Local Knowledge

Ever wondered what it would be like to live in Hawai‘i? I found this list I wrote some time back and thought it would be fun to share here. The fact that I live in Hawai‘i is always a conversation starter with people – they’re curious!

  • You cannot get over-sized containers of taco seasoning at Costco. However, you can get li hing mui in extra large containers.
  • It’s commonplace for radio stations to play songs sung in Japanese, English, Hawaiian, and Tahitian, mingled with Christian praise songs and hot body songs. It’s all good.
  • Poinsettias grow here like weeds, and yet at Christmas time, you can buy them in pots at the store.
  • Care must be taken when ordering what you think is Mexican food. A taco is a taco, but tako (which sounds quite the same as taco) is squid. Tako is sold dried as a snack or more often, raw. Dried, it’s just fishy. Raw, it is chewy and not among my top choices for a meal.
  • It is rare for a new business to open without a blessing. New homes, too, are often blessed. Kahuna (a religious leader) generally offer a blessing and chant in the Hawaiian language.
  • People who live in California are called Californians. People who live in Texas are called Texans. People who live in Hawaii are NOT called Hawaiians. That term is reserved for people of Hawaiian ethnicity, no matter where they live.
  • When someone offers you food, it is considered impolite to refuse. No matter what it is. Even tako.

Photo: Payton Chung

If you’re looking for a fun, inexpensive souvenir to bring home from your Hawaiian vacation, look beyond the cheapo 4-for-$10 T-shirts. Take something home that will really give your friends and family a taste of the island. That’s right, folks. I’m suggesting that you shop for souvenirs…at the grocery store. Check the snack aisle or the Asian food aisle, and you’re bound to find something that your friends at home have never even heard of before. Here are a few suggestions:

Crack Seed: This local favorite is primarily a variety of dehydrated and preserved fruits. Crack seed came to Hawaii with the first Chinese immigrants who came to work the plantations – and it’s here to stay. The sweet and salty dried fruit is often flavored with li hing mui. You can pick up crack seed at any grocery store or stop in at a specialty shop like the Crack Seed Center in the Ala Moana Shopping Center.

One-Ton Chips: The Maebo Noodle Factory has been making One-Ton Chips in Hawaii for nearly 60 years.  Made with dough similar to that used to make won tons, these chips are crispy and slightly sweet. You’ll find them in the grocer’s snack aisle or – sometimes – at Costco.

Hawaii Popcorn: You can get this ready to eat or in a microwavable version, but you can bet you’ll have a hard time finding it beyond the islands. The Hawaiian Hurricane flavor is a blend of popcorn, rice crackers, and nori. Unique, yes?

In the Honolulu/Waikiki area you’ll find plenty of convenience stores that may (or may not) carry some of these items. Your best bet for a full service grocery store is the Foodland at Ala Moana Center.

Making Tapa Cloth

I am a crafter, and also, occasionally a seamstress. My projects begin with raw materials like fabric or beads or paper purchased at a store. Materials that have been manufactured with the use of heavy machinery. I could start those project of mine from true raw materials if I chose: weaving my own fabric from wool, or if I were really serious, raising my own sheep. I choose not to do so.

Not so for cultural practitioners in Hawai‘i. On a recent weekend I had the opportunity to watch Benjamin at work making tapa (or kapa) cloth. Benjamin talked about the process of making tapa as he carefully pounded a work in progress.

Made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree (wauke in Hawai‘i) the resulting cloth was traditionally used for clothing and bedding. The bark is fermented in water for about a week, and then the pounding begins. As the wet bark is pounded, the fibers mesh together and flatten out. This isn’t a one shot deal, though. A single piece of bark is pounded repeatedly, from one end to the other. Over time, the bark flattens and widens into a thin, damp sheet of cloth. To make a larger sheet of tapa, small pieces are combined by overlapping the edges and pounding until the two pieces are one. There are no seams or glued edges. It’s a long process that requires much patience. When dried, the tapa feels much like homemade paper.

I asked Benjamin how long it takes to make a small piece of tapa, like the one he was working on. “Could take a whole day.” He shrugged and laughed, “But if it takes that long, you haven’t learned your job very well.”

Here he is in action:

If you would like to see some beautiful examples of finished tapa, please visit the photo gallery at Kapa Hawaii.

Local Flavors Everyone Should Try Once

The food scene in Hawaii features some of the nation’s best chefs serving up high-style cuisine. Step away from the four star restaurants and orchid-laced drinks, though, and you’ll find the heart of Hawaii in three favorite dishes. From poi – the dish that visitors love to hate – to loco moco and Spam musubi, these foods are a true taste of local food. Better yet? You can try any one of them for under ten bucks.

Loco Moco – This island specialty is a favorite of locals and a must try when you visit the islands. The standard loco moco consists of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, an egg, and (warn the arteries) gravy. Portions are generally very, very large so if you don’t have a huge appetite, consider making it a meal for two. Not a fan of hamburger? No worries. Choose from a variety of other meats, such as Portuguese sausage, beef teri, shrimp, or the ever-present Spam. Try the loco moco at Big City Diner located in Ward Entertainment Center or Zippy’s in the Ala Moana Center.

Photo: Ron Diggity

Spam Musubi – If you’re looking for fast food in Hawaii, look beyond the familiar franchises and try something that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. So just what is it? Spam luncheon meat and sticky rice wrapped in nori with seasonings like kukui nut relish or furikake. The go-to fast lunch for people in the islands, you won’t find it in many restaurants. Instead, check the local supermarket or nearest 7-11. Want to give it a try? Stop in at Foodland at Ala Moana Center. Want to try making Spam musubi at home? You’ll want a press and maybe recipe ideas from Hawaii Cooks with Spam.

Poi – You’ve heard people talk about poi – the stuff they claim tastes like wallpaper paste. You might agree, but you’ve got to give it a try. This nutrient dense food is made from the starchy roots of the taro (or kalo) plant. You’ll find poi served at most luaus, though what you get there will likely be a watered down version of the thicker, richer poi that graces the plates of local families. If your itinerary doesn’t include a luau, you can pick up poi (a pound runs around $6-7) at most any supermarket.

Cashing in on Trash

Just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, the little town of Sebastopol, California is well known for its spicy Gravenstein apples and plethora of antiques stores.  Its proximity to Sonoma County wine country and the rugged California coast makes it a regular destination for city dwellers needing a break.  But hidden just a block away from Sebastopol’s Main Street is a lesser-known treasure: the sculptures of artist Patrick Amiot.

Florence Avenue boasts the charming turn-of-the-century homes typical to the original neighborhoods of downtown Sebastopol, with front porches slightly askew from age and gardens gone just a bit wild.  But the first thing visitors will notice is the giant caveman.

Cooperative neighbors allow Amiot to display what he calls his Urban Folk Art collection on their front lawns, creating an unofficial walking tour that attracts locals and out of town visitors alike.

Using materials that would normally be relegated to the trash pile, the artist uses a fresh eye to see the possibilities in items such as an old teakettle, broken bike chains and discarded golf clubs.  Finished with a bright coat of paint, these pieces depict a slice of American life – a fireman, Dalmatian in tow; a hula girl; a baseball player complete with catcher’s mitt and glove; and (since this is farming country) a replica of an old Oliver tractor.

To see these oversized pieces of art, from downtown Sebastopol head north on Highway 116, then take a left on Florence Avenue. Park where you can on the narrow street and start walking. The displays begin about a block away from Highway 116, with the artwork flanking both sides of Florence Avenue.

Delve into World War II History on Oahu

Photo: pandk

Historic Pearl Harbor, site of the infamous attack that drew the United States into World War, is now home to museums and memorials honoring war veterans, lost soldiers and civilians. These moving sites are well worth squeezing into your vacation schedule.

USS Arizona Memorial: The final resting place for the 1,777 men who lost their lives on December 7, 1941, the USS Arizona Memorial draws 1.5 million visitors each year. In spite of the crowds, this historic site is a must-see for most Oahu visitors. Your best bet is to arrive early – the visitor center opens at 7am, but you’ll likely encounter a line even at this early bird hour. Upon entry, you’ll receive a timed ticket for the shuttle boat that will take you across Pearl Harbor to the USS Arizona Memorial. While you await your tour, watch a 23-minute film about the attack on Pearl Harbor, tour the museum and exhibits, or visit the bookstore. Parents of small children will want to leave the stroller behind – it’s just too difficult to maneuver through the bustling visitor center – and note that NO bags or backpacks are allowed into the center. There is no charge for admission to or tours of the USS Arizona Memorial.

Pacific Aviation Museum: Situated on historic Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor, the museum is housed in World War II-era hangars – including Hangar 37, a 42,000 square foot facility that survived the Pearl Harbor attack. Visitors will see a variety of vintage aircraft, a short movie, and exhibits. Transportation to Ford Island is via shuttle buses from the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center.

USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park: Located adjacent to the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center, this museum offers self-guided tours with digital audio players. In addition to touring the museum, visitors can step aboard the USS Bowfin submarine and imagine life in this tight space with 80 men.

Battleship Missouri: Stand on the deck of the Mighty Mo, a battleship launched in 1944 in the midst of World War II and now on permanent display in Pearl Harbor. There are several tours available and included with the price of admission. Shuttle transportation is available at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park.

While Pearl Harbor tops the list for most Hawaii visitors as a must see World War II site, history and military buffs will no doubt want to delve deeper. From touching war memorials to a museum housed in a solid concrete battery, you’ll reach back through time to learn of the sacrifice of many in their efforts to maintain America’s freedom at sites located around the island.

Hawaii Army Museum – Housed in Battery Randolph at Fort DeRussy, the history detailed at the museum reaches as far back as ancient times. Battery Randolph was built to defend the island from attack and could withstand direct blasts from a 2,000-pound artillery shell. In fact, the building is so solid, it defied attempts to demolish it in years prior to its use as a museum. Exhibits include World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and more. Located adjacent to Waikiki Beach the museum and Fort DeRussy are within easy walking distance of hotels like the Waikiki Parc and the Outrigger Reef on the Beach.

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – The resting place of more than 50,000 U.S. war dead, the cemetery is situated inside Punchbowl Crater in the heart of Honolulu. Follow the memorial pathway honoring soldiers from 20th century wars, including those who served during World War II.

Haleiwa War Memorial – Sixteen men from the Waialua-Kahuku area lost their lives during World War II. At Haleiwa Beach Park on Oahu’s North Shore, a memorial to these men overlooks the Pacific Ocean. There is no entry fee to visit the memorial and visitors will find picnic facilities nearby.