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TASTE OF TRAVEL

A Sample of Saimin Can Be a Mein Event : These days in particular, travelers to Hawaii are looking for inexpensive meals and local flavor. So we asked author and 25-year resident Rita Ariyoshi, who occasionally writes about her home state for the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, to sample the famous Hawaiian noodle dish saimin and give us an update on her favorite places. Her report follows: :

June 06, 1993

PEARL CITY, Hawaii — Bah to burgers and humbug to hot dogs--when Hawaiians are hungry, they slurp a big bowl of steaming saimin. The unique noodle soup of the islands serves as snack, meal and remedy for everything from flu to hangover. And it's one of the hottest bargains under the sun.

No one agrees on the best saimin. Everyone has their favorite. Saimin savants can't even agree on the soup's origins--some say it comes from Chinese chow mein dishes, others credit Japanese ramen noodle soups. The man everyone calls "Mr. Saimin," Shiro Matsuo, says, "Saimin is actually a unique Hawaiian concoction, different from either Chinese or Japanese. It was created by the first generation of sugar-plantation cooks."

Often, saimin was an immigrant family's first step into American entrepreneurship. "They'd build a little saimin wagon," Matsuo says. "The wife would knead the noodle dough with a bamboo pole or a pipe, then roll it out and cut it with a knife and ruler into strips about 12 inches long. She'd cook the saimin over a hibachi. The husband would push the little wagon with the hibachi to a likely place and set up shop for the day."

Saimin basics, according to Matsuo, are a soup base of "seaweed, dry shrimp, Japanese mushrooms and bonito shavings. In Hawaii, we use more eggs in our noodles than they do in Asia." After the soup and the noodles come the extras, usually chopped scallion, sliced kamaboku (pink and white "pinwheel" fish cake) and strips of either Chinese char siu pork, Spam or luncheon meat. Often there will be won ton dumplings, bok choy or bean sprouts. With a little imagination, almost everything can get tossed into the saimin bowl. According to Matsuo, "Everyone has their own recipe. I have my own saimin factory."

He needs it. At Matsuo's Hula Hula Drive-In and Saimin Haven, in Pearl City on Oahu, they serve 1,000 bowls of saimin a day in 60 varieties, from Pig's Feet Saimin (10 cents extra for toenails) to Haole (Caucasian) Saimin with chunks of hot dog, at prices from $2.90 for no-frills saimin to $6.96 for Hawaiian Saimin with a side of laulau (a steamed bundle of ti leaves, fish, pork and spinach-like taro tops).

As in love, timing is everything for saimin. At Boulevard Saimin on the way in to Honolulu from the airport, Toshiaki and his wife Mitsuyo Tanaka have been timing it just right for 40 years, and also claim to sell a big 1,000 bowls a day. They started small with a couple of tables and some benches and just kept expanding. Their soup is made from scratch from a century-old secret recipe that includes kombu, a seaweed that sells wholesale at $500 for a bundle that weighs a couple of pounds. The noodles are specially made at a shop in Honolulu's Chinatown.

A few of Boulevard's saimin varieties are Kayaku Saimin, with mustard cabbage, bamboo shoots and won ton; Oyako Saimin, with chicken, egg, bamboo shoots, onion and fish cake, and the Special, with shrimp tempura for $5.70.

Washington Saimin Stand in Honolulu is another popular mom-and-pop saimin operation. Almost any time of the day entire families will be hunkered down over steaming bowls, elbow to elbow with the town's doctors and lawyers, all dining to the jukebox strains of Frankie Avalon, Elton John, Perry Como, Elvis crooning "Love Me Tender," or hot numbers from the Asian hit parade. A large saimin with won tons runs $2.65, and an absolutely necessary side order of barbecued meat sticks, beef or chicken, is 70 cents apiece.

Nostalgia is part of the stock in trade at Sekiya's Restaurant and Delicatessen in the Kaimuki section of Honolulu, near Waikiki. The Coca-Cola signs are vintage, and the jukebox is heavy on golden oldies. Out back is a tiny Japanese garden. Sadly, the place was recently renovated. The saimin is still the same delicious soup-and-noodle concoction, but the upgraded atmosphere has lost its comfy, slightly derelict ambience. However, senior citizens still run into the old gang at this high school hangout. They "talk story" and savor Sekiya's saimin as they have for 40 or 50 years.

In Waikiki, high-ditch saimin, slurped seaside with a magnificent view of Diamond Head, can be had for lunch at the Halekulani Hotel's House Without a Key restaurant for $12. The hotel's celebrated French chef George Mavrothalassitis starts his saimin from a rich base of beef and chicken stock, has the noodles made to his specifications in Chinatown, and serves the soup swimming with scallion, fish cake, bamboo shoot, baby bok choy (a cabbage) and char siu pork specially prepared by a Chinese man on the island of Hawaii. According to the chef, "It's been our best seller at lunch since the days of the old Halekulani." The bonus of Halekulani saimin is the dessert option that follows: chocolate macadamia pie or the hotel's almost legendary coconut cake with raspberry, chocolate or Kona coffee sauce.

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