Meandering America's Menus - A History of Hawaii

Meandering America's Menus - A History of Hawaii

Why Aloha, and Welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes! Today’s post does, unusually for Thursday posts, contain a recipe, but that’s because the recipe in question holds a special place in the coal-black hearts of my brother and I. However, of course, since this is a Thursday post, it’s time to be more educational. So let’s dive into the 5 waves of Hawaiian cooking, before finishing with Spam Musubi.


A Quick Warning

Listen, Hawaiian culture and cooking is largely impacted from its (semi-)indigenous peoples. (We’ll touch on that.) And my historical information is, of course, secondhand. Rest assured that at no point am I seeking to malign the traditions or peoples of Hawaii, despite, historically, that being exactly what happens when bearded white men appear on the scene of native cultures.

Good? Good.


Wave One: The Polynesians

The first peoples to inhabit Hawaii were, of course, the Polynesians. In case you slept through this part of World History, the Polynesian Islands are a group of islands in the Pacific. There’s over 1,000 of them, spread out over more than 8.4 million square miles of ocean. By comparison, the continent of North America is roughly 9.5 million square miles. So take North America, and cut off everything below Mexico, and Alaska, that’s how much ocean there is here.

The Polynesian people have a complex mythos, migration pattern, culture and development, but they were on Hawaii for somewhere around 1700 years, and I have only 1600 words in the post, so let’s simplify it to “Remember the part in Moana when Lin Manuel Miranda was singing? Those guys.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it. And if you don’t know who Lin Manuel Miranda is, just say those words aloud so that my assassins can pinpoint your location and hunt you for sport.

If there were a can of mayonnaise in this car, it would be full of everything white liberal America loves. 

In any case, the Polynesians who arrived on Hawaii brought basically everything land-based to eat. Animals, plants, the whole she-bang. Before that, the only thing people could eat on the island was ferns, birds, and a single species of bats. Yeah, it turns out very remote islands formed by volcanic hotspots instead of continental drift don’t lend themselves to terrestrial biodiversity.

But these settlers established the core foods of the Ancient Hawaiian cuisine: the taro root which made poi, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, coconut and sugarcane. Also, fishing. TONS of fishing. The ancient Hawaiian diet is believed to have included 130 types of seafood. And food was important to them. Pigs were bred mainly for religious sacrifice, being eaten only by priests or at festivals. Supposedly, the taro root (or kalo, to the Hawaiians) was the actual physical form of one of their progenitor Gods, the older brother to all humanity. Due to his peaceable and kindly nature, whenever a bowl of poi was uncovered for meal-time, all arguments in the household had to stop.

A rule the world in general could certainly have considered adopting.

 There is some dispute exactly how long this went on, with the initial settlement estimates varying pretty widely. Anywhere from 300 AD to 800 AD, to the mid 1210’s. But, in any case, for centuries, this was the way of life on the islands, until:


Wave 2: Europe Butts In

In 1778, a time period renowned for its political stability and peaceful conversations, Captain James Cook, basically the only British guy who discovered shit, showed up in Hawaii. He met the people, gave them some stuff, and overall everything went perfectly fine, nothing to see here.

Today's pictures include a 200-year old painting by a dude named Zoffany, a 20 year old image from a guy named Lucas, and Jane Krakowksi. Lotta weird names flying around today,

Over the next 50 years, a lot of new stuff would get introduced to Hawaii. Hawaiians met goats for the first time, as well as pumpkins, cattle, onions, melons, and so on. In 1813, the first pineapple was grown on Hawaii. Yeah, those aren’t native! Who knew? Remember that, it gets important later. Beer and coffee get planted, the cattle get slaughtered(turns out if you introduce cattle to a fertile land with no predators and a people who don’t know how to cook them, they breed like fucking wildfire.), and generally everything is looking pretty good for the Hawaiian people.

 And by “Hawaiian people”, I mean “White dudes in Hawaii”, because that’s ALWAYS what we white people mean after we start hanging out somewhere. American companies invest heavily in Hawaiian Pineapple and Sugarcane, and those two crops become lynchpins to the Hawaiian economy.


Wave 3: Immigrants, we Get The Job Done

Rule Two of “White People ‘helping’ The Natives” is the easiest rule: When in doubt, make someone else do the work. The plantations were huge affairs, needing tons of labor. Hawaii didn’t have enough, and most of America at this point was busy trying to be cowboys or dying in the Civil War, or later, getting ready to die in World War One. The point is, we weren’t going to do it. If only there was some region renowned for having high population densities, and therefore cheap labor.

Tragically, no such place exists. 

Yes, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, America just KEPT importing Asian labor to Hawaii. Chinese, Korean, Japanese. Hell, we starting importing Portugese, presumably because we just checked off anybody ending in “-ese”. Then, after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Ricans and Filipinos started showing up. Puerto Rico is on essentially the exact opposite side of the Northern Hemisphere from Asia, so for almost a century, the rule was “If you want to work, go to Hawaii”, which is…not what we think today.

And these waves of immigrants brought their foods. The Chinese brought Stir-fries, and introduced Rice to the islands. The Korean brought their brand of sweet-and-spicy barbecue. The Portuguese brought smoked sausage and fried donuts, and the Japanese brought…A lot. Tempura, Noodle soups, sashimi, bentos, tofu, soy sauce…By the start of the 1900’s, the Japanese were the largest ethnic group on the islands, according to one source, and I can’t tell if that source counts HAWAIIANS as an ethnic group.

This is where the ground work for today’s dish comes in: One Japanese tradition was Onigiri, also called omusubi: a riceball, often with a wrap of nori, stuffed with…whatever. Something salty or sour, typically fish or flavored seaweed. It was essentially the Japanese sandwich, created as a hand food for people out and about, and as a way to preserve rice, with the filling serving as the preservative. It’s not technically sushi, due to complex Japanese culinary rules I don’t have time to dive into, but close. You’ve actually probably seen it before: It’s the rice triangle in like, every kid’s anime ever made.

That's the one. You know, in some dubs, they get called "donuts", because it's the closest cultural landmark to "beloved snack on the go".


As I noted Monday, America’s relationship with Hawaii is simultaneously very invasive, and very distant. Remember earlier when I said to remember Pineapple being important? Well, here’s the pay-off: those American businessmen, started getting a little antsy around the 1870’s, because Hawaii was having some mild political turmoil. A couple rulers died in quick succession without heirs, leading to a contested election. And yes, apparently in the absence of heirs, Hawaiians VOTED on their King/Queen.

In what may be the lowest point in my life, i guess I have to apologize to George Lucas about the Star Wars Prequels. "I'm sorry, I guess calling someone "the youngest Elected Queen" isn't complete gibberish." 

This lead to political unease, with a few riots, where American troops showed up to “calm shit down” (technical term). Then, in 1887, those white businessmen wrote up a Constitution for the Kingdom of Hawaii that was ‘surprisingly’ really great for white business owners, but fucked over literally everyone else. ‘Surprisingly’, it was massively unpopular (it was only signed because they were literally threatening violence if it wasn’t), and when the current king passed away, the new Queen immediately announced, “Hey, we’re getting a new Constitution”. At which point the white guys formed a committee, order in a platoon of US Marines, and held a coup d’état.

We hemmed and hawed over whether or not it was right at the time, two different government investigations found two different answers, but it’s worth noting that after the first report, the US Government demanded the queen be reinstated, and that 100 years later we officially apologized for our actions.

So we had the Territory of Hawaii now, and…really just stopped caring right after 1900. We told them to govern themselves, we got shit to do, and didn’t really look back at them for about 40 years.


Again, no real reason for our return.

Yes, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the creation of the “Pacific Theater”, America became VERY invested in Hawaii, very quickly. To give you some sense of scale: in 1941, the population of Hawaii was roughly 400,000. In 1945, the US troop investment in the Pacific theater was over 3,000,000. Even assuming only 1/3 of the troops spent noticeable stretches of time in Hawaii, that’s still more than twice as many soldiers as civilians. Combined with Hawaii declaring martial law in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and culture norms shifted quickly. Fishing was forbidden, because…well…um…the fishermen were almost all Japanese. Yeah, the population of Hawaii at the time was over 1/3 Japanese, so we couldn’t really do the whole internment camp thing, but we DID want to make sure these Japanese fishermen weren’t secretly aiding Japan.  So we ended deep-sea fishing on an island nation.

Luckily, a hero arose to save them all. 

So, in order to keep the populace from, you know, DYING, we had to give them another protein. And American soldiers had SPAM for DAYS back then. It became a cultural phenomenon for the Hawaiian people, replacing fish and other meats in many dishes. And that laid the ground work for today’s…

Hmm. You know what? It turns out the history of Hawaii takes a bit of time to tell. I try to cap these posts at around 1600 words, and we’re actually there right NOW. And I haven’t actually touched on the last wave of Hawaiian cuisine’s development, nor the recipe itself. SO JOIN US MONDAY TO GET THE EXCITING CONCLUSION TO THE HISTORY OF HAWAII’S…HAM? I don’t know, I wanted a third H.