Commonly regarded as merely a casual greeting, “Aloha” takes on an entirely different tone when spoken in Hawaii. The Aloha Spirit goes much deeper than surface pleasantries, and isn’t something that can be faked. It has to do with honesty, patience, and sharing, just for starters, which is why I can think of no company more aptly named than Aloha Tofu. Churning out soybean curds since 1950, the operation has always been a family business, focused on using high-quality ingredients while keeping the process as simple as possible. No added preservatives mean that none of the products are exported, meaning that they will always be solely local treasures. Luckily, these gems are easy to plunder, found in any grocery store worth its square footage on the island and of course, directly from their factory in Kalihi.
That’s where I met up with some of the most stunningly kind tofu-tamers imaginable. Although I happened to pick the one weekday where no production was actively taking place, they generously showed me around the storage room and gave me a good lay of the land. After refusing to take my money, I was loaded up with an embarrassment of soybean riches and sent back on my merry way.
Don’t let the brand name fool you- They make much more than just bean curd cakes in that unassuming downtown factory. In addition to okara, soymilk, and konnyaku, their natto could be considered something of a game changer, since almost all commercial varieties are frustratingly pre-seasoned with bonito dashi. Long ago I had given up on enjoying this admittedly polarizing pleasure, but Aloha Tofu’s delightfully slimy little number is 100% vegan, through and through. For the uninitiated, it’s generally a love or hate experience, with little space for ambiguity, although one of the best ways to ease into natto appreciation is with the aid of piping hot miso soup. The warm broth helps dissolve the stringy stickiness, while the miso paste pairs harmoniously with the funky, fermented whole soybean flavor. Even if you’ve found it hard to swallow before, a better brand can make all the difference in the world.
The classic dish recommended by the tofu masters themselves, however, is tofu poke. Their rendition adheres very closely to the traditional fish-based formula, substituting fried tofu cubes for the raw fish; a move that should appease those who can appreciate tofu well enough, but not so much that they care to eat it raw. The finished dish is sold in their brand new eatery, but since I didn’t have a chance to scope out that scene as well, I’m grateful that the full recipe is published on their website. No strings attached, no gimmicks or marketing ploys; just the desire to share their tofu and new ways to enjoy it. Now that’s the Aloha Spirit in action.
Recipe Ever So Slightly Adapted from Aloha Tofu
1 (12-Ounce Package) Deep Fried Tofu, Cut into Bite-Sized Cubes
1 Tomato, Diced
1/4 Cup Coarsely Chopped Ogo Limu*
1 – 2 Scallions, Chopped
1/4 Cup Low Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
2 Teaspoons Toasted Sesame Seeds
1 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
Pinch Crushed Red Pepper Flakes, to Taste
*Substitute with cooked hijiki if unavailable.
Like some of the best dishes, this one couldn’t be simpler to prepare. There’s no big secret here; simply toss the tofu, all of the chopped vegetables, and seasonings together in a large bowl to thoroughly distribute all of the ingredients and coat them with the marinade. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving, or up to a day. Enjoy cold.
Makes 4 – 6 Side Dish Servings
There’s no such thing as a free meal, and that particular turn of phrase has never been more true in the metropolis of Honolulu. Demand for quality food is high but resources are considerably limited, to say the least, which can create a deleterious financial drain on anyone fond of eating out. It’s the price for paradise; always worth the cost, but difficult to sustain. That said, prime deals can be found, even within vegan parameters, for those willing to hunt.
Strapped for cash and in need of a seriously hearty bowl of sustenance? Look no further than Zippy’s local favorite for almost 50 years. Believe it or not, this classic plate lunch joint offers one of the best values for a satisfying vegan meal on the island. Their Vegetarian Chili happens to be vegan, and you can order it with brown rice for a mere $5.70 plus tax. In Hawaiian currency, this makes the dish practically free, as I figure it. Warm and comforting,you’ll want to hit up the bottle of Tabasco sauce generously provided on each table if you’re seeking anything resembling spice, but the baseline stew is thereby agreeable to all palates. Shake things up by getting your chili over fries or spaghetti instead, and ask for chopped onions on top if that’s your thing. Boca burgers and house-made tofu burgers are also available, although bear in mind that everything is cooked on the same grill. There are nearly two dozen Zippy’s locations throughout Hawaii, so it’s an excellent fallback option in times of need.
Known for the absurdly long lines almost as much as the food itself, Marukame Udon is a bit of an overcrowded sensation out in Waikiki. Thankfully, a second branch recently opened up downtown in the Fort Street Mall, boasting far fewer crowds (especially after the lunchtime rush) and an updated menu. This revision has brought in the one and only vegan main dish, but it’s a real winner that won’t leave you wanting more. The Vegetable Udon Salad, ringing up at $4.70 plus tax, consists of cold udon noodles, cooked to chewy, toothsome perfection, accompanied by avocado and a basic battery of raw vegetables. The sesame-based sauce pulls everything together in a rich, creamy combination, but a splash of soy sauce on top sure doesn’t hurt. Don’t forget to grab some complimentary sheets of nori to seal the deal. Vegan inari sushi and onigiri are also available a la cart, but neither are particularly exciting or necessary. This simple meal is more than filling on its own.
A bit more off the beaten path in the depths of Chinatown, Royal Kitchen looks like the most unpromising little hole in the wall for finding anything remotely vegan. Suspend disbelief long enough to poke inside, and you just may be pleasantly surprised. Standard American-Chinese takeout fare share space in the steam table with more authentic dim sum, available for takeout only. Look further and scope out the trays of baked manapua, soft and fluffy buns stuffed with a wide array of vegetables, and traditionally, meats. Fear not- The Veggie Manapua happens to be free of all animal products, featuring a blend of cabbage, onions, carrots, and mushrooms instead. Incredibly, each sizable bun is only $1.40 each, no tax, so you should have plenty of spare change to indulge in dessert while you’re there, too. Choose from the Coconut, Sweet Potato, or Black Sugar Manapua for a sweet treat, easy to eat on the go. My favorite of the three was the Black Sugar variety, which turned out to be a sweetened bean paste filling not unlike adzuki paste.
These three suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hidden culinary treasures. Honolulu is not a cheap city to live in or visit, but the prices needn’t become a barrier to enjoying great local eats, vegan and all.
Kamaka Ukelele Factory
550 South Street
Honolulu, HI 96813
Free tours every Tuesday – Friday at 10:30 am, led by Uncle Fred himself. It’s a piece of history not included in any of the guidebooks, but if you’re in town, it would be a shame to pass this opportunity by.
When it comes to food, little luxuries are not necessarily about overindulgence or decadence so much as they are small gifts you give yourself; modest treats to look forward to on an average day. Especially in the lean days of early January, it’s important to maintain these simple pleasures while everyone else seems to demand austerity, as if trying to atone for their holiday dietary sins. Luckily, it’s not difficult to reward yourself with something both sweet and healthy at the same time! Looking to the tropics for inspiration, a charming new juice shop in Honolulu offers papaya, re-imagined as a breakfast dish dressed beautifully enough to pass for dessert.
It’s far from a complex concept, but at The Salted Lemon, they’ve perfected the art of building an unsinkable papaya boat. Local orange and pink-hued fruits, more brilliant than a sunrise in paradise, are hollowed out and stuffed to the brim with granola, yogurt, banana slices, blueberries, and finished with a light shower of chia seeds on top. The contrast between creamy yogurt and crunchy cereal, flavored with the ripe and juicy fresh fruits, is so simple yet so satisfying. Eating this assembly is a rich experience that carries none of the guilt one might assign to traditional excess. Though the original is not vegan, the staff was more than willing to try something new, making use of my favorite almond-based yogurt once I snagged a cup at a nearby grocery store.
Lest you think that papaya boats are only the stuff of fancy cafes and languorous tropical vacations, just take a gander at the short and sweet formula below. They are effortless to whip up on any typical morning, no special occasion required, and no pretense need apply. All varieties of berries or cut fruits could be considered as welcome additions, so don’t be afraid to shake up the routine and experiment with new toppers.
While anything goes when it comes to vegan yogurt options, there’s no better brand to turn to than So Delicious, offering cultured coconut and almond bases, each boasting a full spectrum of enticing flavors. These prime alternatives make it a breeze to live dairy-free, which is why I wanted to share an equally easy concept as part of their 21-Day Dairy Free Challenge. Consider this your first step towards sweet, creamy satisfaction, and then join in on the initiative for even greater rewards!
1 Medium Hawaiian Papaya, Peeled and Seeded
1 Cup Granola, Homemade or Store-Bought
1 6-Ounce Container Vanilla So Delicious Almond or Coconut Yogurt
1 Medium Banana, Sliced
1/2 Cup Fresh Blueberries
1 Tablespoon Chia Seeds
Agave or Maple Syrup, to Taste (Optional)
Divide a 1/2 cup of the granola between two plates to set up a “foundation” for your papaya boat to rest on. This will help prevent it from capsizing when you eat it, and it also adds a nice additional layer of crunchy cereal to enjoy.
Place the remaining granola inside the papaya halves (1/4 cup inside of each) and top that with the yogurt, spooning equal amounts into the two boats. Arrange the sliced banana and blueberries as desired, and top with a sprinkle of chia seeds over the whole assembly. Finish with a light drizzle of syrup if desired, but with properly ripened, seasonal fruit, it should be plenty sweet enough without.
Serve immediately and enjoy!
Makes 2 Servings