I was only 23 when I moved to Hawaii in the winter of 1974. I went because I was accepted in a graduate program at the University of Hawaii on Oahu. The idea of escaping to an island suited me just fine. I was stuck in a dead-end job at JCPenney and living with my folks. My English degree hadn’t opened any interesting doors for me yet.
I was antsy to get on with my life and flew out of Los Angeles with two suitcases and a phone number of a friend of someone I’d worked with at Penneys. This friend of a friend supposedly needed a roommate. Mom, in her infinite wisdom, insisted I make a reservation at a hotel for my first night so if I had problems locating my new island home I would at least have a roof over my head.
To make a long story short, that friend of a friend didn’t need a roommate after all, and I found myself in a Waikiki hotel room trying to figure out where to live before classes started. I rode the bus and took a few cabs searching for housing. Finally I found an affordable room in a big old white house near campus in the lush tropical neighborhood of Manoa.
My four roommates, all originally from the mainland, had lived in the house for several years. I learned quickly to trade my sandals for flip-flops and to leave them on the front porch and never wear them inside. I learned to identify the flowers in our garden by their fragrance — plumeria, gardenia, tuberose, pikake. And it wasn’t long before I could discern what was cooking by the smell.
I was introduced to ginger, shoyu (soy sauce), five-spice powder and aromatic marinades. When I went exploring on a Sunday afternoon at Ala Moana Park, Waimea Beach or Hanauma Bay, I found locals bent over their hibachis and wonderful smells wafting in the air. Sometimes I’d be invited to join a family’s picnic. The cooks were always eager to share their food and see the reaction from a mainlander who had never tasted ribs or chicken so tender, so moist, so flavorful.
I started to cook like a local by copying what I saw. While working for the newspaper on Kapiolani Boulevard, I purchased a cookbook from the gift shop at the Museum House across the street. I’ve kept it and used it all these years because two of my favorite Hawaiian recipes are in it. The book is called “Our Golden Anniversary Favorite Recipes, Island of Maui,” published by the Maui Extension Homemakers’ Council in 1978. Locals call it “The Maui Cookbook.”
Here are a couple of recipes to try this summer on your hibachi or other barbecue. The only ingredient I’ve left out is the monosodium glutamate in the rib recipe. Didn’t use it then. Wouldn’t use it now.
5 lbs. spare ribs, cut in 4” lengths
2 tsp. salt
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 slices ginger
1 cup sugar
1 cup shoyu
1 cup catsup
1/3 cup oyster sauce
Cover ribs with water in large pot and boil ribs with salt, ginger and garlic for 1 hour. Drain. While ribs are still warm, marinate in marinade for at least half-day. Heat on hibachi or barbecue (or broil in oven) until heated through and browned.
3 lbs. chicken thighs
1 cup shoyu
1 tbsp. gin
1 tbsp. fresh ginger root, minced
1 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. salt
4 cloves garlic (crushed)
1/4 cup green onions, cut into 1/2- inch lengths