BY J. ARTHUR RATH – Before Portuguese families arrived, two-finger poi was the closest thing Hawaiians had to soup. Hawaiians enjoyed roasted kukui nuts and sea salt, but natural-flavor-enhancing pepper and spices weren’t here until 20,000 Portuguese families from Madeira and the Azores brought new spices to life when their men filled the critical need for sugar plantation workers.
Sweet, sour, and spicy Portuguese flavors quickly enhanced Island life then as it does now: pickled onions, sausages, sweet bread, giant jelly doughnuts and Portuguese bean soup.
This soup consists of Ham hocks, kidney beans, tomato base, cabbage, onions, and carrots. It became islanders’ comfort food. Portuguese brought the seeds and curing skills and taught Hawaiians to play “My dog has fleas” on their four-stringed instrument. Hawaiians named it “ukulele”—the jumping flea.
Then along came plantation workers from China, single men with extraordinary skills—the ability to make tasty sustenance from seemingly nothing. (The online Wikipedia lists 27 pages of Chinese soup recipes.)
Japanese brought their flair with Miso soups. Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa describes how her mother, June, a butcher’s assistant, appreciated the value of bones. “We never lacked for good stock and good soup made from it.”
The bountiful ocean and Hawaii’s grand growing climate provided the wherewithal for a healthy agrarian life. Rural folk coming here to work on plantations added their culinary styles.
“Saimin,” a noodle and broth soup is the favored comfort food of the Islands, to be eaten at any time of day. It is a polyglot of soups—meaning a soup of several languages, since its origin is not Japanese, nor Chinese, but is Island-ese.
Basic ingredients are white noodles in clear broth with green onions, some fish or meat. Eat with chop sticks or spoons, drink the broth (slurp) from the bowl. Chinese Restaurants sometime dress it up ine different ways, e.g., Won Ton Min (floating noodle-covered meat balls).
Vietnamese have introduced “Pho,” their beef noodle soup, to us. It is dressed up in many different ways.
Ox Tail Soup is featured widely in Hawaii (the tails come from beef cattle, not oxen). It’s what is sometimes termed “A Working Man’s Meal,” since sliced meaty bones, well marbled with fat, are meant to picked up, so you don’t miss a thing. A simple dish: tails, onion, garlic, salt and pepper, the stock is loaded with collagen (healthful protein).
“Baked Potato Soup’ was listed on the kitchen bulletin board as “The Soup of the Day” at Tiki’s, in Weston’s Waikiki Hotel when I stopped in to see The Soup Master Chef “B”. He described it as “All the fixins’, bacon bits, sour cream, green onions, cheddar cheese.”
“B” cooks a different soup every day. He learned skills and flavors from his Grandmother who was from Louisiana and East Texas. He gave me a brief explanation of his techniques: “I do a slow simmer—that means no scalded pots and makes the potwasher happy. Slowly, easily allows flavors to work their way together. I imagine them having gentle talk with each other and agreeing that they’ll really get along.”
The type of soup he’s making determines which wines he uses for delazing. Diluting meat segments in a pan to build a flavorful soup stock.
Most of “B’s” soups are creamy-smooth and an appetizing decorative flair rests in the center of the his bowl. His clear soups are crystal clear, elements within the bowl appear cut with care.
You have the idea: “B” wants you to feast your eyes as well as savoring the flavor.
His repertoire for the coming week includes:
Clam Chowder–creamy clam soup, lots of celery-potato-and onion, fresh garlic, Old Bay Seasoning for the East Coast flavor.
Vegetable Minestrone—tomato base, celery, carrot, onion, squash, red pepper along with thyme, oregano, basil. “I saute the vegetables, first—Italian style—and deglaze with red wine.
Butternut Squash—saute the squash and use shallots, garic, deglaze with white wine. “I add cream, and allow the stock to create its own energy.” (I didn’t ask what this meant; Louisiana folks have their own way of creating magic.)
Corn Chowder—“I do this Mexican style,” he said. “Fix it pretty much as with my Clam Chowder…but add cummin, chili powder. Slow cooking…let it simmer so flavors blend.”
Cauliflower Soup—“I use just the florets, it is a creamy style soup like the other veggie soups just described,’ “B” told me.
“Chicken Noodle and Chicken Tortilla Soups are my only bone-based soups. Grandma always believed in selecting the best ingredients, treating them with gentle respect.
“It’s what I do. Glad you enjoy, them, Arthur.”