The names by which we call many of Hawai’i’s iconic foods are often misleading, obscuring complex histories derived from the intermingling of many cultures and cuisines. Kalua Cabbage? Is that an exotic-sounding cabbage? No, it is a contraction of Kalua Pig and Cabbage.
Upon ordering it, you will be presented with smoky, impossibly tender and juicy strands of pulled pork, blended with green cabbage, all ideally cooked in the steam of an imu, an oven built below the earth and lined with lava rocks. Crack seed? Is that a broken…seed? Is it drugs? No, it is the vast array of preserved fruits, sweets and mouth-puckeringly sour pickled things. Crack seed refers to a world of hopelessly addictive li hing mui, salted plums, fruit peels and ginger root drowned in bright red syrups.
Every family has an uncle or grandpa mixing concoctions in repurposed mayonnaise jars, throwing chili peppers from the garden into vinegar, leaving them in there and calling it a day. Some children are told repeatedly to not judge a book by its cover. My grandpa’s fridge taught me to never trust the labels of jars. The reddish-brown liquid could be noni juice, or it could be a deep-hued chili peppah water. It might also be soup or leftover hot cocoa.
Codifying the food memories of my youth for Poi Dog, a restaurant in Philadelphia that recently has also become a memory, forced me to approach dishes and flavors less haphazardly. The dishes I grew up on had to be turned into recipes and taught to line cooks to be replicated over and over and shared with the inhabitants of my new mainland home. In the restaurant, I became an enthusiastic labeler of containers, but I never lost the love of throwing ingredients into a jar and waiting for something magical to happen.
The counter at Poi Dog always held a few squeeze bottles of vinegary Chili Peppah Water, made in-house and ready to be splashed on thousands of plate lunches and poke bowls. It was a condiment that became embedded in our restaurant customers’ understanding of eating rice with mac salad. Since bottling Chili Peppah water, there have opened up far more uses of it than I could have imagined. Put it on Kalua Pig or Poke, I tell people. They do, and they also tell me they’re baking Chili Peppah Water into scones, lacing margaritas and Bloody Marys with it and sprinkling it on ramen.
The Maui Lavender Ponzu derives from this impetus. One day, I was brewing a fairly straightforward yuzu ponzu with katsuobushi, fresh yuzu juice, ginger, shoyu, sugar and rice vinegar and decided at the last moment to toss in some of the dried blossoms I regularly have shipped from the Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm in Upcountry Maui. The result astonished me – citrusy umami unexpectedly balanced by bright, herbaceous lavender. The Lavender Ponzu has become an essential addition to many of my fresh fish and tofu dishes it is now the only thing I’ll dip sushi in at home.
Just as Hawaiian Pidgin English is peppered with words loaned from Japanese, Portuguese and Hawaiian and never returned, but rather declared our own, so too are the flavors of Hawai’i’s local food.
Hiyayakko with Maui Lavender Ponzu
Hiyayakko is ubiquitous in the Japanese-inflected world of Hawai’i’s pupus. This version of hiyayakko or Japanese cold silken tofu, was a staple at Poi Dog’s summer parties as a refreshing start to a meal. Get the recipe.
Maui Lavender Ponzu Ahi Tostadas
This recipe is an homage to Gabriela Cámara’s tostadas, a favorite dish enjoyed many times at Contramar in Mexico City. These tostadas draw flavor profiles from different beachy shores. Get the recipe.
Kalua Cabbage with Hapa Rice and Chili Peppah Water
Makes enough for four very hungry people. Get the recipe.
Lazy But Not-So-Lazy Chili Peppah Water Chimichurri Tofu
Makes enough for two hungry people plus a little left over for lunch the next day. Get the recipe.