Issue 8.2: April/May 2005

Five Easy Pupu

story by Stu Dawrs
photos by 
Dana Edmunds

You may not have seen the movie, but you probably know the scene: Jack Nicholson walks into a roadside café and tries to order an omelet with wheat toast, only to be told that omelets are served with cottage fries and rolls. No substitutions, no side orders. So he orders an omelet and a chicken-salad sandwich on toasted wheat—hold the mayo, hold the lettuce, hold the chicken salad.

Five Easy Pieces. It’s vintage Nicholson, and many critics and scholars see the 1970 film—and this scene in particular—as an unflinching commentary on the peaks and valleys of the previous decade’s widespread rebellion against conformity. I’ve always looked at it as a call for easier recipes.

Granted, I was an English major, not a film scholar. Translated, that means I’ve spent a healthy portion of my adult life laboring in the food service industry. I’ve worked in kitchens and dining rooms; mixed cocktails and herded belligerent barflies out the door. Oh, and the shellfish I have known: Until recently, the pinnacle of my earning potential came in the late 1980s, when I was Oyster Boy to the Stars, shucking my way through college (and roughly 200 oysters and clams per night) in a toney Los Angeles raw bar. Just so you know, I’ve served Lisa Bonet.

I tell you this not to inflame your jealousy, but only as prelude to the admission that, after all those years, I’m still a lousy cook. Wheat toast, no substitutions—take it or leave it. Earlier this year, with the weather warming from a wintry 78 degrees and another summer potluck season looming on the horizon, it seemed high time to expand my beer-and-crackers party repertoire. Friends were called. A quest was afoot: All I really wanted was Five Easy Pupu.

We’ll start at the top of the culinary chain. I first met chef Sean Priester in a mid-range Honolulu restaurant that’s here better left unnamed. He was working the grill, I was tending bar, and I could tell he was destined for great things just by shaking his hand: He was the only chef in the kitchen with all of his fingers intact. Sean learned his chops the traditional way: He got a degree in natural resources management. And then he worked in a lot of kitchens, and he paid a lot of attention.

Flash forward to June 2004, when he took over as head chef of the Top of Waikiki. A twenty-first floor revolving restaurant, the place has fantastic views and a merry-go-round gimmick: The entire floor rotates over the course of a meal, giving a slow-motion, 360-degree panorama of Waikiki and its surroundings. Since taking over, Sean has embarked on a near-total menu revision, creating a mix of avant-garde appetizers and entrees that give continental cuisine a global spin. Take for instance the stalwart steamed sea bass, which is now served with pineapple curry, balsamic banana chutney, coconut basmati lup chong rice, bok choy, oyster mushrooms and caramelized onions. And a sesame-soy sauce.

"I’m all about the alchemy of cooking," Sean says when asked to describe the new menu. "Blending spices and flavors and making sure that they balance, but bringing them from different places, where ‘normal’ people wouldn’t go."

Which is excellent—but knowing my sub-normal abilities, could he create a recipe I could handle? Two days later, he called back:

Furikake-Wonton Crusted ‘Ahi with Soy Honey Mustard

For the ‘ahi:

1 medium ‘ahi filet
1/2 cup crushed won ton chips
1/2 cup furikake*
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (optional)
salt and pepper (optional, to taste)

For the sauce:
1/4 cup dry Coleman’s mustard
2 tablespoons honey
2/3 cup soy sauce

To start, there are two ways to secure your won ton: a) Go to Longs and buy a bag of Maebo’s One-Ton chips;† or b) Make your own: Heat some cooking oil in a sauce pan; fry several won ton pi sheets¥ until golden brown; drain on a paper towel and crush when cool. Once you’ve got the won ton crushed, mix it with the sesame seeds and furikake. Coat the ‘ahi with the blend, add salt and pepper to taste and sear in a lightly oiled pan over medium-high heat for fifteen to twenty seconds on each side. Let the fish cool, then slice sashimi-style, using a very sharp knife.

For the soy-honey-mustard dipping sauce, blend the dry mustard in a bowl with enough water to form a thick paste. Allow it to cure for about ten minutes, at which point it will be very spicy. Start adding the honey and soy sauce in small amounts. Add more of each if it’s too thick or spicy, until you’ve found a balance you like. "But remember," Sean says, "go slow. As the saying goes: ‘You can always add, but you can’t take away.’"

*"Furikake" is the generic name for several varieties of Japanese seasoning, all of which include dried seaweed and sesame in assorted combinations. It’s widely available in the Asian foods section of any decent grocery store—if you’re overwhelmed by the selection, aji nori furikake’s a safe bet.

†For the malihini in the house: Longs Drug is Hawai‘i’s omnipresent pharmacist/variety store; One-Ton Chips are a well-known snack item that have been made in Hilo since the 1950s. By the way, this also applies if you’re in Las Vegas, where the Longs has more Hawai‘i stuff than the Hawai‘i stores.

¥Also widely available in most supermarkets—ask a clerk to show you the way.

Simeleke Gross could be called the ultimate mothe (second to my own, of course ... one is never too old to be grounded, if you know what I’m saying). Born in Samoa and raised in the continental United States, Sime has a seemingly endless supply of compassion for those in need. In addition to raising two daughters of her own, for nearly a decade she was involved in the lives of literally thousands of Island youth, working with runaway, homeless and "at risk" kids at Oahu’s Hale Kipa ("house of friendliness") shelter.

Sime’s also the saving grace of an altogether different set of orphans—those who are separated from their families during the holidays. In those circles, she’s famous for hosting truly massive, hours-long gourmet brunches. I’m sad to say that over the years I was only able to make it to one of these fêtes, and now Sime’s moved to Maui with her husband John, but thankfully she did leave behind a recipe for one of my personal favorites.

French for "raw fish," poisson cru is often referred to as Tahiti’s "national dish," and variations on the theme can be found throughout the Pacific. A cousin to Hawaii’s poke, it has a couple of potential advantages over the Hawaiian preparation: a) While standard poke is served raw and often employs high-priced ahi, poisson cru uses fish that is "cooked" by the citric acid in lime juice ... this being the case, you can get away with less expensive cuts of fish; b) tell me you don’t feel suave speaking French.

Poisson Cru

1 pound ocean white-fish
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
12 ounces frozen coconut milk*
1 bunch green onions, diced
1 teaspoon sea salt
pepper to taste

"It’s best to use white-meat fish, and it has to be ocean fish," says Sime. "I usually use either snapper, mahimahi or marlin ... anything but halibut, because it’s processed. You can’t use aku (bonito/skipjack) because it turns everything a dirty red color—tastes good, but not so good for the presentation.

"Cut the fish into bite-sized pieces, put it in a bowl and add the lime juice. Use just enough juice to cover the fish, and make sure there are no seeds. Leave the fish to soak for ten to fifteen minutes—the time depends partly on your tastes and partly on the type of fish: A more delicate fish like mahimahi takes less time; marlin takes longer. But be careful because if you leave it in too long, it will overcook.

"While the fish is marinating, season the coconut milk with the sea salt, a little black pepper and the chopped green onions. Once the fish is done, rinse it under cold water and then squeeze off as much liquid as you can—some people like their poisson cru limier, but if you leave too much juice on, it will separate the coconut milk.

"Add the fish to the coconut mixture and let it marinate for about a half-hour. Then serve it with sliced French bread—dip the bread right in. Easy!"

*Twelve-ounce portions of coconut milk can be found in the freezer section of virtually any store in the Islands. Outside of Hawai‘i? Longs Drugs Las Vegas, bruddah!

Chris Grasa is a field crew leader with the East Maui Watershed Partnership, a coalition of federal, state and private landowners dedicated to preserving native forests and watershed areas. He also regularly roams the forests of Maui, hunting feral pigs, goats and deer.* He makes his own sausage, has a smokehouse on his Makawao property and is just generally a good guy to invite to a party. Oh yes: Prior to his current career, he also spent a decade working as a chef. Not a bad résumé for a thirty-year-old, and the perfect mix of talents necessary to help me get over a deep-rooted fear of cooking meat.

His advice:
1) You can’t go wrong if you marinate any kind of meat for at least twenty-four hours (and longer if the meat is thicker).
2) Use keawe wood to cook, if you can: It’s thick and it burns consistently, with a dense smoke that adds flavor. Use a lot of wood, and before you start cooking, burn it down until it’s a mass of thick, red embers—this will give you a good hour of even heat.
3) The less turning you do while grilling, the better—it keeps the juices in.

Chris had brought a pig out of the forest a few days before I called, so the conversation naturally turned to pork:

Teriyaki Pork, Pupu Style

1 six-pound (or so) pork butt
1 cup shoyu
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped
ginger (or more to taste)
1/2 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 teaspoon Hawaiian chili pepper†

"A lot of people don’t really know how to do mass pupu," says Chris, "but if you just go to Costco and get a pork butt, trim some of the fat off and then cut it into one-inch thick strips, you’ll have enough for a party of ten to twenty people.

"The marinade is pretty much your classic teriyaki: If you’re doing one cup of shoyu, you always do one cup of brown sugar—always one to one. Add the ginger, garlic and Hawaiian chili pepper—if you want it more pika (hot), add more chili pepper. You can also spice it up with a tablespoon of toasted sesame oil and, if you like, things like star anise or Chinese five spice.

"Let the meat marinate overnight—turn it every six hours to marinate it evenly. Then you grill it and serve it up."

*For the puzzled, "tree hugger" and hunter is not an uncommon combination in the Islands: Those involved in forest preservation know firsthand the damage foreign animals do to native ecosystems. Hunters help keep feral populations in check.

†Jalapeño peppers can be substituted.

"You know, cooking ... I struggle with this issue of what to bring to potlucks: I typically settle on beer, but it’s a much better show if you arrive with homemade food instead of a six-pack you got on sale at Foodland."

This is the sort of sage advice I’ve grown to depend on from Eric Denton. Though neither of us remembers it terribly well, rumor has it we first met on his twenty-first birthday. In the fifteen or so years since, he’s taught me most of the things I consider worth remembering, along with a few things I should probably forget (the Hungarian swearing, for instance). A faculty member at Kapiolani Community College and former lead singer of a largely unknown Honolulu art-rock band, he’s got an innate ability to stand out in a crowd. It’s a quality that makes him a good sounding board for whatever my current theory is on why natural selection favors some people over others. Lately, it’s had to do with condiments and ... well, some conversations are better served unfiltered:

Me: You know, I think men would greatly improve their chances of attracting a mate if they’d just bring anything other than chips and salsa to parties. I guarantee you: twenty bachelors, twenty tubs of salsa on the table ... How’re they going to rise above the competition?

Him: Let me tell you something about salsa.

By all means...

My ex-wife Michelle* is a sailor. We’d occasionally go out on day cruises, where everyone would cook something for the yachting adventure. She had a papaya salsa that was unquestionably the hit every single time.

You can’t screw it up?

Well, I guess I should say it’s a ninety percent chance of hitting it. You soak habañero peppers in olive oil, and that brings out their heat. If you put too many peppers in the oil, or leave them in too long, or put too much oil on the salsa, then it can be unbearable. But that’s part of the attraction: Even though it can be killer hot, the papaya gives it a light fruity feeling.

Unbearable yet edible?

It can be a display of manly fortitude: ‘You don’t like hot food? I like it hot, hot, hot!’ You can show your machismo.

And yet there’s fruit...

Yes, it’s a sweet machismo.

Papaya Salsa

2 large, ripe papayas
1 lime, squozen†
Sea salt (to taste)
2-3 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 habañero pepper, minced‡
1/4 red onion, finely diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
cilantro (to color)

Put the olive oil in a shot glass and soak the minced habañero for between forty-five minutes and an hour. Dice the papaya, onion and bell pepper. Mix them all together in a large bowl. Add minced garlic and a couple pinches of sea salt. Squeeze lime over everything, mix it all together and let it sit in the fridge for thirty minutes. Add the habañero oil and mix again. Serve with tortilla chips.

*Our mutual friend Michelle Garcia deserves all credit for this recipe, but she's already got it all going on anyway, and doesn't need salsa for men to fall in love.

†I should note that Eric is fluent in several languages. "Squozen," however, is not actually a word, much less the past tense of "to fresh squeeze," which is what he means.

‡Unless you enjoy flambéed eyelids, when handling habañeros it’s a good idea to wash your hands thoroughly before engaging in any recreational face rubbing.

Some people don’t realize that keawe is the same genus as mesquite," says Captain Bobby Chang. "Texans can keep the stuff though, because the same thing that makes keawe good for cooking makes it a pain in the behind when we go to brushfires: It’s a long burn, and it’s a hot burn."

If you’re talking about wood, you might as well do it with a veteran firefighter. Bobby has been on the job for more than thirty years. Currently stationed in Kaneohe, he invited me over one day to talk to members of his crew about firefighters’ legendary cooking skills.

"If you go to any station, they’ve all got their own little onos," he says, relaxing in the station’s break room with crew members Eugene "Gene" Kon, Pat Among, Rufus Kimura, Dave Jenkin and Roy Alvarado. Bobby inherited his cooking skills from his former captain, Herbert Ho—both were good enough that, in their spare time, they would occasionally cater large-scale luau. "Generally on every watch, you’ve got one or two guys who’ve done a lot of cooking, or have gone to Kapi‘olani Community College’s culinary school—it’s not unusual to find some chefs in the station, official or not," says Bobby.

Hawai‘i fire stations are divided into three platoons—"red," "blue" and "green"—each of which works one twenty-four hour shift before going home. At the Kaneohe station, that means preparing two full meals—lunch and dinner—for as many as twelve people per shift. And while many crews rotate kitchen duty, Kaneohe’s green platoon—Captain Chang’s crew—generally relies on Gene to do the cooking.

"Nine out of ten meals, it’s going to be chicken, because it’s cheaper," he says. "Not too much fish, unless somebody catches it. So one day we eat stew; one day meatloaf; one day fried chicken; one day shoyu chicken; one day chicken mushroom gravy; one day chicken curry." The room fills with laughter.

Is there any pressure? Does anyone ever complain?

"Oh, all the time!" he says, laughing harder. "It’s always, ‘More chicken? More chicken?’"

Asked for a recipe I could handle, the crew offered up several—but in terms of simplicity, this one took the cake:

Hawaiian Salt Chicken

2 whole fryer chickens
2 pounds Hawaiian salt

"You can use a wok or a baking pan," says Gene, "but preferably a wok. Take the Hawaiian salt, throw it in the wok and heat it on high until it starts crackling. Turn the heat to medium, put the fryers inside the wok, cover for about fifty minutes and that’s it. No other seasoning or preparation—as the salt cooks, it gives the chicken a smoked flavor.

"That," he laughed, "or you can order Chinese takeout."