Not unlike an Embassy, our local Asia Market reminds me of a small piece of foreign country surrounded by American soil. I am, of course, The Foreigner there–but by now I’ve earned my visa and might no longer be considered a tourist.
Friday mornings the produce comes in–all the vegetables you won’t find at WinCo or WalMart–and the place will be abuzz with lively chatter in a mish-mash of languages that don’t use our alphabet. When my husband and I owned a Hawai’ian restaurant, I’d be there every Friday to buy taro (the staple root from which Hawai’ians famously–or infamously–make poi, and which we used to make our french fries). I often felt like an awkwardly out-of-place giant among the dainty ladies who didn’t come up to my shoulder, many of them gesturing inquisitively at my basket-full of produce and speculating to each other with words I didn’t know. I smiled and nodded a lot, and kept filling my basket–and after a couple months’ worth of weekly appearances, the novelty of redheaded-tattooed Me in their midst wore off.
Hawai’ian cuisine, infused with an array of Pacific Rim influences, has come to include not only the original Polynesian staples like kalua (“slow-cooked”) pig, but also dishes that originated in China, Japan, and the Philippines–introduced and incorporated into “local” cooking with the influx of these other populations into the islands. When I first shipped off to University of Hawai’i, I didn’t anticipate (Idaho-girl that I am) the differences in culture and cuisine; up to that point I’d thought of Hawai’i as “part of America–with a nice climate.” (My husband Keoni, by contrast, is Native Hawai’ian on his mom’s side, and was born in Honolulu before Hawai’i became a state. Yes, he’s Old. He still refers to our Idaho sojourn as “living in America.”) My first morning in the dorm cafeteria came as an eye-opener–I was (happily) in for more adventure than I’d expected. I soon discovered that even the McDonald’s menu is different there. (Spam & rice, anyone?) Most of the recipes Keoni learned from his tutu pa (grandfather) require ingredients we can’t get even in the “Asian aisle” of a standard Grocery. I love to watch his face when we walk into the Asia Market. Clearly it’s a homecoming for him, every time.
The Market (as with any “foreign” adventure) is best appreciated with a local guide, and I’m fortunate to have had Keoni as my culinary docent. A few years ago I wouldn’t have known what to think about jars of pickled eel, chili bamboo, the perplexing variety of seaweeds, or goat meat sold by the pound… Now I have favorites among the furukake seasonings, noodles, rice-flours, and mochi treats, and easily find items in the market that I couldn’t have explained or imagined, let alone located, prior to his tutelage. Yet we still learn more every time we’re there. (See “Pirate Code for the Road:” Ask Questions! Yesterday’s “mystery item:” an unlabeled shrink-wrapped bundle of shiny thick leaves, hmm…) The genial store-owner, fluent in the universal language of the Smile, never escapes a chat when we come in, and has been unfailingly helpful at identifying and locating specific items we’re looking for–a challenging proposition at times, given that the same (or similar) items go by a variety of different names across cultures. He’s accustomed by now to Keoni’s lead-in of, “in Hawai’i we call it…“–followed by a description of the item in question, which the gentleman often finds for us under another name in another language.
There’s a curious sound Keoni makes when he’s enraptured by food–sort of a sucking-air-through-the-teeth-as-if-to-prevent-drooling noise, which he didn’t realize about himself until I (unable to stifle my giggles) pointed it out to him. That’s the sound-track of our visits to the Asia Market–enhanced yesterday by the rich contralto of a Tongan shopper singing over the produce. Last night we “smuggled” into our son’s football game a bag of my favorite snack: Saki Ika–which I can only describe as spicy shredded squid jerky. If they scolded us for bringing in our own food, Keoni was ready with his answer: “Brah. You get squid at da concession stand, I would chance ‘em here.”