Here's The Difference Between Hawai'i's Local Food and Hawaiian Food, Plus How Spam Fits Into All of It

Out of necessity, my ancestors turned rice flour into butter mochi, Spam into Spam musubi, and canned goods into comfort and love.

Canned foods
Photo: Sarah Maiden

Grandma and I had a series of prescribed rituals before each time she put me on the plane back to the mainland after a long, languid summer spent in Waipahu, between semesters. A week prior to departure, she would pay attention to the glossy inserts of the Sunday edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to track where our target items were on sale. 

Two or three days before I packed my bags, she would start gathering things from Long’s Drugs or Don Quijote: foil bags of Lion Coffee, flat cardboard boxes of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, a stack of $.99 calendars for the next year that celebrating our island’s whales, sunsets, or handsome, muscular men — which she obtained for the bargain price of $.87 per calendar and decreed, “to give to your friends!” There were also cans of Spam (25% less sodium — our family’s preferred type) on sale for $1.99 or less. 

On the day of my flight, we’d stop at a shopping center. Grandma would run into Long’s Drugs for anything that was missing from our laundry list of items and a couple more cans of Spam because, “It’s cheaper here! You pay $5 on the mainland!” This was true. This was also constantly shocking to my family in Hawai’i, who could not fathom why I would choose to live in places with such cold weather and such expensive Spam.

Then we’d go to Zippy’s to pick up no fewer than four bento boxes for me — just one small girl — to consume between Hawai’i and New York, over a course of 15 hours. “In case you like eat! You nevah know!” These consisted of rice, a sliver of teriyaki beef, a piece of fried chicken, and a slice of Spam with a little half-moon of bright yellow takuan packed into a flimsy plastic box, secured by a rubber band four times over. Finally, she and Grandpa would drop me off at the airport, five hours too early (“You nevah know!”) and I’d eat the first bento before getting on the plane.

The cans of food that she slipped into my luggage were expressions of her love. Highly processed, imported to the islands along with 85-90% of Hawai’i’s food supply, then sent back to the mainland with me in my suitcase.

One moment stands in stark contrast to the Hawai’i I knew and grew up in. Visiting Waipahu with my college boyfriend and his parents, them standing in the tiny linoleum kitchen, its floors stacked with cases of Vienna Sausage and Spam cans from Costco, because they didn’t fit into the pantry closet, which was stuffed with bags of rice and obsessively, precisely folded bed sheets. Grandma pushing us all out of the house, treating everyone to a lunch at Thelma’s Filipino restaurant, famous for its pancit and revelry-inducing “Thelma’s Special” of crispy lechon chopped into cubes and mixed with raw tomatoes and sweet onion, piled onto melamine plates with blue Chinese floral motifs, plopped with a clatter onto plastic-covered tables, piles of steamed white rice passing from open hand to open hand. My then-boyfriend’s mother finishing lunch, grimacing, and saying to him, just loud enough for me to hear, “So Kiki’s family is from the Hawaiian ghetto?”

Spam Is for Everyone

I never thought of my father’s family as poor. Eating canned foods — Spam, in particular — isn’t exactly a marker of one’s socio-economic status. “A Coke is a Coke,” Andy Warhol said, “and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” Replace “Coke” with “Spam” or “Vienna Sausage” and you have an axiom perfectly suited for Hawai’i. 

My generation doesn’t extol mainland imports in the same ways that my father’s did (I now bring back suitcases full of Trader Joe’s Creamy Tomato Soup and Cookie Butter to my Trader Joe’s-starved cousins), but in Hawai’i, nostalgia runs deep and canned goods like Spam or Vienna Sausage aren’t considered imports. Melissa Chang, an Oahu-based food writer and blogger, recently posted photos of vegan Spam that caught my eye. “I’m an omnivore, so I was scoping out the plant-based Spam for my vegan friends. Many of them saw the post and ran right out to try it! I think Spam is a taste they miss.”

I crave Hawai’i’s local food. I craved it so much in between trips back home that I even opened a food truck and restaurant in Philadelphia that served our hybrid cuisine. But was it hard for me to obtain island ingredients, 5,000 miles away from the islands? When it came to the specific Hawaiian salts we wanted to use for our poke? Yes. Purply, feathery ogonori seaweed? Yes. Everything else? No. 

“Local food” is distinct from Hawaiian food, though there are overlaps. Local food consists of plate lunches laden with rice and mayo-heavy macaroni salad, teriyaki beef, fried chicken coated in rice flour batter, butter mochi — all made of food introduced to Hawai’i. Hawaiian food is more or less indigenous to Hawai’i: kalua pig, lau lau, foods derived from taro or kalo.

Chef Chung Chow of New York City’s Noreetuh, like me, grew up on Oahu and associates Spam and Zippy’s with home. “Always a loco moco from Zippy’s, as soon as I get off the plane. The first stop is always Zippy’s.” 

Chow serves Spam in a fine dining context, despite growing up with it as a humble pantry staple. “I think Spam is a really well-made product that offers protein and convenience for anyone who doesn’t have much time. All in one package. You can store it for many years without refrigeration, power, energy.” For him, there is no substitution. At Noreetuh, where Chow serves an array of musubi, including a classic Spam musubi and a spicy Spam musubi, with pickled jalapeño and soy mayo, he uses " straight-up Spam."  

The Classic is Chow's favorite because of the salt but he never thought of making his own. "It wouldn’t be Spam but a pork terrine,” he explains. Diners have the option of adding 15 grams of golden osetra caviar to these. 

Spam, that key ingredient in our beloved Spam musubi, does cost more on the mainland than it does in Hawai’i, despite being produced in Minnesota and Nebraska. Hawai’i’s “local food” encompasses many things that are not local to Hawai’i.

Even as Hawai’i’s restaurant scene has, even in my lifetime, moved away from extolling mainland imports, when I go back, I primarily consume the same foods that I do on the mainland, just presented in different ways and called by different names. Burgers on the mainland, loco moco in Hawai’i. But ground beef from the same cows. And of course, a can of Spam is a can of Spam.

While canned foods may be sold cheaper to the average consumer in Hawai’i, their cost is far greater.

Fishermen out of Luck

In the latter half of the 19th century and as the work contracts of the Japanese laborers who had come to work on Hawai’i’s sugarcane plantations expired, many of them turned to commercial fishing. As environmental consultant Donald M. Shugg explains in The Hawaiian Journal of History, coming from coastal areas of Japan, these workers were skilled fishermen to begin with and found that in Hawai’i, they could earn more than working on the plantations. The Japanese displaced the Hawaiians in commercial fisheries, introduced advanced technologies, expanded fishing fleets with larger and faster vessels and eventually monopolized the deep sea fishing industry. 

By the 1930s, the US military came to view this as a threat to national security, and Shugg explains that when the Japanese government arranged for many of Hawai’i’s Japanese fishermen to attend fishing schools in Japan, "There were concerns that the fishermen were being interrogated by Japanese Navy officials on hydrographic conditions in Hawai’i.” Legislation around this ended the careers of many fishermen, but even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, none of these claims were substantiated. As Japanese Americans were incarcerated in camps on the mainland, this effective ban in Hawai’i on deep sea fishing by “aliens” obliterated the industry and left Hawai’i’s Japanese population stranded. 

The iconic Spam musubi was borne from this sudden lack of fish to eat as people came to subsist on canned foods — an adaptation that is, painfully, not unique. J. Felix Gallion is a University of Pennsylvania PhD candidate who studies the lived experiences of ethnic Mexican farmworkers and their food cultures. Growing up in Las Vegas, which Hawai’i people jokingly refer to as the “ninth island,” Gallion often subsisted on poke, katsu, loco moco, and musubi, which are the same foods I grew up with on Oahu. 

Gallion's family worked as migrant Mexican American farmworkers, settling for a time in Southwest Idaho where they lived and worked in a labor camp that was used as a site of Japanese American incarceration during WWII's Season Leave Program which drew certain Japanese Americans from the larger incarceration camps like Tule Lake in California to work the fields in agricultural labor camps across the country. 

"This is a little known portion of the history of Japanese American incarceration, but an incredibly important one,” says Gallion. His family was housed in the same camp as Japanese Americans (and as the war progressed, German POWs) and lived and worked alongside them. The conditions Gallion describes are reminiscent of Hawai’i’s sugarcane plantation industry, the same industry that brought laborers from all over the world to Hawai’i — the very history that gave rise to what we term “local food.” The very same food that Gallion ate in Las Vegas.

Gallion explains the concept of "carceral space" as not exactly a prison, but relationships between people, their environment, the state, and capitalism. "These relations become carceral when they limit forms of mobility, bodily autonomy, and socio-political power for particular populations,” he says. This is the dynamic that was put into play when the US government limited deep-sea fishing in Hawai’i. Also when racial hierarchies were established in Hawai’i's sugarcane plantations, and reinforced by the ubiquitous use of "bangos." 

These metal ID tags, stamped with a number and issued in shapes determined by the wearer's race, were similar to the tags that enslaved people in the pre-Civil War American South were forced to wear. The University of Hawai’i Center for Labor Education and Research's labor history glossary explains, "Plantation accounts were kept by bango number not employee name. Pay, deductions for infractions, store purchases, laundry services, and so forth were all kept in account books under the bango number system. On pay day, workers presented their bango at the payroll desk. They could not get paid without their bango."   

Hawai’i’s “local food,” with its filling starches and canned, imported ingredients was the fruit of this poisoned tree.

We Can and We Will

I mentioned that in Hawai’i, when it comes to food, nostalgia runs deep. Those of us who left Hawai’i often find ourselves code-switching in our speech, talking Pidgin at home, then changing our accents and intonation. It also manifests in our pantries, buying beans and pasta on the mainland but canned foods at home. Daphne Kauahi’ilani Jenkins, who now lives in Oregon explains, “I like the tension of living here and loving there.” But our reliance on canned food can supersede all learned notions of pantry staples.

Despite having a Master’s of Science in Nutrition, Jenkins says she “knee-jerk ordered a case of Spam during the pandemic.” She had abstained from Spam for a long time, throughout college and young adulthood, saying that while she grew up eating it, on the mainland the cultural messaging was that it "wasn’t supportive of healthful eating." 

She experimented with vegetarianism and even went raw vegan, but during the early days of the pandemic, a switch flipped. “I don’t know what kind of zombie apocalyptic scenarios went through my head, but I was longing for home and for a different time,” she says. Like so many Hawai’i families, her family’s breakfast staple dish was “Spam, eggs, and rice. And my dad was all about teriyaki-ing everything. Spam was served with shoyu and sugar or a splash of canned peach syrup.” 

Likewise, Spam, eggs and rice instantly transports me back to Waipahu. These pantry staples are our shared comfort food and our go-to in times of disaster, whether pandemic or hurricane. 

I ask Oahu-based writer and food photographer Dawn Sakamoto Paiva if she thinks Hawai’i’s reliance on canned products is waning. “Not if you judge by the sale end caps at the grocery store," she says. "It’s also just part of the reality that we really are in a precarious situation if there’s a natural disaster that wipes out our ability to run the ports. Local production of fresh or prepared foods would only last so long, and unlike mainland cities and towns, no one is coming with a truckload of food.” 

Disasters aside, when it comes to canned food, Paiva observes that people outside of Hawai’i feel that this is something to be ashamed of, because it’s considered "cheap" food. "If you don’t like it, fine; you’re missing out. So much of what we call to mind as ‘local food’ just wouldn’t be the same without it.”

“When I purchase Spam in a western community on the mainland, sometimes I feel apprehensive,” Chow admits. “What are people going to think of me? Spam itself has negative connotations [on the mainland] as being for the poor or disadvantaged, whether that’s true or not. Sometimes when I go to buy it, I have to overcome that feeling." 

Chow opened Noreetuh in part to help other people divest themselves of this internalized shame. "Sometimes people come to the restaurant and order one Spam musubi and split it four ways because they’re scared. Some people come in and just order eight musubis. We have a weird dichotomy of high class and low class in one restaurant.”

Preserving Hawai'i's Spirit

Long before Spam and other canned foods infiltrated the islands, salted salmon did. Lomi lomi salmon is considered a traditional Hawaiian food, present at every luau, accompanying poi, kalua pig and all the other traditional favorites. There is no potluck, no family gathering, no Thanksgiving nor Christmas without a quart of lomi lomi salmon sitting out. And I do mean quart. It's most commonly picked up by the tub in a refrigerated aisle at Costco or at Safeway, the salted salmon long-marinating with tomatoes and onions so that the fish turns an opaque pink. More traditionally, it's made with salmon rubbed with Hawaiian sea salt (lomi lomi means to rub) and then mixed with tomatoes and onions, neither of which is indigenous to Hawai’i, though Hawai’i grows great ones. 

The politics of Hawai’i versus Hawaiian are complex to anyone unfamiliar with Hawai’i’s long history of plantation-fueled immigration and intermarriage. Lomi lomi salmon, created entirely from non-native ingredients, is now accepted into the canon of Hawaiian food. Historian Rachel Laudan explains in the Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage how in the 18th century, many Hawaiians signed on as crew members for vessels plying the fur trade in the Northeast. Many of these ships carried the barrels of salt that were used to preserve meats in the Hawaiian diet. It was in the Northwest that these workers acquired a taste for salmon, bringing it back to Hawai’i preserved in salt. "A keg of salt salmon became a standard provision for a well-to-do Hawaiian household,” she writes. 

Ultimately, time and tradition solidified lomi lomi salmon in the Hawaiian food canon prior to the drawing of the borderlines delineating Hawaiian as opposed to local, and so lomi lomi salmon, made entirely of foreign ingredients, has become Hawaiian. It was the 18th century Spam, to a certain extent. It came from afar, but now it’s ours. It's mine.

That said, it’s important to acknowledge the origins of these foods, as my elder relatives say, "talk story." As poke is rapidly being divorced from its Hawai’i origins, subsumed into the nebulous "fast casual” category on the mainland and abroad and butter mochi is following suit, dissolving into a wider category of “Asian desserts,” we need to give our ancestors their due. They were given lemons and they made them into lemonade: rice flour into butter mochi, Spam into Spam musubi, and cans into comfort and love.

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