My mother once had a friend whose lifetime memories were sorted and filed according to their association with food.
"I just loved Texas," Agnes would say. "I had the best chili I ever tasted in a roadside diner near Amarillo." Or she would interrupt her own monologue with, "Oh, you remember Betty. She uses almond paste in her peach cobbler . . . "
As a youngster, I thought this sort of mnemonics odd. What did food have to do with geography and personality? But years later I moved to Hawaii and my recipe file became filled with memories of the relaxed life style, the aloha spirit and the natural beauty of our 50th state.
My recipe for teriyaki steak includes first impressions of the Kohala district in the nothern tip of Hawaii (or the Big Island, as we learned to call it). How different this remote arid area was from the congestion of Oahu: sugar cane fields, not tropical forests, filled the rolling landscape and waves dashed against a rocky coastline where I had imagined white sand beaches would be.
But the spirit of aloha was definitely alive our first night in Kohala. At a welcoming party we sampled the teriyaki's indescribable combination of soy sauce and ginger and in no time we felt at ease among strangers who eventually became dear friends.
That night they acquainted us with Hawaii, its history, its legends and its industry. We soon learned that, aside from the Coast Guard Loran station of which my husband was a part, everything in the local community existed solely for, or as a result of, the Kohala sugar plantation.
Even as we dined in our host's hillside house we saw the silvery sheaths of mature cane swaying in the evening breeze just before orange, yellow and lavender hues of sunset filled the sky.
This memory is an ingredient of my teriyaki recipe.
My smoked pork is brushed with liquid smoke and baked slowly in aluminum foil for six hours rather than smoked in an underground pit. But when I make it I picture our first luau in a rain forest not far from Kamehameha the Great's birthplace.
When this great Hawaiian warrior unified the Hawaiian Island in the late 18th century he had no inkling of the amalgamation of ethnic foods that would take place years later. For, although the Hawaiians had their own diet, the Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese and Americans who immigrated to work in the cane fields introduced their national foods. At a luau, Scotch shortbread and Boston baked beans often appeared alongside chicken luau, lomi lomi, salmon and haupia.
These, too, are in my recipe collection.
When I make mango chutney I think of Margaret Yap, who regularly brought the spicy condiment to our calabash dinners at the Kalahikiola church.
Margaret, besides making exceptional chutney, was an authority on church history. She often told of the arrival of American missionaries in Kohala in 1823. One, the Rev. Elias Bond, established separate churches so the immigrants could worship in their native language. The church, built in 1855 for the native Hawaiians, stands today. With its stone foundation and wooden belfry it reflects the architecture of Rev. Bond's home state of Maine. In fact, several houses in Kohala were built in a Victorian style reminiscent of New England.
Chutney reminds me of all this.
Thus my memories of Hawaii are filed along with my recipes. Since our return to the mainland I have adapted my recipes -- I can't afford a whole pig, and digging pits is hard work; opening a can of coconut is much easier than grating and straining coconut; and spinach has become an acceptable substitute for taro leaves. But as I prepare these altered recipes, my memories remain the same.
TERIYAKI STEAK (6 servings)
2 pounds sirloin tip, sliced (or 2 pounds chicken parts) Teriyaki Sauce:
3/4 cup soy sauce
5 tablespoons sugar
1-inch piece fresh ginger, crushed
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons sake or bourbon (optional) Steamed Rice:
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups uncooked rice
Combine ingredients for sauce and mix well. Marinate meat in sauce overnight. Charcoal broil or pan fry.
Steam rice by first simmering in water for 15 minutes then steaming for 5 minutes. Stir with fork occasionally to separate grains. Serve with steak. CHICKEN LUAU (6 servings)
3 cups cooked chicken meat
2 pounds taro (or spinach) leaves
12-ounce can coconut milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces. Combine spinach (or taro), chicken and coconut milk and simmer until spinach is tender. Season to taste. Serve with rice. HAUPIA (4 servings)
12-ounce can coconut milk
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt
Make paste of 1 tablespoon coconut milk and cornstarch. Heat remaining milk, sugar and salt in double boiler. Gradually add cornstarch-milk mixture and cook until thick (about 15 minutes), stirring constantly. Pour into 8-by-5-inch loaf pan. Cool and refrigerate. Cut into squares. MANGO CHUTNEY (Makes approximately 1 pint)
Coarse sea salt
1/2 cup vinegar
2 cups brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons (about 1/2-inch root) fresh ginger, sliced
1/2 cup raisins
1 small red pepper, seeded and sliced
Peel and cut mangoes into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces. Sprinkle with salt (preferably coarse sea salt) and let stand overnight. Rinse and drain. Simmer vinegar, sugar and spices for 1/2 hour. Add onion, garlic, ginger, raisins and pepper and simmer for another half-hour. Add mangoes and simmer 2 hours.