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Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands - Book Review

By Arnold Hiura

(Watermark, 2009)

Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands by Arnold Hiura

"Kau kau" is Hawaiian for food. Or rather, it's a Hawaiian Pidgin English term derived from the Chinese word for food — all of which makes perfect sense if you're Arnold Hiura, author of Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands. For Hiura, a native Hawaiian born and raised in a small plantation town outside Hilo, this casual conglomeration of cultures is an everyday part of Island life — and a key characteristic of the local cuisine. Drawing influences from culinary traditions across the globe, including those of Japan, China, Portugal and the Philippines, and filtering them through a distinctly Polynesian point of view, modern Hawaiian cookery is at once amorphous and ancient — defined as much by its multiethnic embrace as its ingredients. From the iconic plate lunch popularized in post-war diners, to the ever-ubiquitous shaved ice, to gastronomic curiosities like fried spam and fermented soy beans, Hiura gives an insider's insights into the idiosyncrasies of Hawaiian food and culture — and seems to have a whole lot of fun in the process.

Beginning with the taro root and ti leaves of the pre-contact Polynesian population and continuing through to the European-infused Hawaii Regional Cuisine found in some of today's top restaurants, Hiura weaves a charming narrative of the Island people through the foods they eat, cook and share amongst each other. Throughout Kau Kau, Hiura makes a point of stressing the communal importance of food in Hawaiian society — both as a means of sharing culture and building bonds with one's neighbors. Luckily, the author lets us readers in on the sharing process, as well, imparting pertinent information on beloved eateries and offering family recipes that have been passed down amongst locals for generations. While not everyone was born with the good fortune of being Hawaiian, Hiura seems to say, we can all at least take part in the colorful tradition of kau kau cooking.

Reviewed by Nick Winfrey

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