“It’s not enough.”
The deep voice interrupted my reverie at the array of colorful raw fish stretching across the back of Honolulu’s Tamashiro Market. A construction worker towered over me, shaking his head at my quarter-pound of ahi poke (pronounced poh-kay or poh-kee), a Hawaiian specialty that mixes chopped, often raw fish with limu (seaweed), sea salt and other seasonings such as kukui nuts, soy sauce or onions. He frowned: “It’s not enough.”
He was right. I ate Tamashiro’s poke every day for a week on Oahu — a sweet-salty-silky side with almost every meal — and I never did get enough.
Tamashiro Market is heaven for people who love poke. Customers wait eagerly for the shop to open, making a beeline for the poke counter or the fresh fish case where staff will cut whole fish to order. The market’s reputation stretches to Seattle, where Hawaiians who now live in the Northwest had urged me to try the delicious tako (octopus) poke. And the aku (skipjack tuna).
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Tamashiro is one of a few family-run food destinations that have endured in Honolulu for more than six decades. Venturing beyond Waikiki into small markets and restaurants, visitors can taste a bit of island history in dishes that have been perfected over generations.
Now loved by locals for its fresh fish, Tamashiro Market started out as a meat market selling pork from the family pig farm on the Big Island of Hawaii. Chogen Tamashiro had emigrated from Okinawa in 1913 at age 14 to work on a sugar plantation, and over the next few decades his hard work allowed him to acquire the farm. In May 1941, he opened Tamashiro Market in Hilo on the Big Island. The family kept the farm and store going through World War II, but were jolted by the tsunami that devastated Hilo in 1946. The next year, they moved to Oahu and opened the market on North King Street in Honolulu.
It was Chogen Tamashiro’s son, Walter Tamashiro, who saw the potential in fish in 1954. Walter started with just a few chunks of opelu (a type of mackerel), then half of an aku. He quickly moved on to metal buckets of fish and live crab, building a reputation for freshness. “He bought only what he could sell that day,” said his son Cyrus Tamashiro, who now runs the market with his two brothers. Today, their fish counter showcases local fish alongside Maine lobster, Dungeness crab and fish from around the world. “It’s a legacy from my father and grandfather,” Cyrus said.
Hawaiian-style poke didn’t make its appearance at the market until the 1970s. Cyrus remembered his dad saying, “This thing called ‘poke’ — people like to eat it. We should make it better. We should make more flavors than Baskin-Robbins.’ ” The staff continues to experiment with new flavors. The bigeye tuna is one of the most popular, though Cyrus’ favorites tend to the ahi tuna onion or blackened ahi.
No matter the seasoning, there’s a reason that poke tastes so sweet: The fish likely came off the boat that morning. Guy Tamashiro, Cyrus’ brother, starts his day before dawn at the Honolulu Fish Auction a few miles away, walking along lines of silvery ahi and aku, mahi-mahi, marlin and other fish laid out on ice, checking the color of the flesh, the rigidity of the tails and the sheen on the eyes for freshness.
The Tamashiros buy most of their open ocean fish from the auction — hand-picked by Guy — but also buy directly from local fishermen. Back at the market the staff starts making the poke at 6 a.m., creating 30 varieties by the time they open at 9.
Many of the waiting customers have been shopping at the market for generations. “They say, don’t ever change,” Cyrus said. “They feel lost in the supermarket.”
Young’s Fish Market
Don’t let the name and the stuffed marlin above the booths fool you: Honolulu residents come to Young’s Fish Market primarily for pork — especially the traditional laulaus: pork, butterfish and taro leaves wrapped up in ti leaves and steamed for hours until the bundles yield meat that falls apart in tender chunks.
Each day, long before the sun’s up, the family and staff at this small restaurant in a Kalihi neighborhood strip mall start preparing 900 to 1,000 laulaus, as well as kalua pork and other Hawaiian specialties. But back in 1951, when Wilfred and Charlotte Young first opened it, Young’s Fish Market was all about fish.
Wilfred, whose parents originally emigrated from China, knew the fishing industry, and the marlin hanging in the restaurant was his trophy. But it was inevitable that the family would look to expand their offerings: “My grandmother actually hated fish,” said Daniel Young, 26, who now runs the daily operations.
The Youngs gradually began supplementing the fish with Chinese foods they knew, starting with crack seed — fruits preserved in sugar, salt or syrup. (“Seed” comes from the pit often left in the fruits; “crack” from the habit of cracking that pit to enhance the flavor.) A family friend suggested they add Hawaiian dishes, so Wilfred and Charlotte learned how to steam the laulaus and roast the pork, island-style. By the early 1980s, fish had mostly fallen off the menu.
Today, Young’s Fish Market still makes a little poke, but most of their business is in laulau and kalua plate lunches, which like plate lunches across the islands come with rice or poi (pounded taro root mixed with water to create a starchy paste) as well as lomilomi salmon or macaroni salad. Young’s also offers a slab of steamed purple sweet potato and a helping of pipikaula — sweet dried beef that I tasted for the first time at their restaurant and found instantly addictive.
The restaurant sticks to traditional preparations, using mostly the same recipes Daniel’s grandparents learned. “There is pressure to keep up the legacy and standards set before you,” he said. “We’ve all kind of put our own touch on it.”
And for Hawaiian expats, and others (like me) who crave Young’s specialties in the mainland, in the last several years there has been one other happy business development: They will FedEx their specialties.
Haili’s Hawaiian Foods
This family restaurant grew out of a typical family necessity: “My mother needed a business where she could take care of business and take care of her children at the same time,” said Lorraine Haili-Alo, who now runs Haili’s Hawaiian Foods with her sister and nephew.
When Rachel Ching Haili opened Haili’s as a stall at the Ward Center Farmers Market in the late 1940s, the business was a fish market, selling fresh fish and some takeout foods like laulaus and kalua pork that were sold by the pound. Rachel had learned to make the Hawaiian dishes from her husband’s family; she also sold some of the Chinese foods she had grown up making, like chicken long rice (chicken soup with rice noodles).
As her family grew to include six daughters, Rachel got everyone involved in the business. “Everything we sell, our mother taught us how,” Lorraine remembered. “I learned how to mix poi when I was 5 years old. After school, we would prep and clean taro leaves. We all had a job.”
When the girls got older, their dad, Peter Davis Haili, taught Lorraine and her sisters how to buy at the fish auction, where the men gave them a hard time for being the only girls. “Bidding on fish, we built up confidence.”
Haili’s remained a fish market until 2008, when development began to reshape the farmers market area. Haili’s Hawaiian Foods then moved to the Kapahulu neighborhood next to Waikiki and became a sit-down restaurant featuring the dishes the sisters learned from their parents.
“We want to stick to what Hawaiian food is really about,” said Lorraine. Their kalua pork is still roasted in an imu (oven pit), and Lorraine and sister Rachel Haili still follow the recipes their mother taught them, including their sublime version of chicken long rice. Lorraine’s favorite dish is squid luau — squid cooked with taro leaves (luau) in coconut milk.
Another rich and creamy dish that’s a must-try: the haupia (custard). In addition to the traditional coconut, the restaurant makes a mango haupia that is light and transcendent.
Despite moving next to pricier Waikiki, Lorraine said the Hailis have made it a priority to keep the restaurant family-friendly. “We keep the food prices so a family of four can come in,” she said. “We grew up in a large family, so we know what it’s like.”
“For Hawaiians, Hawaiian food is not a delicacy. It’s a necessity.”
Denise Clifton is the mobile development specialist for The Seattle Times newsroom. Contact her at email@example.com