Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hole in the Wall food tour in Honolulu

I was very excited to find and book this tour online, and even more excited the morning of the tour. A food tour! Ingenious! Combine food and travel - these are a few of my favourite things. So let's get started before I break out into the Sound of Music tunes.

This is a guided four hour tour of foods and sights mostly in Honolulu that you may not normally get to taste and see otherwise. It's like a local 'in' to the so-called melting pot cuisine of Hawaii. And you get picked up from your hotel doorstep, bus-ed from eating place to eating place, and dropped off at your hotel when it's all over and you can barely waddle anymore.

At a respectable 10am start, my fellow traveller and I are joined by three others for a small eating party on this day. All the more to eat and question the guides, I guess. We start with something breakfast-appropriate called a baked manapua from an establishment on the outskirts of Honolulu's Chinatown, at the riverside where Chinese men gamble around stone tables and roof-less seating.

Kalua pig baked manapua (denoted by the 'K')

These are based on Chinese char siu bao, which were originally brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants. Rather than steamed buns, these are baked with a variety of fillings ranging from the traditional char siu, Chinese sausage (lup cheung) and coconut to the less traditional, more fusion-like curry chicken, Portuguese sausage, sweet potato and my choice, kalua pig.

Kalua pig manapua (top) and Portuguese sausage
manapua (bottom) from Royal Kitchen

We receive the buns delightfully oven warm and soft, and we rip into them as though we're breaking a fast. The bun is light and fluffy, and my kalua pig filling is smokey, savoury and generally moan-worthy. It is so good that I don't want to share with my friend as promised before making our orders, but one should share happiness. The Portuguese sausage is no comparison, but decent anyway. It's of a firm texture, strongly contrasting with the fluffiness of the bun, with a bit of spice flavour.

One of our guides tell us the story behind the name, 'manapua'. Apparently Chinese food peddlers back in the day would be selling their char siu bao, translated as "mea ono" for cake or pastry and "pua'a" for pork. The peddlers, in their bastardised Hawaiian would call out "manapua" instead, and it seems the name has stuck to this day.

Following fluffy buns and scrumptious fillings, our tour heads to a bakery where the guide warns that passing out has occurred previously. I'm skeptical but anticipating greatness in the name of a coco puff.

Coco puff from Liliha Bakery

Striking more than a strong resemblance to a profiterole, this little lump packs a sweet punch. The choux pastry puff is filled with a chocolate custard-like mixture that tastes not-so-vaguely like chocolate Yogo (that dairy snack we'd have as kids - remember?). The pastry has softened from its chilling but is still delectable, however a little defeated by the weight of the filling and icing. The icing is another story and meal in itself. I'm told it's a Chantilly icing made of butter, egg yolks, sugar and evaporated milk, whipped to the unusual looking consistency seen in the photo. My second mouthful of the puff with icing starts to hurt my teeth. I discard the majority of the icing and disregard what this little puff will be doing to the rest of my body. I just think and visualise: yum.

Next we hit Chinatown, which I'm really looking forward to. I love being able to compare Chinatowns from all over: Sydney to Melbourne to London, Amsterdam and now Honolulu. We're even privvy to some behind the scenes action in addition to exploring the markets and stores. Chinatown in Honolulu spans quite a block of area although it is in no way as dense as the one in Sydney. I've been told that the Honolulu Chinatown area isn't the type that you would hang around at night time and there are visible signs of this in the streets on the outer area of the region.

Manukea Marketplace however is colourful and bustling with fruit and veg lining the sides of the pedestrian street. It is here that we enter a rice noodle factory and witness an almost lost art of hand made rice noodles: cheung fun and hor fun. It is simply amazing and you feel almost transported back into a different time; one before machinery and stainless steel have taken over.

The workers are mostly over the age of 50, for there is no interest or motivation for younger generations to engage in such labourious work. It's a little sad but I still watch in wonder as women ladle rice noodle batter (with shallots and pork or dried shrimp for cheung fun and plain for the hor fun) onto oiled rectangular trays and stack them for steaming. The batter cooks to produce thin layers of noodles that are then cooled by fan.

Cooked rice noodle sheets

The male workers then take the cooled cooked rice noodle sheets and roll (cheung fun) or fold (hor fun) each by hand. I'm not sure if there is a purposeful separation of men and women in tasks, but it's quite apparent that the women were in the kitchen and men in the outer prep room behind the store. It's a not a fast process but it's obvious that these guys are old hands at it, quickly rolling or folding and returning trays to be re-oiled and refilled.

Pile of cheung fun rice noodles, ready to go

Following the behind the scenes look, we get to sample what we've just seen. You're not going to get rice noodles any fresher than this! After watching the preparation and production for a few minutes, I'm quite eager to taste this handiwork as I get the feeling that our noodles bought from Chinese supermarkets back home are probably not hand made.

Squid balls (left) and cheung fun (right)

After being doused in some soy sauce we pick at the cheung fun, which is lukewarm and soft. It's a little thicker than varieties that I've tried back home which makes for a different texture altogether, but the pork addition is a definite winner. We also sample some freshly cooked squid balls: deep fried balls of a squid and cuttlefish mince (probably with some fish, flour and other ingredients too) with little bits of squid in it too. These are undoubtedly the best meatball-style food that I've ever had. I'm not sure if it's the freshness or light coating of Chinese five spice powder, but they are unbelievably good and moreish too. We 'sample' again and again.

The tour continues through Chinatown to uncover a little 'crack seed' store, filled to the brim with Chinese groceries and all manner of dried snacking foods ranging from savoury shrimp, squid, cuttlefish and the like, to the sweet (and sour) plums, mango, ginger and more. I would never have thought these foods to be popular outside of the Chinese culture, but apparently they are in Hawaii with kids having grown up eating their favourite 'crack seed' snacks from the Chinese stores. We also visit a Chinese BBQ shop and sample some stickily sweet char siu and salty, crispy-skinned roast pork.

Our next stop is lunch at an eatery that's renowned for its bento boxes and plate lunches. Hawaiian plate lunches are a fairly basic yet eclectic mix of edibles: two scoops of rice, macaroni salad and a meat item that could range from Chinese char siu to Korean beef ribs to Japanese teriyaki chicken. Apparently it's ideal for surfers who need their carbohydrate and protein fix before (or after?) hitting the waves. We have a garlicky deep friend chicken and rather chewy teriyaki beef with our steamed rice and creamy macaroni salad.

Last stop on the tour is the well-known Leonard's Bakery for malasadas which are a Portuguese doughnut. They come in a traditional sugar coating or a cinnamon sugar version, or filled varieties with custard, chocolate, coconut, strawberry or even green tea flavours.

Cinnamon sugar malasada

We receive them fresh and hot out of the deep fryer. My cinnamon sugar version looks just like a jam ball doughnut from the outside, but is light and airy in comparison to other doughnuts. They are delectable eaten hot, with a slight crunch to the outer, and surprisingly not too oily so I could probably eat a couple of these had I not been eating all day long.

Thus concluding our food tour. We get dropped off back to our hotel and lie about awhile like beached whales. With some sunshine making a rare appearance on our trip so far, we force ourselves to the beach where we resume the beached whale pose on the sand and sun of Waikiki Beach.

Royal Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Liliha Bakery on Urbanspoon

Leonard's Bakery on Urbanspoon

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