Ono “char siu” and other adventure food tales

My wife, Sally, and I went to a graduation party last night for our nephew, Gabriel Kai Chan, combined with a birthday party for his sister, Jenna’s three-year-old, Kyra. Their mom, Ida, is Sally’s youngest sister and pal. We often have extended family gatherings at Ida and Peter’s house because it has a very large living room that was packed with family, friends and neighbors. The menu for the evening was Hawaiian food, which should have tipped me off . . . because there was this really ono [Hawaiian for ‘delicious’], or at least I thought so — as did others, red Chinese-style char siu [barbecued pork]…

Anyhow, it certainly looked like it could have been char siu, and perhaps because I had a cold I wasn’t quite tasting it correctly — but it was definitely ono and lean, just the way I like it, although some people like their char siu with more fat.

So it wasn’t until we were getting ready to leave when I heard my sister-in-law, Elaine, ask Peter where he got the char siu. “That wasn’t char siu,” he said. “That was smoked marlin.”

Of course. I should have known, but I guess it had just been too many years since I last ate marlin regularly: Forty-three years ago when I was a “greenie” Mormon missionary in Samoa, my soa [companion], Vi’i Pita, and I were living in Leloaloa, near the tuna packing factories on Pago Pago harbor. Once I got used to the smell, we could go over there and buy big, beautiful sakana [Samoan for marlin] filets for 15¢ a pound. It was really manaia [Samoan for ono]. If you’ve never had marlin before, it is a tasty white fish. The tuna fishing fleets, usually manned by Koreans, would inevitably bring in some, and the canneries would sell it locally at bargain prices.

This reminds me of another time six years later: I was then an American grantee at the East-West Center, the international educational exchange institution sponsored by the U.S. Department of State on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus. Field experience was part of the package, and I got approval to take Sally along with me (at our expense) on a six-month, 19-stop sojourn in the Pacific islands in 1971. It was a fabulous experience for both of us, and included some gustatory adventures as well. A couple of examples — one a delightful surprise, and the others not so much:

In Kolonia, Ponapei [now spelled Pohnpei] there was a little cement box-like restaurant on the main, unpaved street running through the town. We went in there for lunch, and found the menu was written on a piece of cardboard tacked up on the wall: Among other items, it listed, “tuna, 60¢.” We thought, okay, we’ll have tuna sandwiches.

The service seemed really slow. I mean, how long does it take to make two tuna sandwiches? So we were quite pleasantly surprised when they brought out these two plates with large slabs of barbecued tuna that had just been caught that morning. It was very ono, and we went back there a couple of more times during our stay in Ponapei.

In Manila, the Philippines, we were invited to a symphony and then afterward for some refreshments at a very nice restaurant. We were served some kind of a potent cheese delicacy that our hosts were very anxious for us to try. I think you can tell where this might be going, so let me just say that Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame we were not, but having eaten a few strange things in Samoa before, I at least was able to swallow once . . . and keep it down.

A week or two later we got some perspective on this, and could even laugh, when we visited an open market in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. The tree kangaroos (cus-cus, which are actually some kind of possum) seemed to be in high demand, although we had a hard time getting beyond the sight of these poor little creatures — skinned, gutted and looking like a flayed dog lying on leaves on the ground. They were set off by very bright red globs of betel nut expectorant all over the place. We had learned in some of the Micronesian islands that when people chew betel nuts (sometimes also with a leaf and lime powder) — which are usually green when fresh — they turn a brilliant red color in the mouth, and stay that shade when finally spit out. Hence the name, Bloody Mary in the musical South Pacific, who favored the mild stimulant.

We joked, maybe we could get some cus-cus with a side of that Filipino cheese and some betel nut garnish. Is anyone else ono, too?

Comments

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