The Big Stir Fry

by Zach Mann on July 30, 2010 · 2 comments

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During my freshman year at college, in the Berkeley student haunt known as “the Asian Ghetto,” Felix, proprietor of a Pan-Asian stir fry joint called The Satay House (R.I.P.), decided on an almost nightly basis to give chopsticks to all of my Asian friends and a fork to me. Every night, I would ask Felix if I could also have chopsticks, and each time he would hand them over, only to forget by our next visit. This was always humorous in a harmless way, and it’s something that I’ve always affiliated warmly with Felix, The Satay House and late-night dorm dining.

Last month, at a family Chinese restaurant in Hawaii Kai, a suburb of Honolulu, I was not shorted a pair of chopsticks, but right there on the lazy susan were two forks, rotating slowly at the center of a table of seven people. Of those seven people, two of us were white, and this was pretty humorous in that harmless way. Then someone commented, with surprise, that I seemed pretty comfortable using chopsticks – might I have used chopsticks growing up in the mainland?

Well, I am from California. And I’m pretty fly for a haole guy, though nobody has actually confirmed this.

Utage Restaurant - Honolulu, HI
Local entitlement aside, California does look pretty bereft of Asian infuence next to Oahu. I’m not saying that San Francisco wouldn’t out-do Oahu for Chinese cuisine, because it would, and nothing can beat L.A.’s Koreatown, no matter what that guy from Lost says. The difference is that whereas these influences in California are delegated to neighborhoods or specialized restaurants, on Oahu, it seeps into every neighborhood and every restaurant. It may shock Hawaiians that I’ve been to Filipino restaurants before, but it shocked me to find pork adobo on a local lunch menu that also included kimchi teri-burgers, mapu tofu and tonkatsu.

It seems that in Hawaii, local takes on a whole new meaning. Buying local is an obligation, not a trend, and living local is a way of life, the word itself taking on a meaning of laid-back, unhurried, island hedonism as well as a plea for the preservation of Polynesian culture. During my stay, I had kalua pig nachos at a Kailua Mexican joint and the menu at Utage, Honolulu’s haven for Okinawan comfort food, not only includes a regular Japanese section, but a Hawaiian section with saimin, loco moco and teri-burgers.

Soki Soba - Utage Restaurant - Honolulu, HI
Despite its variety (according to my Californian and Daoist preconception that one who studies much masters nothing), Utage has a reputation for serving outstanding Okinawan dishes. For its troubles, it has developed a loyal following of Okinawan-Hawaiian families, standing out as a true family restaurant with a keiki menu, children bouncing in diner booths and reasonably priced combo meals. I welcomed the discovery when we finally found the place amidst kona coffee factories and karaoke clubs in an unnattractive industrial sector of downtown Honolulu.

Of course, we only ordered off the Okinawan section of the menu, because that’s what drew us there. I’d previously considered Okinawan food to be the same as Japanese cuisine, but the prospect of trying Okinawan food on Oahu, where there’s a measurable Okinawan community beyond the immense Japanese community, won over my appetite. That led to an order of soki soba, a specifically Okinawan dish that not only defies the greater Japanese language and soba-growers’ association but also involves the use of awamori, an alcoholic beverage unique to the island.

Soki Soba - Utage Restaurant - Honolulu, HI
In the awamori stewed soki, Okinawan pork spare ribs which separate from the bone like good oxtail, cartilage included. The soki rested on hand-cut, or at least sloppily cut, noodles that gave the impression of a grandmother charmingly teaching her grandchild how to cook. The taste and springiness of the noodles did not suffer from this, thanks to the homey, chicken-soup-for-the-soul-like ramen broth that filled the bowl. The soup was deeply simple and flavorful, sever with little else in the way of seasoning besides an exuberant amount of pickled ginger piled on top.

A bureaucratic stalemate between Japanese prefects has kept the names similar, but Japanese soba is very different from Okinawan soba, which Japanese culinary purists will notice do not contain buckwheat. The confusion is little surprise on Oahu, though, where even in ethnic hot spots like Kaimuki, the distinctions between Asian restaurants become muddled, regardless of what country or region is represented on the storefront sign. Hawaiian culture is less like a melting pot than a venus fly trap, digesting various Asian influences into one giant menu, leaving no ethnic category unadulterated. Take saimin, a Hawaiian noodle soup that combines udon, mein and pancit. Then consider shoyu chicken, a homestyle Hawaiian meal that closely resembles the Chinese dish Soy Sauce Chicken, and another Okinawan staple, Shoyu Pork.

Shoyu Pork - Utage Restaurant - Honolulu, HI
It tastes as good as it looks. The soy-sauce-and-sugar-stewed pork butt is a gluttonous downward spiral into salt, fat and sugar, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as there’s some palete-cleansing white rice nearby. Keeping the shoyu pork as Utage’s flagship dish, my first impression of Okinawan food is one of extreme comfort. Perhaps Utage’s homey diner lulled me into an Okinawan-Americans’ vision of comfort food. Perhaps a Japanese island is not so dissimilar from Oahu itself, a land of pig meat and living local, complete with island-style hedonism and crossover cuisines.

Oahu, despite its jumbled mix-and-match Asian restaurant scene, has plenty of standout ethnic cuisine. Utage is evidence, as were many of the meals I shared during my week on the island. I will continue to peer skeptically at terms like Pan-Asian or Fusion-Asian in the subtitles of restaurants in California, but when concerning Hawaii, I have to wonder – what do you call Pan-Asian food in Pan-Asia? Thanks to Oahu, I’ll be more open in the future to ethnic variety on one menu. Thanks to Utage, I’ll be less likely to write off one section of a menu simply because there are too many sections. I should have learned my lesson eight years ago, when Felix served me delicious Pan-Asian stir fry on a nightly basis in Berkeley. I didn’t deserve chopsticks then, did I, Felix? How about now?

1286 Kalani Street B102
Honolulu, HI 96817
(808) 843-8109


Joon S. August 2, 2010 at 10:22 pm

That shoyu pork looks like heaven.

James Boo August 3, 2010 at 11:22 pm

This all sounds quite heavenly to me. Any idea if we can find Okinawan food on the contiguous west coast?

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