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America’s “Local” Eats

noe tanigawa
noe tanigawa

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Frank Gonzales, Continuing Education Coordinator for Culinary Arts at KCC. Gonzales monitors community interest in food and cooking to design culinary classes for the general public.

   Summertime puts a different focus on food, with holidays, picnics, and family gatherings.  In time for all-American July 4th parties, the James Beard Foundation has a new book of recipes from favorite local restaurants across the U.S.  While it’s fun to acknowledge regional tastes, HPR’sNoeTanigawa discovered, Hawai’i’s “local food” may be ripe for redefinition.

Chef, author, teacher, James Beard, helped lay the groundwork for America’s avid food culture today.  The James Beard awards are designed to encourage excellence, and a recent book of recipes, called All American Eats, offers recipes and stories from award winning “local” restaurants.  The book features the recipe for pipikaula from Helena’s Hawaiian Food, Hawai‘i’s familiar favorite on North School Street.

“James Beard himself really loved the fanciest French feast but also one of his favorite things was these down home, American home-cooking kind of dishes.”

Alison Tozzi Liu, editorial director of the James Beard Foundation, says they tried to represent all the types of cuisine you’d find in each place. 

“So in the South we have pimento cheese spread and fried green tomatoes, and in the Northeast we have blintzes, chicken, soup oyster pan roast, pizza.  In the West we have a lot of Asian influences, and seafood, and in the Southwest, we have brisket from Texas and chile rellenos, two enchiladas…”

They’ve certainly got chicken recipes from all over the place—fried in the south, buffalo wings in the northeast, panfried in the Midwest, and a very spicy version from Tennessee. 

“Hot chicken is really an iconic Nashville dish these days.  It’s fried chicken that is incredibly spicy.. actually hot chicken is having a moment right now.  Carla Hall from Top Chef, and she’s on the Chew now, she’s opening a hot chicken in Brooklyn right now.”

What would be the local equivalent?  Mochiko chicken?  I asked Frank Gonzales, Continuing Education Coordinator for Culinary Arts at KCC.

“What I find with local people is for the most part, they want, of course, comfort food.”

I caught Gonzales in the middle of a class for DOE culinary arts instructors from across Hawai‘i.  These are the instructors who are close to the lives of students, local people who should know what local food is.  Is poke, maybe, the ultimate “local food?”

Gonzales says, it depends.  “if you want to define “local food” as Hawaiian, then, you could say poi is the ultimate local food.” 

I’ve been asking people what they consider local food, and it’s almost generational--chop steak, beef stew, pork tofu, maybe oxtail soup on one hand, or chicken katsu curry, teriyaki beef, and poke bowl, on the other.  Not to mention kal bi, ramen, sushi, and pho.  We have so many different kinds of food here, Chef Grant Sato, culinary educator at KCC, says stop already, it’s time to free our minds.

“you have to get this “local” out of your head and get what your preconceived notions of it are.  And realize the same dish taste different in every region that it’s cooked.  So the local version of it is what that particular locale does with the product. 

Chef Grant was blowing my idea of what “local food” is because I’ve always thought “local food” was a plate lunch, and usually brown.

“What we need to do as chefs is to educate people, get what’s in your mind, take it out of your mind, and open your mind to what’s here.”

There’s a word, lots of words for the kind of rigorous teacher Sato seems to be.  More in our next  installment.  Meanwhile, KCC offers a range of "a la carte" cooking classes throughout the year and  summer offerings are still available.  Here are their online listings.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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