Spending two weeks in Hawaii is good for the soul. “Recharge the batteries,” my wife Roxanne says, “reboot your operating system,” my daughter Lauren likes to call it, but my personal favorite is “clean out the cobwebs.” Whatever.
As a Louisiana-based food writer covering culinary culture, I find myself on a lifelong journey of sorts. While my passion is clearly focused on the Cajun and Creole food of my Acadiana region of South Louisiana, I discovered early on that while people differ, the linkage to their food history is at the heart of each culture’s uniqueness. Maui is a prime example.
Maui is magical. Driving south from the airport along the coastal road with the dormant Haleakalā volcano to my left and the blue Pacific Ocean to my right, it’s hard not to be inspired. After a long nine-hour flight, my family was ready to settle in at a friend’s condo for a two-week exploration of the island. By the end of that first day, our feet were firmly planted in the warm sand of Kamaole Beach along the southwest coast of the island in the town of Kihei.
My wife and daughter are beach-obsessed and while soaking up the sun is their agenda, I am all about soaking up local food culture. If you travel with me, you will soon find that I am a curious traveler. By nature, I want to connect with local growers, chefs, fishermen and artisans of the area. Granted, I am a born-on-the-bayou, southern Louisiana boy and you might think I am a catfish-out-of-water when it comes to writing about anything that isn’t deep-fried and drenched in hot sauce, but you’d be mostly wrong. For me, the stories behind the cuisine are the key to understanding it, and I was on a mission to taste the essence of Hawaiian food culture and find the kinship with my beloved Cajun and Creole cooking.
It wasn’t easy. The similarities of Hawaiian culinary culture to Louisiana are more confusion than fusion. Hawaii is a melting pot of ethnic diversity with the native Polynesians stirring the poi pot with Portuguese, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese and other Pacific Rim cultures. It is a curious multiregional mix of culinary customs and influences that work to create a unique, if not odd, combination of flavors. How could you not embrace a culture that exalts Spam with a culinary obsession?
Yes, Spam! As the story goes, after Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hawaiian commercial fishing boats were barred from leaving port and for four years the local population was without an important source of protein. Military k-rations were shipped in and the key protein ingredient was a tin of, you guessed it, Spam. The islanders were hooked and to this day more Spam is consumed per capita in Hawaii than in any other location. Heck, even the local Burger King has it on the menu and there is a popular sushi dish Spam musubi featuring the product. While adventurous, I decided to pass on it.
Tropical fruits are everywhere and the pineapple, mango and papaya-infused menu is a world away from my spicy, French Acadian gumbo of flavors. But, tear back the palm fronds, crack open the coconut and read the tea leaves and you just might be surprised to find how much we have in common.
First off, on Maui, as in South Louisiana, fresh local seafood is at the heart of what makes the regional cuisine so unique. Although specific names of fish species are different, I found that Maui’s Pacific seafood shares much with our Gulf fishery. Ahi, hapuu and onaga are not familiar on the dinner table in Louisiana, but we eat them just as often under the names tuna, grouper and snapper. Rarely do you see heavily battered, deep-fried fish. Hawaiian cooks take a light hand in preparing seafood often opting for a fresh tropical sauce or even a citrus-marinated poke, their version of ceviche.
Like my Acadiana, the island of Maui is sugarcane country. Driving upcountry toward the town of Makawao I was surrounded by mile after mile of sugarcane fields. I visited the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum and found just how agriculturally linked Maui is with Acadiana when during a short documentary film about their sugarcane industry I saw a familiar photograph of a South Louisiana sugar mill in St. Mary Parish. And speaking of sugar, syrupy sweet Hawaiian shave ice is everywhere, just like our snoballs.
I was glad to see that for the most part, Maui’s finer, 5-star restaurants are owned and operated by locals, not chains. Cordon Bleu-trained Bev Gannon brought her chef’s knives to Maui in 1980 and has become one of the celebrated restaurateurs with her three popular outposts. We ate at two: the golf course location of Gannon’s that overlooks the south shore of Wailea (the cashew-crusted mahi was my daughter’s favorite dish of the entire trip) and the Hali‘imaile General Store near Makawao which is more casual and a must-stop on any upcountry visit. Be sure to order the brie and grape quesadilla — Gannon’s sophisticated take on a Mexican classic.
As for ambience, Capische (Editors note: This restaurant is no longer called Capische) located in the Hotel Wailea is hands-down the most romantic setting for any sunset-obsessed lovers. What Florida native Chef Brian Etheredge brought from the mainland is his New World Cuisine repertoire that fits perfectly with the laidback Maui mindset. In 1998 he opened his eatery balancing an Italian-inspired menu with local ingredients by partnering with small Maui-based growers and producers – a delicious combination.
And then there’s Mama’s. Making the obligatory pilgrimage to Mama’s Fish House just outside of Paia is a must for any Maui visit. This is the heart and soul of Maui cuisine and for over 40 years this venerable institution has consistently turned out a stellar menu of Polynesian interpretations just as it did on our visit. After one to-die-for plate of macadamia nut-laced mahimahi sautéed in Panang curry and coconut milk, I am forever spellbound by Mama.
But thank goodness, Maui is much more than fancy shmancy white tablecloth dining. Roadside signs announcing plate lunches, a definite crossover to my down-home South Louisiana cooking, are another common sight all over the island. A hearty, meat-and-three of Kalua pork with Maui onions along with sweet potatoes (the purple variety), mac salad and white rice would make any good Cajun feel right at home. Rice plays a significant role in Hawaiian cuisine much as it does in Louisiana. Most every dish I sampled during my visit had rice as either a central ingredient or as a key accompaniment. Asian jasmine rice, coconut-infused white rice and curried rice dishes are quite prevalent.
Fresh coconut literally grows on trees in Maui. In Louisiana and much of the mainland, coconut is only available packaged on supermarket shelves or hidden in the back of the produce section. We have access to coconut but it has never taken much of a role in our food culture. On the island of Maui, it is everywhere and in every form imaginable. Roselani brand coconut ice cream is a custardy treat in which the locals indulge that was directly responsible for my highly regrettable five-pound, two-week binge. And the Macadamia nut pancakes drenched in coconut syrup at the Kihei Caffe are worth waiting in the long line that snakes around the building every morning. Fresh coconut is available at roadside stands where with the quick whack of a machete, a drink of coconut water or the prized inner flesh is as fresh and sweet as it gets.
One of my daughter’s favorite dishes on Maui (yes, we ate it three times), and anywhere else for that matter, is Coconut Shrimp. So, I set out to link the two cultures, and as usual, my recipe will add a Louisiana touch to the island-inspired ingredients in this Coconut Shrimp dish. Fresh Gulf of Mexico shrimp paired with coconut and sweet Louisiana jasmine rice from my friends at Supreme Rice just down the road in Crowley celebrate the great flavors we share with Maui and many other island cultures.
And what did this curious bayou boy discover about these two distinctly different culinary cultures?
Somewhere during the trip it became clear that it is the people that bridge the link. While many of the Hawaiian dishes I tasted were uniquely different from Cajun cooking, I found that the warm, friendly people of the two cultures share much in their love of tradition, ceremony, music and a connection to the land and water that sustain them both. For instance, the ceremonial Hawaiian luau is much like the French Acadian boucherie or cochon de lait. In both cultures, colorful music and traditional dance play a role in the celebration of cooking a whole hog for a communal dinner. Certainly, the Polynesian-inspired preparation (ginger rubbed and wrapped in banana leaves) and island cooking method (an earthen pit lined with volcanic rocks) differs from our Cajun recipe, but like good Cajun folks, their reverence for food and its importance to their heritage are core values they find worthy of preserving.
From the beaches of Maui to the bayous of South Louisiana, I believe that if you look deep beyond the surface of most any culture you can find those things that you have in common. Food especially unites us all and helps us realize that we are much more alike than different. For me, that’s the magic of travel. The magic of Maui, y’all.
- 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, stems removed
- ½ cup mango preserves
- 1 tablespoon sugarcane vinegar
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and membrane removed
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 cups jasmine rice, such as Supreme
- 4 cups coconut water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 (12-ounce) can of black beans
- ½ cup chopped cilantro leaves
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- ⅓ cup ice-cold water
- 2½ cups dry shredded unsweetened coconut
- 2 cups peanut oil
- 2 dozen jumbo Gulf shrimp, peeled with tail-on
- In the container of a blender, place all ingredients and puree on high. Pour the contents into a serving bowl and cover. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
- In a strainer over a mixing bowl, rinse the rice over cold water until the water runs clear and the residual starch is removed.
- In a pot with a tight fitting lid, add the coconut water and salt. Over medium-high heat, bring the water to a boil. Add the rice and lower the heat to a simmer and cover the pot.
- In a colander, empty the can of black beans. Run water over the beans to remove any of the canned liquid.
- Check to see if the rice is done, but do not stir the pot. Once it is cooked, remove from the burner and add the chopped cilantro leaves and the strained black beans. Stir together. Cover the pot and keep warm until serving.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and seasoning and mix well. In a separate mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, hot sauce, and water. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and stir together to form a batter.
- In a separate dish, add the shredded coconut.
- In a large skillet, add the oil making sure to have a depth of at least 1 inch. Heat the oil over medium heat until it reaches 375ºF.
- Holding the shrimp by the tail dip it into the batter and then quickly into the shredded coconut, coating it evenly. Place on a platter positioned next to the hot oil. Once you have battered one batch of shrimp add them to the hot oil. Cook the shrimp only until they are golden brown, approximately 5 minutes. Remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon to a wire rack with paper towels underneath. Continue frying the shrimp in batches.
- Serve the shrimp and rice on individual plates for a tropical dinner or present the shrimp on a large platter with the dipping sauce in the center for a party.
YOUR SEAT AT THE TABLE: If you like this Cajun cooking story and Cajun recipe then accept my personal invitation to subscribe by entering your email at the bottom or top right of this page. It’s quick and painless. You will receive an email alert and be the first to see when new Cajun cooking stories and Cajun recipes are added.