Photo by Cory Lum for The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER for the NYTimes.com
Published: November 12, 2008
AMONG the myriad people and institutions predicted to profit from Barack Obama’s victory, why has no one cited the plate lunch?
This traditional Hawaiian meal — validated as fine fare by the president-elect when he proclaimed his longing for one during a vacation in Oahu last summer — might be poised to enter the consciousness of mainlanders in all of its fatty, greasy deliciousness.
It is probably unrealistic to expect aloha-infused cuisine in the White House kitchen, given Mr. Obama’s clear fixation with staying trim and healthy. But he has made no secret of the fact that when in Hawaii he likes to indulge in the culinary treats of his youth there, including the fast food at Zippy’s, a local chain; shave ice, the ambrosial confection of powdered ice topped with fruit syrups; and the plate lunch.
Drawing on the food ways of the Hawaiian Islands’ many Asian immigrant groups, and chowed down on regularly by everyone from surfers to businessmen to the future occupant of the White House, the plate lunch is simple in form but varied in its elements. Its foundation: two scoops of white rice and a side of macaroni salad, heavy on the mayonnaise.
This carbo load — usually piled into a plastic foam container — is paired with a protein, generally of the pan-Asian variety, often slathered in brown gravy. After a morning of hard work (or hard surf), one might opt for Korean kalbi or meat jun, Chinese char siu roast pork, Philippine pork adobo, Hawaiian kalua pork (a luau favorite), Japanese katsu or salmon teriyaki, Portuguese sausage, American-style beef stew, or loco moco — a hamburger patty and a fried egg.
“The cultural significance of the plate lunch is that it illustrates Hawaii as a special place where all of our mixed cultures share their foods with one another,” said Matthew Gray, who runs Hawaii Food Tours, which ferries tourists to Oahu’s plate lunch outlets and other lesser known haunts. “Instead of referring to Hawaii as a melting pot, I prefer to call us a salad bowl, where we all get to share and showcase the individual flavors, aromas and histories of our food.”
The Hawaiian plate lunch traces its roots to the 1880s, when giant fruit and sugar companies controlled much of the local economy. Among other factors, the decimation of the local population by disease made the companies desperate for plantation workers, and they drew a labor pool from China, Japan, Portugal, the Philippines and other areas.
For workers who toiled under harsh conditions, lunchtime was a respite, with hearty portions of rice matched with whatever meat was left over from dinner the night before.
“The workers would take their bento in these little tins,” said Kaui Philpotts, the former food editor of The Honolulu Advertiser, who has written books about Hawaiian food.
“They didn’t eat sandwiches or things like that,” Ms. Philpotts said, “it was leftover rice and a lot of things like canned meat or teriyaki or cold meat or maybe scrambled eggs or pickles, and almost no salad or vegetable.”
Macaroni, a later addition, seemed to bridge many national tastes and, slick with mayonnaise and a dab of salt and pepper, mixes well with a gravy-covered slab of meat.
After the plantation days ended, the plate lunch lived on. In the 1960s, it moved into lunch wagons, which took meals to workers putting up buildings and conducting other forms of day labor, with little time for lunch.
Enter next the holes in the wall and other stand-alone plate lunch restaurants, followed by chains that eventually expanded into Los Angeles and other cities. More recently, the health-conscious plate lunch has surfaced, in which brown rice replaces white, salads are offered instead of macaroni and misoyaki butterfish is as common as fried pork cutlets.
This summer, I enjoyed the kalua pork with sweet potato salad, and some macaroni salad made with grated onions, carrots and light mayo, at Luke’s Place, a restaurant in a plantation-style building in the tiny town of Hawi on the Big Island. “We are looking to go toward healthier but affordable,” said Mike Prine, the general manager.
Kaka’ako Kitchen, a plate lunch spot in a busy Honolulu shopping center, rounds out brown rice and greens with chicken in honey-lime vinaigrette, calamari with spinach salad or wild salmon with lemon-ginger sauce. “We try to take it a little more upscale,” said Russell Siu, the owner. “We don’t want to be like every other drive-in in town.”
Like, for instance, Rainbow Drive-In in Honolulu, popular among the flip-flop set and a destination on Barack Obama’s must-get-to list last summer. For less than $7 one can fill up on the teriyaki beef plate, which some like to top with chili, or the “mix, all over,” which is a plate of teriyaki beef, breaded mahi-mahi and fried chicken, smothered in brown gravy “all over.”
Indeed it is the standard plate lunch that tends to draw local crowds, for its magical mix of portions (large) and price (cheap). The plate lunch is something that Americans from the mainland “sort of turn their noses up at,” Ms. Philpotts said. “Especially if they are foodies or health conscious. They look at all that cholesterol and white rice, and they just go nuts. But people here grow up eating that.”
It all seems like odd fare for a man as bookmark-thin as Mr. Obama, who seems to treasure his treadmill. “I think it is really funny he still eats plate lunch,” Ms. Philpotts said. “Because he is so healthy.”
But she strongly suggested — at least to my ears — that the plate lunch in part accounts for his strong showing in Hawaii. “I think it is because when he comes back here he is so cool, he just kind of slips back into local ways.”