Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Crack Seed - Unusually Delicious

Do you have any idea what these are?  Would you ever consider putting one in your mouth?  Unless you happen to be a born-and-bred local or were raised in a traditional Chinese family, probably not.

What if I told you that it was a dried, shriveled, salted plum that has a very strong flavor that is sweet, sour, and salty all at once?  Most would still politely decline.

Now what if I told you that this wrinkled, rock-like pit is the basis of an entire category of treats in Hawaii and is part of a beloved local snack tradition?

Some local treats are colorful, appealing, and easy to justify: I’d like to think that very few were put off by my depictions of shave ice and beef curry.  But there are some local delicacies that take some explanation to convince a less adventurous eater.  Crack seed is definitely one of the latter.

“Crack Seed” refers to a broad category of local snacks that can be described, in simplest terms, as preserved fruit.  While preserving produce is a common practice in many cultures, the origins of Hawaii’s crack seed can be specifically traced back to China, where fruits were dried and salted for travelers to consume on long treks across the countryside.  Crack seed came to Hawaii with the influx of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century and took hold as the snack of choice for plantation workers.  It provided the salts needed to endure long days in the fields, was easy to make at home, and inexpensive enough to fit into even the most meager of budgets.

More than a century later, crack seed is no longer associated with hard labor and frugality, but the spirit of home-made, down-to-earth deliciousness remains unchanged, and the best crack seed Hawaii has to offer can still be found in small, family-run shops.

The spread at my favorite crack seed store in Kaimuki.
The quintessential crack seed treats are several varieties of dehydrated plum and cherry, but other local favorites include mango, peaches, ginger, and anything else you could conceivably salt or pickle.  And from there the possibilities are limited only by your imagination: crack seed flavors can be exported to be mixed with other snacks, or reintegrated back into itself to create an endless variety of delicious combinations.

Specifically, “li hing,” a flavor derived from dried salted plum (shown in the first picture of this post) is commonly powderized and combined with other snacks to add a pucker-worthy sweet-sour-salty kick to just about anything.  Locals enjoy adding li hing to everything from fresh fruit and shave ice, to arare (Japanese rice crackers) and candy, or even other types of crack seed!
Li hing powder, ready for the mixing!
Li hing pineapple, a classic combination.
Even gummy bears can't avoid the li hing treatment!
To the uninitiated, it may seem strange and unappetizing to turn all of these perfectly good snacks red and salty, but this might be one of those things that you just have to try for yourself.  If any of this has caught your interest, I highly recommend you check out Crack Seed Center's online store.  You won't quite get the satisfaction of scooping your treats out of glass jars, but you can sample some crack seed goodness straight from Hawaii!

So while I understand that strips-of-mango-pickled-with-dry-salted-plum (or simply li hing pickled mango) may not be the first thing you seek out when you visit Hawaii, if you have a gastronomic sense of adventure I highly recommend that you make it a point to drop by a crack seed store and see what the fuss is about!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Shave Ice - More Than Just a Snow Cone

As a local kid living on the mainland, I often get asked what I miss most about Hawaii.  Ordinarily I'll pick my reply from a bevy of relevant answers from the weather, beaches, and scenery to the atmosphere and the people.  But as you may recall, this blog is dedicated to food and Hawaii, so let’s cut to the chase and talk about what really matters: the GRINDZ!

Now there are a whole lot of things to be missed about local cuisine, but fortunately for the wandering chef-in-training, the nature of many local recipes make them easy to replicate from anywhere with access to a supermarket with a well-stocked Asian foods aisle.  On the other hand, there are unique cases of local treats that are so special that, search where you may and try as you might, will never be quite as good as getting them fresh from the Aloha State.  And where better to start than with something that should be familiar (or is it?) to even the most clueless of mainlanders: shave ice.
A word of caution when discussing shave ice with a local: mind the spelling.  We don’t care what you call it on the mainland (because it’s not the same anyways), when you’re talking about the delicious frozen treat that holds a special place in the hearts of locals, it’s “shave ice.”  Not “shaveD ice,” and not “snow cone.” Shave ice.

A typical "snow cone."  Those crystals are so big you can see them from here!
Authentic shave ice.  Delicately shaven perfection.
 “What’s the big deal?” you might ask, “Isn’t it the same thing?”  After trying every place in California selling “shaved ice” or some other variant in a desperate attempt to sate my craving for authentic local shave ice, I can tell you that it most certainly is not.  How do you tell the difference?  Here’s a simple test: if you have to use your spoon like an ice pick to break a chunk loose, or if your “snow cone” goes “crunch” in your mouth at any point, it is definitely not shave ice.  You don’t pick at or crunch shave ice, you only effortlessly slide your spoon into soft, finely shaven goodness, scoop it into your mouth and feel it melt away into sweet, refreshing bliss.

Furthermore, unlike “shaved ice,” which you can often find being sold in a limited selection of overly-syrupy flavors alongside hot dogs and soda from kiosks eager to prey on hungry visitors to the park or zoo, shave ice in Hawaii is a culture unto itself.  Take a look at the following pictures:

Waiola's in McCully.  My personal favorite!
Shimazu's on School Street.  A (formerly) well-kept neighborhood secret.

Matsumoto's on the North Shore.  Perhaps the most famous among tourists to Hawaii
Just what are you looking at?  Makeshift stores that appear to be run out of lower-middle class dwellings?  Well, yes, but you are also looking at three of the most popular shave ice spots in Hawaii.  Just looking at these venues should tell you a lot: shave ice isn’t just a novelty substitute for a cold soda on a hot day; shave ice is firmly rooted in local culture, a treat so special that thousands of people every day drive out of their way, endure hair-pullingly bad parking arrangements (seriously, none of these places have more than a half dozen street parking stalls to fight over) and wait in extraordinarily long lines just to get their fix.

And if the flavor selection for mainland “snow cones” is the four-pack of cheap, brittle crayons they give you with the kid’s menu at CPK, the options at a good shave ice joint is the giant multi-tiered box of Crayolas with the built-in sharpener that you always begged mom to get you.  A good shave ice spot like Waiola’s in McCully will have a minimum of 30 homemade flavors that have been perfected to be just sweet enough without being overly sugary, a wide selection of toppings ranging from the conventional (chocolate syrup) to the unique (fresh lilikoi [passion fruit]cream).

I will leave you today with a friendly disclaimer: by all means visit the islands, try some of our authentic shave ice, and taste the difference yourself.  But buyer beware, as soon as your flight home touches down, visions of shave ice will creep into the back of your mind, teasing you with its sweet simplicity, and forevermore until you return to Hawaii, it will be that tantalizing itch that you can never quite scratch.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hamburger Curry - Local Dining on a Budget

Ah, the joys of college life, where “cooking dinner” means microwaving a can of Chef Boyardee, cup noodles are an honorary food group, and the only thing emptier than your wallet is your stomach.  For freshmen, it is almost a rite of passage to suffer through months of overpriced cafeteria food and MSG-laden instant meals, but somewhere around the 16th box of frozen chimichangas, you hit a point where you’d do just about anything for a good, home-cooked meal.  But for those of us who don’t know their way around a kitchen (read: most of us), diving headlong into the world of cooking can be a daunting task.

So for all the hungry college students of the world who are looking to test the culinary waters, I would like to share with you a local classic that was one of my first dishes, and the perfect dish for the amateur college chef: Hamburger Curry.

Curry, off the top of my head, originated from India, or maybe Thailand or something; I can’t be bothered to Google it, and quite frankly, it doesn’t matter, because when locals eat local food, it doesn’t even cross our minds what country we may have borrowed the idea from.  Here’s all you need to know about curry: kinda spicy, serve it over rice, broke da mouth.

If you want to be technical, local curry probably has the most in common with Japanese-style curry: thick, robust, and brown, but not as rich or milky as some other varieties.  In fact, some local curry favorites like chicken katsu curry (curry with fried chicken cutlet) and beef curry (curry with stew-style beef chunks) are served exactly as you might find them in Japan.

While I will not claim that hamburger curry (or any other local dish for that matter), is completely original, it’s a distinctly local spin on curry, a down-to-earth dish that wouldn’t feel out of place at a beachside family potluck, and most importantly, is cheap and easy to make.

So here’s what you’ll need and how much it'll set you back:

-1 pot of white rice, cost: pennies if you buy a decent sized bag [see Steph's blog for all you need to know about rice and Chinese cooking!]
-1 potato, cost: $0.50
-1 onion, cost: $0.50
-1 cups frozen peas & carrots, cost: $1.00
-1 small can of mushrooms, cost: $1.00
-1 package S&B Golden Curry Mix (half a box), cost: $2.00 [check the Asian foods aisle at your local supermarket]
-1 lb. ground beef, cost: $2.00 [go ahead and buy the cheapest grade, we’ll be draining off the fat anyways]

1. Defrost your frozen veggies, chop your onion and cut your potatoes into bite-size chunks, keeping in mind that they will shrink a little while stewing.

2. Brown and drain the ground beef.  If you don’t know what that means, stir your ground beef around a pan over medium heat until it turns brown, and then pour out the fat.  If you’ve made it this far, congratulations!  You’ve just completed the hardest step!

3. Brown the onions in a 3 quart pot.  Add the beef and 3 cups of water and bring to a boil.  Then lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

4. Add curry mix (I like to cut the big block into smaller pieces so it mixes faster) and stir until evenly mixed.

5. Add potatoes, frozen veggies, and mushrooms and bring the pot to a boil again.  Lower heat and simmer for another 20 minutes.

6. Serve over rice and enjoy!

Makes about 15 small servings, or 8-10 average-sized meals depending on your appetite.  And there you have it, assuming you managed to avert total disaster, you’ve just whipped up a week’s worth of hearty, home-cooked meals for less than the price of a two-entree plate from Panda Express.

Keep in mind that the recipe above is just a rough set of guidelines for quick, cheap, and easy hamburger curry catered to my tastes.  The great thing about curry is that there’s plenty of room to bring in your own creativity, so don't be afraid to experiment with different types of veggies and protein!

So the next time you're down to your last $20 that needs to last you until your next paycheck, give this recipe a try!  You might just find that doing some local cooking is the trick to keeping both your stomach and your wallet full!