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Cook Real Hawaii lets the islands define themselves through stories and delicious recipes

Cook Real Hawaii lets the islands define themselves through stories and delicious recipes

Sheldon Simeon writes Cook Real Hawaii to not sell people Hawaii where they think they will arrive, but to tell the story of the place from his own perspective. He writes, “How does a place so long defined by the outside world define itself?” and begins nearly 300 pages to tell the story of Hawaii, or at least part of it, with food (page 7).

The first 25 pages introduce you to the book of Simeon and the history of Hawaii. This one
section is essential for people to understand why this book does not contain strictly Hawaiian dishes and recipes. In this section, you will learn that Hawaiian people do not falsely identify themselves as Hawaiian, but rather as kamaʻāina or local or by their ethnicity. So when Simeon writes about cooking “Real Hawai’i”, he provides a guide to cooking local foods. It unfolds the story of immigration and colonization through food and can tell us a lot about how people persisted in preserving and remaking their traditions. Food tells us about present-day Hawaii and its community that is different from the exotic, imaginative Hawaii that is often sold to tourists.

Simeon grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii (like me) in Hilo (unlike me. I was born and raised in Kona.). He attended culinary school on O’ahu and currently lives in Maui, where he and his family have opened several local food restaurants. He has also participated in numerous cooking competitions where he learned to cook confidently from his own background. Through his cookbook, he takes his responsibility to share the world he knows by peeling back layers of history.

Over 260 pages are devoted to recipes, and it’s complete with photos, stories, and thoughtful instructions. The photos really make the food jump off the page, and they feature knives that remind many locals of their family kitchens (like me). The stories he has completed are about family, growing up and the immigrants of Hawaii. One of the greatest strengths of this book is how each story speaks volumes about its influence on justice and on Simeon’s heart. The instructions are thoughtful and encouraging. If a cook can’t find the ingredients or prefers to use something else, Simeon encourages people to use what works best for them and with the resources they have. This parallels how ethnic traditions of food were recreated in Hawaii as people formed new communities. The food section is divided into Heavy Pupus, Hibachi Styling, Fry Action, Sim Simmer, Rice and Noodles, Mean Greens, Sweets and Drinks, Odds and Ends, and an ingredients guide for those who might get lost in jargon or details.

I went through this book with several family members and found that we all couldn’t resist going through everything it has to offer. It really is a book that covers so much of what we all ate or wanted to eat. Simeon writes, “Hawai’i food, or what we call local food, tells us the story of where we come from. It is embedded in every part of our language, our songs, our jokes. We celebrate it every chance we get. It doesn’t just fill our bellies, it keeps us who we are” (page 8) I think my family and I were all happy to find a cookbook that is realistic for our lifestyle. We also loved sharing the recipes with comparing our own ways and we found many dishes that we had never heard of or eaten a lot of, nevertheless I think all the recipes deserved to be tried or improvised (just like the immigrants did, which Simeon acknowledged) and my relatives and I wanted to do just that.

I made the Local-Style Beef Stew (page 148) on a lonely winter night in Seattle. That meal took me back home to my aunt’s kitchen, where I would watch my aunt and uncle every night, take things out of the cupboard and put them in the big silver pot or wok as they went. My aunt and uncle made the Portuguese Bean Soup (page 144) for family dinner while I was home in the summer. We ate it with smoked meats, ube rolls, barbecue chicken wings, steak, rice and salad. Everyone devoured the soup. It was light, balanced and delicious with the rest of our meal. Most of us couldn’t finish it.

While the recipes don’t always match our families, the recipes capture the heart of the local story and that’s what Simeon shares in his cookbook. What he shares reflects his home, community, family, and most importantly, himself. The recipes are influenced by his culinary background, giving him a fresh take on local dishes that everyone knows and loves. His recipes are one of the millions of recipes that families prepare for their loved ones. For this reason, I suggest that you consider the cookbook not as a set of rules, but as a guide to the home.

The recipes that Simeon has included in his cookbook are recipes from the heart. His cookbook inspires me to learn from my family how to cook the foods I know and love. I look forward to the day when I can share with my friends and family the dishes I learn and recreate as my own. For now, I’ll stick with following the recipes for meals and treats while in Seattle away from home.

One local story is not quite like each other, but we all come together with food and we carry on our traditions with our gatherings. By continuing the traditions of food, we preserve and honor all that people have endured to protect their families, culture and selves. Like Uncle Sheldon, we all need to take responsibility for protecting the future of our homes with the platforms we have and the communities we come from.