The latest in know your foods in Hawaii: saimin! Or, “How to eat soup with chopsticks.” Saimin is Hawaii history in a bowl.
I had read of saimin in a guidebook on our Hawaii visit. It said saimin was a traditional food unique to Hawaii, so I was happy to order when it appeared on a breakfast menu. I wasn’t really sure what it was but willing to experiment. Rick’s macadamia nut pancakes looked familiar enough when they arrived with an orchid garnish. My order came in a bowl along with chopsticks and a spoon.
The steaming bowl seemed to contain noodles, what looked like green onions and some pink swirly slices of something floating in broth. I looked around the very small dining room — another family sat near us and it looked like the mother/wife had also ordered saimin. I took them to be tourists from Japan. (We were in Kailua, which is popular with tourists from the U.S. and Japan; local maps printed in both languages grace most checkout counters.) In my manifest cultural ignorance, I thought someone from Japan would know how to eat noodles. I slowly unwrapped the chopsticks, looking slyly out the corners of my eye at the woman at the next table. Uncertain, I also picked up the spoon — and noticed her looking at me. She thought I knew how to approach the meal since I was obviously American.
At that point, I realized we were each on our own. Since I had the spoon in my hand, I gave that a try. After all, it looked like soup, right? The noodles were too long and entangled to attack with a spoon. A fork might have worked, but that’s not what I had available. OK, chop sticks it was. I grabbed the noodles with the chopsticks and used the spoon for the broth, as did my Japanese counterpart.
After that experience, I searched for more information about saimin. I read that it is a dish unique in Hawaii, arising out of the plantation history of these islands. According to legend, when sugar cane and pineapple plantation workers of different nationalities (Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Hawaiian) returned home in the evenings, they would create a communal soup pot.
Since then, I’ve ordered saimin in many different places. It always includes broth and noodles, fish cakes (the pink swirly slices) and green onions. Sometimes slices of pork, spam or dumplings are added. Different places produce distinctive saimin batches. It’s always necessary to use chopsticks or a fork for the noodles — you can use a spoon for the broth or drink it out of the bowl. It’s a total comfort food, warming the soul on sick or rainy mornings. I think now that Japanese woman in the Kailua restaurant read the same guide book as I did — we were each willing to explore local cuisine. We just needed a clue about what utensil to use.