At 11:30pm I find myself unwinding in the classy dine-in section of Zippys’, watching the yoke of an over easy egg form a slow cascade into my brown rice and glinting Portuguese sausage. I glance from the usual meat ‘n’ eggs meal to the stack of papers brimming with culinary questions in front of me. Question No. 24: Why are dreams important?
That question struck an unexpected chord with me. “Wait a second–my dreams? Aren’t we talking about food here?” I thought in my initial knee-jerk reaction. I was lucky to be reading on a copy of Alan Wong’s biannual culinary tests that he gives to the kitchen staff at his legendary restaurants, Alan Wong’s and the Pineapple Room. The questions–grouped in one set of 25 and another set of nearly 100–were neatly tucked into the Weekly food editor’s copy of The Blue Tomato, which she handed to me ceremoniously, as though she was entrusting her first-born child to me. I accepted the challenge, but couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated by the hefty weight of the 11-year follow-up to Alan Wong’s New Wave Luau.
I began to harshly reflect on my incriminating history of food purchases; “Who are you fooling?,” the sirloin swiss burger from my Jack in the Box receipt seemed to whisper. And who was I fooling? I did shovel every last bite of that burger into my mouth–and damnit, I liked it. I decided that even though I may not have the most enlightened palate, I could surely enjoy a sophisticated, well-crafted cookbook from a founding chef and revered master of the culinary movement, Hawaii Regional Cuisine.
“It is what it is, but it doesn’t mean it has to be,” reads the opening page, setting the adventurous, almost playful tone for the innovative and inquisitive approach to food. The cookbook contains more than 200 recipes, presented in a clean and simple format, alongside powerful food photographs. “Each set of ingredients is numbered, and the instructions for preparing those ingredients are given a corresponding number,” states Wong in the beginning notes. There are also two types of measurements included in each recipe: “One that is familiar to the home cook (ounces, teaspoons, cups) and another geared to our restaurant’s’ more exacting kitchen standards (measurement by weight and ounces).”
The book is equipped with a list of Wong’s brand preferences, if you’re looking to replicate the exact Art of Alan. The neat thing, though, is that Wong encourages you to employ his “slot in, slot out” technique. Meaning, if you don’t have one particular ingredient, it’s cool. “Slot out” that unreachable ingredient and “slot in” something new. For instance, “Spaghettini can be replaced with soba, somen, udon or ramen noodles. Extra virgin olive oil can be slotted out for peanut oil, sesame oil or macadamia nut oil.” .
Each delicate dish is a work of art, covering everything from ‘ahi burgers, to mochi-crusted opakapaka with wasabi kabayaki, to oyster shaved ice with red onion–jalapeno granité. While flipping through the book, I could almost taste and smell the fresh flavors billowing out of the larger-than-life photos. One dish that particularly jumped out was Wong’s rendition of the iconic Island loco moco. In this version, foie gras sits atop a bed of soba groats in rice cream, crowned with a quail egg sunny side up. Taunted by the cookbook’s mouthwatering images, I finally decided to dine at Alan Wong’s for the first time. When I took my first bite from the seafood cake, my world froze. It was delicious.
When Wong visits an elementary school in one story, he holds up an assortment of tomatoes–red, yellow and green–from Hamakua Springs Country Farms, owned by Richard Ha in the Big Island. Wong explains to a group of inquisitive kids that there’s no cardinal rule that says ketchup must be red. Since there’s also a yellow and green tomato, why can’t there be yellow and green ketchup? One boy asked, “What about blue ketchup?” “Can!” Wong replied. “Give me a blue tomato and I’ll give you blue ketchup.”
And did I enjoy The Blue Tomato? Immensely. Once I wholly and utterly waded into the foodie fray, I discovered that Blue Tomato is a cookbook–yes, but it’s also a good many other things. It’s an intimate glimpse into the mind and kitchen of Alan Wong, it’s a collection of anecdotes from the local farming community, it’s a treasure trove filled with fruitful cooking tips and it’s a philosophy. Above all, it’s wonderfully inspiring–as long as you have a dream.
Alan Wong with Arnold Hiura