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This Hawaiian Chef Wants to Honor His Roots Through Food

The Hawaiian pre-contact food movement strives to showcase the flavors and ingredients of the islands before it was met by the West. We talked to the chef who spearheaded it.

While dishes like Spam musubi and loco moco might be the first two things that come to mind when thinking about Hawaiian cuisine, it was not always this way.

Surely, a landscape made of an endless ocean and tropical jungles offered something more than canned luncheon meat and fried eggs with gravy at one point, right? Cue the Hawaiian pre-contact food movement, which strives to showcase the flavors and ingredients of the islands before it was met by the West.

MUNCHIES spoke to the chef who has been credited with spearheading this emerging, complex movement, Mark "Gooch" Noguchi of the Pili Restaurant Group. What did Hawaii's food look like before James "Captain" Cook landed in there in 1778? Hint: lots of raw fish and taro.

MUNCHIES: So what does pre-contact food mean exactly? Mark "Gooch" Noguchi: It means pre-Western contact, meaning prior to Captain Cook's landing in Hawaii. You see, before Hawaii was explored by him, it was settled by Polynesians, and these Polynesians had no idea what it was going to be like when they landed in Hawaii. So they brought over a bunch of "ocean-stable" foods, things like taro, bananas, coconuts, sugarcane, and breadfruit. They also brought over Hawaii's first chickens.

There is this old Hawaiian saying that translates to "look to the source," which basically means that in order to move forward, we need to understand where we come from first. Thus, this movement aims to honor this saying through food.

He`e in Ragu

How does this kind of food look like? There were no ovens back then, so a lot of things were eaten raw. Well, except taro, since it has these crystals that are almost like glass that need to be cooked down. A lot of things were bland. They did have sea salt and records have shown that Hawaiians ate as much as 29 different varieties of seaweeds back then. This is a huge change from the usual two varieties (nori and wakame) that we eat nowadays. It was pretty simple.

There were also candlenuts. They roasted those, dug out the flesh, and just gobbled them up. Again, it was very simple, basic eating.

Is this how you cook at your restaurants? No, no. We call our cuisine "comfort food with a nod to history." Having said that, we do sometimes cook strictly Hawaiian pre-contact food, and I make sure to educate all of my staff to know the story behind every single dish and ingredient. On a daily basis, though, we cook post-European contact.

Since this movement honors the pre-European food scene of Hawaii, how did you celebrate Thanksgiving? The Hawaiian new year actually starts before Thanksgiving, so we get together with our friends and do a pre-contact dinner instead of a Thanksgiving party. We have things like raw fish, lau-lau (pork wrapped in taro leaves), and some veggies that are simply steamed. We also don't drink any alcohol since that didn't exist before, either. Instead, we drink nothing but kava root. It is a very eye-opening dinner if you've never participated before.

How did you get involved with this pre-contact food movement? Prior to cooking, I used to dance hula. It took me around the world. Dancing to music and playing music, you become hyper-aware of your surroundings. We were always outdoors, and it made me realize that the outdoors is where my roots come from. I never anticipated being a chef in that time but I did understand the importance of knowing where you come from—for me, somehow, that meant cooking with food. The awareness of this intimate connection keeps me through food keeps me grounded.

We are from Hawaii and we have an abundance of beautiful ingredients here—why the fuck are we not using that?

As you mature as a cook, you learn that less is more. When you're a young cook, you want to do a million things at once; but when you get older, it's only a slice there and poke there. So the cooking becomes like, "why don't we take this breadfruit and roast it to the peak of its brightness and just serve it with some sea salt?" This philosophy, I think, is what started it.

Kako`o Wheelbarrow

Are there other chefs out there doing pre-contact food, too? You know, I don't see anybody else celebrating pre-contact food in restaurants. A lot of chefs aren't really practitioners of strictly pre-contact Hawaiian food, but there are a lot of chefs out there representing modern Hawaiian cuisine to the best of their abilities. I think our generation of chefs have a stronger sense of self-pride and who they are, but the fact that we could even cook like this is due to the hard work that Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong did.

They came up as chefs in a time when the majority of Hawaii only knew fine dining as fancy French food. These two guys said "fuck that" and said, "We are from Hawaii and we have an abundance of beautiful ingredients here—why the fuck are we not using that?" Why do we have to import dover sole from the East Coast? Why are we flying in oysters from Nova Scotia? Why are we flying in green-lipped mussels from New Zealand? When we have all this good shit here? They broke the damn open for the larger part of Hawaii to understand how good we have it here. They allowed chefs like me and many others to cook however they want. Consumers also became more open-minded.

Hawaiian pre-contact food is just about generating self-awareness through food.

How long has this movement been around? You know? I don't know. I was interested and cooking pre-contact food since the 1990s, since before it was a thing. We used to celebrate the start of our hula year and we would sit down to eat pre-contact food. Going back, I don't think that there is a movement per se; it's just Hawaiians who practice being aware of where they come from and food.

Also, social media has helped spread this movement a lot. I post something and then someone one out there immediately sees the image, might look it up, then hopefully become aware that it is OK to cook their heritage's way.

Where do you see the future of pre-contact food going? Hawaiian pre-contact food is not exactly about Hawaiian pre-contact food; that might sound weird but it is not. It doesn't matter where you come from. When you cook your heritage, that is the holiest of holy for me. It doesn't fucking matter where you come from—it is OK to celebrate your heritage. It's just about generating self-awareness through food, so I see this doing this for a lot of people, too.

Thank you for speaking with us.