In 2014, over 8.2 million people visited the islands of Hawaii providing over 14.8 million dollars to the booming tourist industry (source). People flock to the islands to enjoy white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and a slice of the aloha spirit. For many, Hawaii is an escape from the drudgery of the everyday grind–an exotic land where you can forget your worries, eat spam and, drink from a pineapple.
But beyond this postcard landscape lies a deep-seated history of oppression, destruction, and colonization of the Hawaiian lands and culture, which continues today. What was once sacred land of kanaka maoli (native Hawaiians) is now a bastardized acculturation of “Hawaiian” themed hotel chains, strip malls, and immersive experiences in the “real Hawaii.” As outsiders we at The Foodways Project have no authority over articulating this struggle, but Trask and Haunani-Kay’s article on Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture knocks it out of the park.
Inevitably, the exploitation and acculturation of Hawaii extends to its food culture. Believe it or not, pineapple and spam were not mainstays of the traditional kanaka maoli foodways. The “Hawaiian” BBQ served at L&L Drive In is no closer to kanaka maoli food than English beef wellington. In fact, popular “Hawaiian” fare is an amalgamation of cultures that illustrate the takeover of the islands by both Western and Eastern settlers/colonizers. Consider the typical plate lunch that’s widely recognized as Hawaiian food both on the islands and mainland:
- Rice: In the late 19th century, mainland Westerners took over Hawaiian lands to open sprawling pineapple and sugarcane plantations. Labor from China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Portugal were brought in to work the fields. They’re staple starch came along and has since taken over the Hawaiian plate lunch, despite poi being the main starch of kanaka maoli meals.
- Main Entrees: Hawaiian BBQ joints often offer chicken teriyaki, beef kalbi, katsu, and fried shrimp as entree options, none of which reflect the traditional food practices of pre-colonized Hawaii. Kalua pork prepared in an imu, an earth oven, and laulau are the closest representations of kanaka maoli foodways that you can find on plate lunch menus.
- Mac Salad: pasta + mayonaise + sliced carrots. Come one, don’t be a fool.
With a cursory understanding of how colonization has influenced Hawaii’s food culture we wanted to hear from folks who live these experiences everyday on the island. Each of the storytellers owns and operates a second-generation family restaurant that prepares food that is true to their ethnic heritage. We feel so privileged to be given the time and space to talk story with Melissa, Liko, and Tammy about the the beauty and pain of preserving their family’s and culture’s foodways.
Visit The Storytellers: