Live Long and Eat
Honolulu Weekly restaurant reviewers dine anonymously, editorial integrity being our first priority. Reviewers may visit the establishment more than once, and any interviews with restaurant staff are conducted after visits. We do not run photos of reviewers, and the Weekly pays the tab. Reviews are not influenced by the purchase of advertising or other incentives.
The snap, crackle and pop of exploding firecrackers around Chinatown are not the only signals that we’re approaching the Year of the Snake, set for Feb. 10. Dishes such as jai (vegetable stew) and gau (mochi-like pudding) also pop up around this time. Since they were brought to Hawaii, Chinese New Year foods have flourished so much they feel indigenous to local culture.
“China prides itself on the depth and breadth of its history and culture, and especially celebrates the vast diversity and subtleties of its cuisines,” says Cynthia Ning, associate director at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center for Chinese Studies. But China’s “eight major regional cuisines” are not reflected locally because “Chinese food popular in Hawaii is a localized permutation of one regional cuisine–that of Guangdong province in southern China,” Ning explains. Local favorites such as salt and pepper pork chop, chop sui, beef and broccoli and orange chicken are variations created by Hawaii chefs of all ethnicities.
But during the New Year season, traditions such as “jai and gau are popular among Chinese in Hawaii who descend from immigrants from southern China,” says Ning. “Chinese from other parts of China–particularly in the north–are much more likely to get together for a dish of jiaozi,” dumplings similar to Japanese gyoza.
For those who know and respect Chinese observances, this stir-fried vegetarian stew is a must-have.
“Jai is also called ‘monk’s food,’ and is related to eschewing meat as a part of Buddhist practice,” Ning says. “Since the Chinese New Year celebrates the coming of the spring, people celebrate their survival by an act of devotion: eating vegetarian food.” Jai traditionally contains gingko nuts, black moss, water chestnuts, tree ear fungus, arrowroot and more. Most of these ingredients don’t typically show up in a local meal, but each symbolizes a wish along the themes of long life, luck, wealth and prosperity.
Jai, as well as gau, is sold ready-to-go at Hawaii Kai’s Harbor Village Cuisine ($10.95). Its vegetarian mix is light and fresh, mixing earthy flavors with notes of spice and soy sauce. The flavor is an acquired one, as my Chinese friend tells me, but this first-timer happily chowed down half the take-out box.
Gau and dim sum
“Local people don’t [usually] eat jai, but Chinese people always do,” says Lisa Kam, co-owner of Chinatown Cultural Plaza’s Tai Pan Dim Sum. With its consistent flow of loyal customers, regardless of ethnicity, Tai Pan Dim Sum is always busy, especially at lunch.
During Chinese New Year, Kam says, locals still stick to popular dim sum choices: seafood siu mai, har gau, taro gok and chicken feet with black bean sauce. All small plates are priced at $3. In addition, locals eagerly reach for gau ($3), according to Kam. Gau is sold at most Chinese restaurants and local grocery stores during February. This month, Tai Pan stays open on Fridays and Saturdays until 9 p.m., instead of 4 p.m., to satisfy demand.
For those inexperienced in the full dim sum menu at Tai Pan, know that only by being adventurous can one discover new favorites. To me, the crispy edges of the gelatinous-like cakes tasted extraordinary–a combination of savory and salty with a touch of fishcake.
Custard, another prime manifestation of Chinese traditions morphed by local culture, reigns at Lee’s Bakery and Kitchen. This Chinatown establishment’s custard pies ($12) are massive, delicate, egg-based confections ladled onto buttery, flaky crusts. Dim sum eateries often offer dense custard tarts. But Lee’s Bakery takes a more gentle route with its custards, putting out an airy product. And the community loves it, especially during any holiday season.
“Our pie recipe has been a family secret for a very long time, maybe 35 or 40 years,” explains co-owner Wendi Lee. “Every day, we average about 70 pies. But during the holidays, we make more. Sometimes you have to pre-order or just wait,” she counsels.
With all the symbolism surrounding Chinese New Year, it’s comforting to both superstition and tastebuds to find that foods aren’t simply prepared because of historical convention. Chinese foods are still superbly crafted today.