Obon food memories

Hawaii Style Chow Fun in a Cone. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

One of my enduring food memories of Obon season on Maui was consuming chow fun from conical shave ice cups every summer. Although I was raised and primarily resided on O‘ahu, Mom grew up in Wailuku, Maui until she moved to O‘ahu, then Indiana for college. And because she was a teacher, she had every summer off and would therefore take us to Maui for the summer break, usually right in the middle of Obon season. Because Auntie “K” (Mom’s eldest sibling) was an active member of the Wailuku Hongwanji Mission, we’d usually attend their annual Obon festivities.

While the Hongwanji sold traditional Japanese foods like grilled teriyaki meat on bamboo skewers, corn grilled with teriyaki sauce and shave ice (in the 50th, it’s ALWAYS shave ice, NEVER shaved ice), a classic dish was chow fun served in the same conical cups used for the shave ice. My guess is that those conical cups were purchased in bulk, so the temple thought they might as well use them for purposes other than shave ice. And I’m sure that my persistent memory of the dish wasn’t because of the taste, but simply because of how it was served.

But those memories seem a lifetime ago, as we stopped accompanying Mom to Maui on her annual summer breaks once we hit those teen years. And to be honest, I haven’t attended an Obon for just as long. Partly due to logistics, partly because of simple laziness. Because Obon season lasts through summer, it’s during the worst climatic season in the 50th. I always say that Hawai‘i has two seasons, a hot summer, which lasts from October to May and an unbearable, stifling summer from June through September. Throw in weeks where the trade winds subside, leading to Kona winds (very humid conditions), which usually occurs during summer and one circular pass of the “Tanko Bushi” would leave me sweating like I just completed a stage of the Tour de France. And those windless, muggy nights often lead to termite swarms, which I experienced during Obon season on Maui. And because a large circular space is needed for the yagura and the dancers, most Hongwanji use their parking lots, which means you must find parking elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Although I haven’t attended an Obon for quite some time, it is heartening to know that many others still attend including many non-Buddhists who simply participate to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on.

Chow Fun
Here in the 50th, we’re fortunate that both Sun Noodle and Dynasty produce fresh chow fun noodles that are available at almost every supermarket and Hula Brand produces dried chow fun noodles with a longer shelf life. If you can’t readily find chow fun noodles in your neighborhood, I would simply approach the proprietors of any Chinese restaurant and ask if they’re willing to sell you fresh noodles. I’m pretty sure most Chinese restaurants make their own fresh chow fun.

Hawaii Style Chow Fun in a Cone. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Unlike chow fun dishes served at restaurants, which usually have a thicker sauce or gravy, Hawai‘i-style chow fun is usually a simple stir-fry using ground pork and assorted sliced vegetables, seasoned with shoyu or a touch of oyster sauce. Once the protein and veggies have cooked, the separated fresh noodles are tossed in. And instead of serving as a main dish, Hawai‘i-style chow fun is usually served as a side, often serving as the base of a bento for the main proteins.

My quick chow fun simply uses about one-half a pound of lean ground pork that is browned then one bag of Taro Brand Chop Suey mix (mostly bean sprouts with chopped cabbage, watercress and carrots) is tossed in the mix and just as the veggies are cooked, two to three packages of separated fresh chow fun noodles are tossed with everything then seasoned simply with several dashes of Kikkoman Memmi since Memmi is basically shoyu spiced with bonito extract, sugar and vinegar. It has just four ingredients and is as easy as turning on a burner.

New Fangled Chow Fun
The following recipe is my version of the popular Dan Dan Noodles originating from the Sichuan province. However, since capsaicin (chili pepper) creates a waterfall on my noggin and just the ambient summer climate of Hawai‘i easily accomplishes the same, my version doesn’t really resemble anything you’d find in the Sichuan province. It just has a touch of heat from my favorite chili garlic sauce from Lee Kum Kee.

Spicy Chow Fun
1 pound ground pork
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp shoyu
1 tbsp mirin
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp garlic chili sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp corn starch
1/2 cup water
2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1/2 up sliced chives
1 bunch green onions, sliced
24 ounces fresh chow fun or 1 lb of dried chow fun boiled according to package instructions then drained

Place the ground pork, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, shoyu and mirin in a medium bowl and mix everything together then let sit at room temperature for at least 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the remaining ingredients.

Finely chop the chives and green onions.

Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the pork mixture, garlic, the garlic chili sauce and the oyster sauce. Cook, breaking up the pork into small crumbles, or until the pork is no longer pink, four to five minutes.

Add the water, mix then add the cornstarch and quickly mix before lumps form. Once the meat sauce has thickened, turn off the heat and add the chives and green onions then mix again.

If using the fresh chow fun, I usually let it sit in hot water until the noodles are separated — dried chow fun can simply be boiled according to the package instructions then drained.

Toss the chow fun with the meat sauce

Drizzle with more garlic chili sauce or that bottle of Momofuku Chili Crunch you purchased last Christmas if desired.

The next recipe is a cross between Japanese and Middle Eastern curry. Like the previous recipe, marinate the chicken or turkey with the spice mixture for 15 minutes or so. Once the protein has cooked add the onion slices and once the onions soften, add the tomato paste down to the cilantro. Finally, add the water and cornstarch mixing well then toss with the noodles.

Curried Chow Fun

The Gochiso Gourmet’s Curied Chow Fun. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

1 lb ground chicken or turkey
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 ground coriander
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 small onion sliced lengthwise
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 cup diced fresh cilantro
1/2 cup water
1 tsp cornstarch

So even if you can’t attend any Obon celebrations this year, you can still mimic the Obon of years past in Wailuku. Just serve your chow fun in a shave ice cup…

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 recently retired clinical pharmacist and a budding chef/ recipe developer/wine taster. He writes from Kane’ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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