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It took me awhile to get curious enough to order manapua in Hawaii. It looks like a large round dinner roll but you can order them baked or steamed. Since I had no idea what difference that makes, I passed. Finally, I just picked one and it was great!
The outside is bread and tastes like a bun. Inside, it is stuffed with a mixture: pork is traditional but some also are made with duck, chicken, tofu, eggplant or the purple sweet potato grown here. My first thought was that it reminded me of the German bierocks (spellings vary) I ate in Kansas. They, too, are a round roll but are traditionally stuffed with ground beef and cabbage. I’ve seen that those are similar to Russian pirogi, but that’s something else I have yet to try. Compared with bierocks, the manapua have less filling – just a small amount in the middle of the bread.
As with many foods in Hawaii, the manapua originated somewhere else and developed into a distinctly local creation. It began as a Cantonese pork bun called cha siu bao. You may have seen that item on dim sum menus. It came with Chinese workers who were brought to Hawaii to work on plantations. The Hawaii version is larger and has the variety of non-pork fillings.
The local name is pidgin, not a direct Hawaiian language translation. Two guesses are that it comes from mea ono pua’a, translated as “good pork thing,” or mauna pua’a, meaning “mountain of pork.”
Either way, it’s a tasty addition to Hawaii cuisine and to my “diet” of local foods. That is one of the advantages of being on a college campus: the campus cafeteria had manapua for awhile. The servers are happy to explain what they are and I could watch students eating them without seeming rude. The manapua stand has now been replaced with udon and soba noodle soup, which I’ve come to love for breakfast. The adventure continues!
(The manapua translation information comes from Nadine Kam’s column, “The Weekly Eater,“ Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 1, 2001.)