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Hawaii Regional Cuisine

Hawaii regional cuisine (HRC) was established in the mid-1980s in a culinary revolution that catapulted Hawaii into the global epicurean arena. The international training, creative vigor, fresh ingredients, and cross-cultural menus of the 12 HRC chefs who originally championed the cuisine have made the islands a dining destination applauded nationwide. (In a tip of the toque to island tradition, ahi -- a word ubiquitous in Hawaii -- has replaced tuna on many chic New York menus.)

HRC today is even more popular. Peter Merriman, a founding member of HRC and a recipient of the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest/Hawaii (along with George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro Restaurant), describes the current trend in Hawaii as a refinement, a tweaking upward, of everything from fine dining to down-home local cooking. This means sesame- or nori-crusted fresh catch on plate-lunch menus, and huli-huli (Hawaiian rotisserie) chicken at five-diamond eateries, paired with Beaujolais and leeks and gourmet long rice.

At the same time, HRC, the style of cooking that put Hawaii on the international culinary map, has become watered down, a buzzword: "A lot of restaurants are paying lip service," says Merriman. As it is with things au courant, it is easy to make a claim but another thing to live up to it. As Merriman points out, HRC was never solely about technique; it is equally about ingredients and the chef's creativity and integrity. "We continue to get local inspiration," says Merriman. "We've never restricted ourselves." If there is a fabulous French or Thai dish, chefs like Merriman will prepare it with local ingredients and add a creative edge that makes it distinctively Hawaii regional.

Here's a sampling of what you can expect to find on a Hawaii regional menu: seared Hawaiian fish with lilikoi (passion fruit) shrimp butter; taro-crab cakes; Pahoa corn cakes; Molokai sweet-potato or breadfruit vichyssoise; Ka'u orange sauce and Kahua Ranch lamb; fern shoots from Waipio Valley; Maui onion soup and Hawaiian bouillabaisse, with fresh snapper, Kona crab, and fresh aquacultured shrimp; blackened ahi summer rolls; herb-crusted onaga (snapper); and gourmet Waimanalo greens, picked that day. You may also encounter locally made cheeses, squash and taro risottos, Polynesian imu-baked foods (in an underground oven), and guava-smoked meats. If there's pasta or risotto or rack of lamb on the menu, it could be nori (red algae) linguine with opihi (limpet) sauce, or risotto with local seafood served in taro cups, or rack of lamb in cabernet and hoisin sauce (fermented soybean, garlic, and spices). Watch for ponzu sauce, too; it's lemony and zesty, much more flavorful than the soy sauce it resembles.

Plate Lunches & More

At the other end of the spectrum is the vast and endearing world of "local food." By that we mean plate lunches and poke, shave ice and saimin, bento lunches and manapua -- cultural hybrids all.

Reflecting a polyglot population of many styles and ethnicities, Hawaii's idiosyncratic dining scene is eminently inclusive. Consider surfer chic: Barefoot in the sand, in a swimsuit, you chow down on a plate lunch ordered from a lunch wagon, consisting of fried mahimahi, "two scoops rice," macaroni salad, and a few leaves of green, typically julienned cabbage. (Generally, teriyaki beef and shoyu chicken are options.) Heavy gravy is often the condiment of choice, accompanied by a soft drink in a paper cup or straight out of the can. Like saimin -- the local version of noodles in broth topped with scrambled eggs, green onions, and sometimes pork -- the plate lunch is Hawaii's version of high camp.

But it was only a matter of time before the humble plate lunch became a culinary icon in Hawaii. These days, even the most chichi restaurant has a version of this modest island symbol (not at plate-lunch prices, of course), while vendors selling the real thing -- carb-driven meals served from wagons -- have lines that never end.

Because this is Hawaii, at least a few licks of poi -- cooked, pounded taro (the traditional Hawaiian staple crop) -- are a must. Other native foods include those from before and after Western contact, such as laulau (pork, chicken, or fish steamed in ti leaves), kalua pork (pork cooked in a Polynesian underground oven known here as an imu), lomi salmon (salted salmon with tomatoes and green onions), squid luau (cooked in coconut milk and taro tops), poke (cubed raw fish seasoned with onions and seaweed and the occasional sprinkling of roasted kukui nuts), haupia (creamy coconut pudding), and kulolo (steamed pudding of coconut, brown sugar, and taro).

Bento, another popular quick meal available throughout Hawaii, is a compact, boxed assortment of picnic fare usually consisting of neatly arranged sections of rice, pickled vegetables, and fried chicken, beef, or pork. Increasingly, however, the bento is becoming more health conscious, as in macrobiotic or vegetarian brown-rice bentos. A derivative of the modest lunch box for Japanese immigrants who once labored in the sugar and pineapple fields, bentos are dispensed everywhere, from department stores to corner delis and supermarkets.

Also from the plantations come manapua, a bready, doughy sphere filled with tasty fillings of sweetened pork or sweet beans. In the old days, the Chinese "manapua man" would make his rounds with bamboo containers balanced on a rod over his shoulders. Today you'll find white or whole-wheat manapua containing chicken, vegetables, curry, and other savory fillings.

The daintier Chinese delicacy dim sum is made of translucent wrappers filled with fresh seafood, pork hash, and vegetables, served for breakfast and lunch in Chinatown restaurants. The Hong Kong-style dumplings are ordered fresh and hot from bamboo steamers rolled on carts from table to table. Much like hailing a taxi in Manhattan, you have to be quick and loud for dim sum.

For dessert or a snack, particularly on Oahu's North Shore, the prevailing choice is shave ice, the Island version of a snow cone. Particularly on hot, humid days, long lines of shave-ice lovers gather for heaps of finely shaved ice topped with sweet tropical syrups. (The sweet-sour li hing mui flavor is a current favorite.) The fast-melting mounds, which require prompt, efficient consumption, are quite the local summer ritual for sweet tooths. Aficionados order shave ice with ice cream and sweetened adzuki beans plopped in the middle.

Ahi, Ono & Opakapaka: A Hawaiian Seafood Primer

The seafood in Hawaii has been described as the best in the world. And why not? Without a doubt, the islands' surrounding waters, including the waters of the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and a growing aquaculture industry contribute to the high quality of the seafood here.

The reputable restaurants in Hawaii buy fresh fish daily at predawn auctions or from local fishermen. Some chefs even catch their ingredients themselves. "Still wiggling" and "just off the hook" are the ultimate terms for freshness in Hawaii.

Although some menus include the Western description for the fresh fish used, most often the local nomenclature is listed, turning dinner into a confusing, quasiforeign experience for the uninitiated. To help familiarize you with the menu language of Hawaii, here's a basic glossary of Island fish:

Ahi -- Yellowfin or big-eye tuna, important for its use in sashimi and poke at sushi bars and in Hawaii regional cuisine.

Aku -- Skipjack tuna, heavily used by local families in home cooking and poke.

Ehu -- Red snapper, delicate and sumptuous, yet lesser known than opakapaka.

Hapuupuu -- Grouper, a sea bass whose use is expanding.

Hebi -- Spearfish, mildly flavored, and frequently featured as the "catch of the day" in upscale restaurants.

Kajiki -- Pacific blue marlin, also called au, with a firm flesh and high fat content that make it a plausible substitute for tuna.

Kumu -- Goatfish, a luxury item on Chinese and upscale menus, served en papillote or steamed whole, Oriental style, with scallions, ginger, and garlic.

Mahimahi -- Dolphin fish (the game fish, not the mammal) or dorado, a classic sweet, white-fleshed fish requiring vigilance among purists because it's often disguised as fresh when it's actually "fresh-frozen" -- a big difference.

Monchong -- Bigscale or sickle pomfret, an exotic, tasty fish, scarce but gaining a higher profile on Hawaiian Island menus.

Nairagi -- Striped marlin, also called au, good as sashimi and in poke, and often substituted for ahi in raw-fish products.

Onaga -- Ruby snapper, a luxury fish, versatile, moist, and flaky.

Ono -- Wahoo, firmer and drier than the snappers, often served grilled and in sandwiches.

Opah -- Moonfish, rich and fatty, and versatile -- cooked, raw, smoked, and broiled.

Opakapaka -- Pink snapper, light, flaky, and luxurious, suited for sashimi, poaching, sautéing, and baking; the best-known upscale fish.

Papio -- Jack trevally, light, firm, and flavorful, and favored in Island cookery.

Shutome -- Broadbill swordfish, of beeflike texture and rich flavor.

Tombo -- Albacore tuna, with a high fat content, suitable for grilling.

Uhu -- Parrotfish, most often encountered steamed, Chinese style.

Uku -- Gray snapper of clear, pale-pink flesh, delicately flavored and moist.

Ulua -- Large jack trevally, firm-fleshed and versatile.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.