Story By: Alan D. McNarie
Photos By: Megan Spelman
By noon every seat in the Papa‘aloa Country
Store & Cafe is taken. The place is getting so popular, its owners are building
a new dining room out back. Alvira Cacabelos, better known as Auntie Vira,
emerges from the kitchen with one reason for that popularity: a paper plate
piled with mac salad, rice and a steaming, fragrant green bundle called laulau.
The green is steamed taro leaf, with a spinachlike flavor, only milder and less
mealy. Wrapped inside is pork and fish so tender it seems to have just melted
into the pork. Laulau doesn’t taste like fish—nor does it taste quite like
pork. It’s just tasty.
It takes Auntie Vira hours to prepare the
traditional Polynesian dish, and it took her family generations to perfect it.
Laulau is popular throughout Hawai‘i, but Vira’s recipe, she says, was a
“family tradition for us,” a staple at holidays and family gatherings. The key
is butterfish, a.k.a. black cod, marinated in Hawaiian salt. Laulau was
traditionally made with local reef ﬁsh such as nenue (chub), but someone in her
family tree, she says, learned the butterﬁsh secret. To those who love laulau,
that’s an important innovation, as butterﬁsh is considered an essential
ingredient in authentic laulau throughout Hawai‘i today. “My father used to
say, ‘When you no have butterﬁsh, you no make laulau,’” she laughs.
Like the laulau, the Papa‘aloa Country Store
is woven into Auntie Vira’s memories. When she was growing up, her family
bought everything from groceries to Christmas presents at the store, which
opened in the early 1900s to serve the booming sugar plantation communities of
Hawai‘i Island’s Hamakua coast. The plantations are gone now and the area is
pretty remote; it’s one of the only businesses for miles in either direction
along Old Mamalahoa Highway other than a gas station. As an adult, Vira worked
at the store until it closed in 2006. When the new owners, Sol and Kristina
Ammon and Galahad Blyth, renovated and reopened it in 2015, Vira, now 58,
happily came back to work for them and brought her family recipe. “This
building, he draw me here,” she says. “I gotta be here.”