitute the butter for cooking oil — it’s NOT the same. It’s like going on a date with Salma Hayek versus a date with Salma Hayek’s picture. Something about the marriage of butter, shoyu and konbu … As with most recipes from the elders, I intentionally didn’t include measurements on most of the ingredients except the sauce. The sauce recipe should cover 4 to 6 chicken thighs. Double or triple the sauce if you intend on making a pot load. And purchase (and soak) more kanpyo than you think you’ll need. And cut it longer than you think you’ll need. Wrapping raw chicken thighs like a Christmas present is more of a bear than you think and the last thing you want is a short piece of kanpyo. And kanpyo sticks — even to non-stick surfaces — so once you lay the chicken “packet” in the pan, move it around gently until the proteins have congealed. Otherwise the “packet” will self-destruct if the kanpyo sticks to the pan and breaks. Since this recipe probably came from a Hongwanji cookbook, this probably isn’t making its first appearance, but here’s my mom’s version of konbu stuffed chicken:
Gochiso Mom’s Konbu Stuffed Chicken
• Skinned and boned chicken thighs
• Konbu maki kanpyo
• 1 tbsp Dashi-no-moto
• 1/4 cup shoyu
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 3/4 cup water
• 1/4 cup sake or shochu
• 1 tbsp cornstarch
Soak konbu maki and kanpyo overnight. Place one piece of konbu maki in center of flattened chicken thigh then wrap and secure with kanpyo. Mix the next five ingredients and set aside. In a non-stick sauté pan or sauce pan, brown the chicken “packets” in butter on each side carefully moving each piece so that the kanpyo doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. When all “packets” have been browned, add the liquid mixture and simmer on low for about 45 minutes until the chicken is tender. Thicken the sauce with cornstarch mixed with a little liquid, then serve with the sauce poured over the chicken.
It’s been said that we have to see where we’ve been to know where we’re going. Obon reinforces this thought, making us remember the past and what’s been done by generations before us, that makes it possible for us to achieve our present and future goals. I’ve been blessed by a couple of generations of great cooks that laid a foundation for me to follow. Hopefully your family will continue on that same tradition. Namu Amida Butsu.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. 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, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.