Recipe: 21st Century Rumaki The peculiar combination of chicken liver and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon was once the quintessential element of every mainland luau...

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Not long ago, for reasons I cannot explain, I was stricken with an urge to make rumaki. The peculiar combination of chicken liver and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon was once the quintessential element of every mainland luau, and every faux Hawaiian pupu platter. Then I went to visit my father in Florida and, out of the blue, he offered me his copy of “The Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink.” The signed first edition of the 1946 classic was a souvenir from Pop’s Navy days, something he picked up on shore leave in Oakland in 1948. This was the affirmation I needed. I was definitely going to make the rumaki.

“Trader Vic himself signed it,” explained Pop. “It was the first time I ever had a book signed by the author. I think you should have it.” I thought so, too. And as soon as Pop gave me the book, I flipped immediately to the index, sure I would find “rumaki,” but it wasn’t there.

Vic, also known as Victor Jules Bergeron, is often credited with the invention of this distinctive appetizer. He was the proprietor of a hangout in Berkeley originally known as Hinky Dinks. Chock full of Polynesian paraphernalia, the restaurant waxed by the 1960s into a chain of 20-plus Trader Vic’s restaurants in North America, Europe and Asia. Then as tiki mania waned in the 1980s and ’90s, some of the restaurants were shuttered, including one at Seattle’s Westin Hotel, which closed its carved wooden doors in 1991. In recent years, though, nostalgia for all things faux-Polynesian has prompted a resurgence of Trader Vic’s restaurants opening or reopening in cities from Dallas to Dubai. Among the new generation is one in Bellevue’s Lincoln Square, which opened in March 2006.

A few months after he gave me the book, Pop was coming to Seattle for a visit, and even though the book did not contain the recipe I thought it would be fun to shake up some mai tais and make that rumaki. My local grocery stocks excellent chicken livers from organically raised chickens, and I had a stash of great bacon from Hempler’s Meat and Sausage in Bellingham. I had never worked with fresh water chestnuts, but I knew that canned wouldn’t do. So I made a pilgrimage to Viet Wah Super Market, the Asian grocery on South Jackson Street in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood.

A Chinese water chestnut is a “corm” found at the base of the stem of a water-loving sedge plant. The corm, which acts as a reproductive structure, is often mistakenly called a bulb, but the interior structure of a corm is not layered like a bulb; it’s starchy like a tuber.

“These are very good,” promised the woman at Viet Wah. The bag contained several dozen wooden-looking beads, each one roughly the size of a walnut. “You cook them in stir fries, nice and crunchy, really delicious.”

With the exotic corms safely in hand, I was good to go. But without a recipe, I had to wing it. I pared the water chestnuts, marinated some chicken livers in soy sauce spiked with sherry, brown sugar and ginger, wrapped everything in partly cooked bacon and held them fast with bamboo picks. Then I dispatched them to the oven where the bacon crisped and the livers grew firm. The water chestnuts themselves were sweet and crunchy, not unlike jicama. The marinated livers were tender and meaty and the bacon was . . . well, it was bacon. The tidbits were indescribably delicious.

Not long after my father and I enjoyed rumaki in Seattle, I went to visit my son in Ohio, where he is enrolled at Oberlin College. During the visit, we went into a used bookstore, and there I came across a copy of “Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook,” a colorful 1968 sequel to the book my father gave me. I flipped to the index, and sure enough there was a formula for rumaki. Considerably more complicated than my improvised version, it lists garlic and bay leaves, star anise and cinnamon sticks, and the cooking process is more demanding, too. Forget it. I’m sticking with my own improvised version. And as for the mai tais, you can keep those, too. Pop suggested we pour Scotch instead. The man’s a genius.

Greg Atkinson is author of “West Coast Cooking.” He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

Recipe: 21st Century Rumaki

Makes 24 bite-sized appetizers

A streamlined version of the mid-century pupu-platter staple, this version relies on fresh water chestnuts instead of canned. Put away the rum and serve these puppies with scotch on the rocks.

For the marinade

¼ cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root

1 teaspoon brown sugar

For the rumaki

12 ounces chicken livers

12 slices bacon, halved crosswise

24 whole fresh water chestnuts, peeled

1. Combine soy sauce, sherry, ginger and sugar in a small bowl. Trim the chicken livers of any sinews and cut them into 24 half-ounce pieces. Put the chicken livers in the marinade and refrigerate for half an hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Spread the cut bacon on a baking sheet and cook until the bacon is translucent and sizzling, but not yet crisp, about 7 minutes. Take the bacon out of the oven and drain the pieces on a cooling rack set over a brown paper bag or paper towels to absorb the dripping fat.

3. Assemble the hors d’oeuvres. Distribute the marinated liver pieces and the peeled chestnuts evenly between the half-strips of partly cooked bacon and, working with one piece at a time, wrap the bacon strips around the livers and chestnuts, securing each bundle with a toothpick.

4. Place the rumaki on a broiler pan and bake on the upper rack of the oven until the bacon is crisp, about 5 minutes. Serve hot.

Greg Atkinson, 2007