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Aloha, Food Fusion

THE FOOD OF PARADISE: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage By Rachel Laudan University of Hawaii Press: 296 pp., $24.95 (paperback), $38.95 (hardback)


Not long ago I heard a panel of gastronomic gurus weightily talking about how cooks from Asia may now or in the future be influencing the way Americans eat.

Not one mentioned that many (or most) of the people they were discussing are Americans. Not one protested when several fine minds declared that the restaurant food brought by Asian immigrants will assume true significance in this country only when it stops being so damn cheap. And by the way, not one seemed to wonder what effects, if any, the assorted Asian groups now living and cooking here might be having on each other.

It's a good thing Rachel Laudan wasn't part of the event. Judging by what she has to say about the Hawaiian experience in her marvelous book "The Food of Paradise," she could have given the rest of the panel an earful--or reason to cover their ears at the thought of food-based naturalizations and interchanges not sanctioned by authoritative taste makers.

Do not buy this book if you want high-powered pronouncements on "fusion cooking." Its focus is the very different matter of actual culinary fusions.

What Laudan describes is not so much a blending as a mashing process involving the long, disorderly succession of all that was ever brought to the former Sandwich Islands by adventure, financial opportunity or servitude.

Aside from the original Polynesian-descended population and the American missionaries and entrepreneurs who arrived while the diseases introduced by 18th-century British voyagers were destroying the indigenous people, nearly every group now living in Hawaii was hauled across the Pacific between about 1850 and 1950 to labor on factory-scale plantations and later in processing plants supplying the Old and New Worlds with luxuries like sugar, pineapples and bananas.

The parade of humanity included Chinese, Japanese and Okinawans, Koreans, Portuguese from the Azores, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and even mestizo cowboys from California who worked the cattle ranches.

As other areas nosed out Hawaii as preeminent tropical produce suppliers, all these people met and mingled with less and less attention to barriers of race or ethnic origin.

It took about 20 or 25 years after statehood (1959) for the heirs of Hawaii's old plantation-era food traditions and a fresh crop of mainlanders to hatch a brash new culinary vernacular called "Local Food" (with a capital L) that would be the despair of any lemon grass, beurre blanc and tuna tartare aesthete.

Its monuments include a lunch wagon "plate lunch" featuring two or three scoops of sticky white rice, "fried mahi-mahi, spaghetti and meat sauce all mixed up together," beef teriyaki, macaroni or potato salad, some kimchi and an optional ladle of (presumably canned) gravy. Mongrelization? Well, it sure ain't test-tube gene-splicing.

With a certain amount of filling in, an expanded version of this outline can be pieced together from "The Food of Paradise," but piecing together doesn't appear to be Laudan's purpose. The structure of this book is a kind of anti-chronology. Not only does it start right now with the glories of Local Foods and work back to prehistoric first principles, such as the islands' pristine fresh water, it seems meant to be taken in as a series of small glimpses, each accompanied by its own cluster of illustrative recipes.

The disadvantages of the approach are obvious when you try to sort out apparent discrepancies on just when sugar cane got to the islands or how Filipinos were treated under the former Oriental Exclusion Act. (The scanty general index--there are also two recipe indexes--is no help.)

Laudan tends to provide only the minimal historical underpinnings for each episode, leaving the reader to reconstruct any reconstructible continuity from back to front of the book. It seems wiser to leave continuity to other historians and read her as an adroit mosaicist of the telling circumstance.

Here she wanders through a store devoted to "crack seed," a huge and originally Chinese tribe of salt- and sugar-preserved fruit snacks; there she ponders the countless mystifying Filipino fruits and vegetables in a raucous Saturday open-air market. She bends a wryly sympathetic eye on local ways with Spam (it shows up as tempura or in the seaweed-wrapped rice balls called musubi) and after eight years in the islands is willing to consider one gallon of congee (jook) made with ham hocks and a broken-up turkey carcass a natural sequel to Thanksgiving dinner.

At intervals she supplies historical overviews of one or another issue--for example, the saga of sugar in Hawaii, or the role of mainland-trained home economists in shaking up attitudes toward once-separate cooking traditions.

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