Native Intelligence: O‘ahu


Story by Martha Cheng. Photo by Elyse Butler.

When he was 18, Manabu Asaoka had a job monitoring traffic on the graveyard shift. “In the megacity of Tokyo, a college student far away from my hometown, I was alone,” he says. “Nobody knew who I was.” When quitting time came around at 6 a.m., a woman approached him from across the street carrying a tray with two musubi and hot green tea. “You must be hungry,” she said. The musubi were made with freshly cooked rice, one filled with grilled salmon and the other with shoyu-seasoned dried bonito. “I never forgot the taste of the musubi that morning,” Asaoka says. “She made the musubi for me by using the family’s first batch of cooked rice for the day, which expressed their sense of support and affection toward me—just a stranger.”

In 2008 Asaoka gave other strangers a taste of that morning when he opened Mana Bu’s (now called Mana Musubi) on King Street in Honolulu. He and his wife, Fumiyo, a nutritionist, served 1,100 freshly made musubi—simple cones of rice stuffed with baked salmon or curry tuna and mayo—a day. Asaoka’s are meticulously prepared, from the rice to Spam and tamagoyaki, the Spam simmered in sake, mirin, shoyu and sugar, and then broiled before being wrapped up with a slice of fluffy egg. People line up to get into Mana Musubi before it opens at 6:30 a.m., and its shelves are often bare by 9 a.m.

This summer Asaoka released The Musubi Book, the definitive (and perhaps only) guide to musubi. While Asaoka says that “everyone can make musubi without special training,” in his cookbook he imparts some of the techniques and recipes that make his musubi memorable, from adjusting the amount of water for the rice depending on the season to making one’s own salted, flaked salmon. The goal is to share the musubi love he experienced that day in Tokyo, when “I was convinced that I would not be alone anymore, wherever I would go. I learned that not only my mouth but also my heart could enjoy the taste of food. The simplest rice dish, musubi, taught me the truth.”