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Illustration by FLO LEUNG

“This is the best dessert in the house,” says our server at Lineage in Maui, before setting a bowl of cereal topped with chunks of avocado on the table. At this point, I was a full week into my 2019 trip to Hawaii and had experienced all kinds of local produce featured in sweets: passion fruit curd with toasted pavlova; candied macadamia nuts with chocolate pot de crème; mochi stuffed with fresh strawberries and persimmon. But avocado in a bowl of milk was a new one.

The idiosyncratic cereal is a throwback to chef Sheldon Simeon’s childhood growing up in Hilo, on the Island of Hawaii, and to his Filipino heritage. The dish is one simple example of the complex cultural combinations that distinguish Hawaiian cooking today. While American cuisine is often quite regional, Hawaii’s embrace of its diversity in its food reflects the waves of immigrants who helped develop the state.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Hawaii was built on the sugar trade. Sugarcane plantations once covered the islands, and people from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, Puerto Rico and the Philippines worked the fields. European plantation owners held almost all the political power, but immigrants soon formed the majority of the population.

At first, those different cultures remained separate due to a hierarchical system designed to consolidate power in the hands of plantation owners, but eventually, the workers banded together to fight for higher wages and better living conditions. They worked side-by-side, lived side-by-side and ate side-by-side. Contemporary food in Hawaii is a blend of everything they cooked.

“My grandparents were part of that wave of plantation workers,” says Simeon, who was a finalist on season 10 of Top Chef. “I’m Filipino but I grew up eating Hawaiian food, having kimchi inside our refrigerator, pounding mochi at the next-door neighbour’s house and doing all these different traditions.”

I had travelled to Hawaii to elope on a beach. Much has changed since that last visit (for one, I now have a one-year-old daughter). Simeon left his post as executive chef of Lineage, which is located in Maui’s upscale Wailea neighbourhood, before the onset of COVID to spend more time with his family and focus on his casual Maui restaurant, Tin Roof. But Lineage continues to explore the intersection of modern cuisine and the myriad cultures that define the Hawaiian Islands today, under new chef MiJin Kang Toride, who worked with Simeon before his departure.

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The Mill House, another favourite of my trip, is now permanently closed. There, chef Taylor Ponte, a Maui native whose great-grandfather came from Portugal to work on the plantations, took a similar approach to serving up Hawaii’s history on the plate. The restaurant was located on the sprawling grounds of a former Maui plantation, so Ponte – who now runs private events and pop-ups under the name Kamado – was determined to pay homage to a staple of plantation life, the manapua, a Hawaiian take on Chinese steamed pork buns.

As Chinese workers shared their culture and food with the other immigrant communities, the manapua slowly evolved, growing larger and becoming a vehicle for a wide array of fillings beyond pork. “All the cultures came to Hawaii for one thing, to work the plantation,” says Ponte. “Now we’re all starting to get back to the plantation, to get back into farming. I take inspiration from every culture that we have and try to showcase an item that’s locally grown using techniques from those cultures.” True to his word, Ponte had used Texas longhorn beef raised right on the Mill House property to make the filling for his bun. A sauce of tamari caramel with chili, ginger, green onion and calamansi (a.k.a. Philippine lime) brought it all together.

This blend of cuisines is distinct from the traditional food of Indigenous Hawaiians. Simeon says chefs are inspired by Hawaiians’ mastery of land cultivation and preservation techniques. He points to traditional dishes such as kalua pig cooked in underground ovens, lau lau, which mixes fatty pork and salted fish in lu’au and ti leaves, and the now ubiquitous poke. “Hawaiian food is part of the [cuisine] and I pull from that, but the food of Hawaii, not Hawaiians, is the combination of all these different cultures,” he says.

As Simeon notes, this blend of cultures has long been the norm outside the world of fine dining, pointing to his favourite local okazuya (Japanese-style delicatessens) such as Hilo Lunch Shop and Kawamoto Store in his hometown. “Yes they may be Japanese – Okinawan based – but when you open up your plate lunch and can spot nine different cultures right on one plate, it’s perfect.”

Not so long ago, the menus at Hawaii’s high-end restaurants looked very different from the local diet. “When I got here in the eighties, everyone was still serving continental cuisine,” says Peter Merriman, the chef and owner of five restaurants across the Hawaiian Islands, including four outposts of his namesake Merriman’s, which first opened on Hawaii Island in 1988. There was nothing like Ponte’s electric green taro leaf risotto or Simeon’s lamb caldereta, which takes a traditional Filipino technique for braised meat and pairs it with Chinese hand-rolled noodles and Szechuan peppercorns. Instead, there was plenty of dreary rice pilaf and bland fettuccine alfredo. “When I got to be at the helm, I decided to do a cuisine that reflected more of the local ethnic groups that make up Hawaii and also use more regional products,” Merriman says.

Merriman’s helped transform the local dining scene by spurring the growth of farming in Hawaii and by bringing Asian ingredients into high-end kitchens. “All the Asian ingredients are such an integral part of food in Hawaii,” Merriman says. “I never think of it, but it’s really a fusion menu. And I don’t like fusion.”

While a trip to Hawaii may not be in the cards for a while, recreating the spirit of Hawaii’s cuisine here in Canada is not as far-fetched as it might initially seem. Take advantage of our own multicultural neighbours. Shop at the Asian and Portuguese grocers in your area and experiment. For inspiration, Simeon released his cookbook this spring. Cook Real Hawai’i includes 100 recipes that illustrate the islands’ culinary and cultural exchange.

“I like to think in a perfect world that Hawaii can be an example for everyone, where the lines between cultures and races are all kind of meshed together,” says Simeon. “When people learn to live side by side with each other and when cultures connect instead of clash, you get this amazing depth of culture. And in the end, it’s all to the benefit of things becoming delicious.”

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