Photo by Tommy Shih
It’s a quiet early morning at the edge of the city. In the cramped kitchen of Nu‘uanu Okazuya, one of Honolulu’s last remaining Japanese delis, Johnathan Mosley coaxes rounded drops of sweet dough—butter pecan, mango, red velvet, blueberry cheesecake —off his spoon and into a bath of hot oil. That would all be normal at a patisserie, but what’s remarkable is that these aren’t doughnuts; they’re andagi, the signature confection of Okinawan cuisine. Usually these crusty fried dough drops come only in plain vanilla, but Mosley has created more than one hundred flavors. And that’s the other remarkable thing: Mosley had never heard of andagi before he came to Nu‘uanu.
An African-American from North Carolina, Mosley had never tasted any Okinawan food, much less made andagi. Raised on his mother’s Southern dishes, Mosley became an avid hobby cook; his real job was as an operating room technician at Straub Clinic & Hospital. When his own neck surgery left him unable to suture and perform other delicate tasks, “he had a lot of free time,” says okazuya owner Mark Kitagawa. Kitagawa had just bought the venerable deli and knew Mosley could cook. So Mosley learned from aunties who taught him their recipes by taste. While mastering porkstuffed bitter melon, pigs’ feet soup and chow mein noodles, Mosley got word that the andagi maker had quit, so he Googled the recipe. “I thought, this is nothing but vanilla batter,” he says. “I can do a lot with this.”
He lightened the heavy dough, sweetened it a bit and added some chocolate chips. Then he tried chocolate chips with peanut butter. And then he couldn’t stop. Chocolate chips, chopped almonds and coconut flakes became Almond Joy. German chocolate cake became an andagi, as did Froot Loops. A regular customer suggested pineapple li hing, a popular sweet-sour plum flavor. And when Mosley featured Spam in dishes throughout the menu, he came up with a Spam andagi.
He hasn’t forgotten andagi’s roots, though. Nearly every day there’s at least traditional vanilla; the rest are dictated by whim. This morning he’s putting extra mango, lemon poppyseed and pistachio andagi on the counter. It’s 5:30 a.m. They’ll be gone by sunrise.