Remembering the Past

Now that we're into the full summer tilt, there are unmistakable signs of the season.
Predictable unbearably hot summer weather, the return of termite season with their
inevitable swarms on those windless nights and the sound of the taiko from the yagura on
weekends commemorating the start of the Obon season. Though it started as a Buddhist
custom to celebrate with those who have passed before us, this summertime festival now
is attended by Buddhists and non Buddhists alike. But then again, remembering those
have passed before us, especially remembering the sacrifices made for us has no religious,
national or ethnic boundaries. Here in the 50th, we've even crossed the Obon custom of
ending the season with the toro nagashi or lantern festival to help departed souls back by
starting with the toro nagashi on Memorial Day to meld America's day of remembrance
with the traditional Obon season of remembrance. I'm sure my ancestors know where and
when to return since we've been sending them off even before they arrive.

Obon in the Past

Because Mom originally hailed from Wailuku, Maui I spent many a summer vacationing
on Maui. Which means most of the Obon festivals we attended were on the Valley Isle.
As a child I never pondered the meaning or significance of the Obon season, it simply was
another carnival like setting where you could get local style foods. Whereas the 50th
State Fair on Oahu offered the same food that you might find stateside like hotdogs,
burgers and ice cream, Obon season on Maui meant shave ice with ice cream and azuki
beans, chow fun, fresh corn grilled with shoyu and sugar and pickled mango. I fondly
remember consuming loads of chow fun from your standard conical snow cone cup
(heck, a single cup served as food holder for multiple dishes). Of course the season meant
more than just traditional Obon faire. It also meant Nashiwa Bakery cake doughnuts,
Komoda Bakery cream puffs, Noda Market shoyu butterfish and fried noodles, Ooka
Market bentos packed on a styrofoam tray, Takamiya Market poi and okazuya style
prepacked foods and Tasaka guri-guri. Or maybe Tokyo Tei's chicken sukiyaki or Archie's
saimin or Tasty Crust's fried rice or breakfast at Hazels' or Maui Boys or Sam Sato's dry
saimin. Often the food memories simply came from Auntie K's kitchen. Closing my eyes,
I can still smell the heated oil to fry fish that Uncle Ogi caught just hours ago or the
Maui hotdogs with sweet Kula onions and see Auntie line her stovetop with newspaper to
soak the bits of splattered cooking oil. Or maybe it's simply the aroma of molasses from
the Puunene Sugar Mill or the salty goodness of ocean water and limu while picking opae
to use as bait while whipping for papio on the Lahaina and Kaanapali coast.

Food from the Past

My Mom has been making this recipe as long as I can remember - she specifically always
made it for my Uncle To-Shan (my Mom's older brother whom I was named after) as part
of Thanksgiving dinner. He remembered this dish as a family favorite that my Maui Baban
(Maui grandmother) made and apparently my Mom made not just a reasonable facsimile
but an outstanding rendition of it. The only problem was that my Maui Baban never
measured anything (maybe that's where I get it from) and simply cooked by taste, smell
and appearance "use this much" or "until it smells like this" or "until it looks like this".
Therefore my Mom had to come up with the recipe simply from memory since nothing
was written down. Be forewarned that even Mom's version has several options to choose
from and because the chicken is floured, the "sauce" can get quite thick and scorch if
you're not careful watching the liquid level. So making its maiden worldwide appearance,
Maui Baban's and Mom's Konbu Chicken:

Maui Baban's Konbu Chicken

~2 lb chicken thighs or chicken tender (fat, skin, veins removed) cut into halves or thirds
7-12 dried shiitake rehydrated overnight
3 one ounce packages of dried nishime konbu rehydrated in shiitake liquid
4-5 heaping tbsp of flour
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt and black pepper to taste

Lipton Onion Soup Mix with a little water
Knorr chicken bouillon cube to make 2 cups
Knorr Consomme mix to make 2 cups

After the shiitake is rehydrated, remove stems and slice thinly. Rinse excess salt and
"slime" off of the konbu then slice thinly. Place sliced shiitake and konbu in shiitake  
rehydrating liquid, bring to boil then lower to simmer.

Marinate chicken with salt and black pepper or marinate with Lipton Onion Soup Mix
overnight. Coat each piece with flour shaking off excess flour then fry in vegetable until
golden brown. As the chicken pieces brown, place them in shiitake/konbu liquid . If this
mixture begins to dry out, add chicken broth or consommé to maintain moisture level.
Once all the chicken has been browned and added to the shiitake/konbu pot, simmer for
about 1 hour always making sure there is enough liquid in the pot to prevent scorching
(adding chicken broth or consommé). The liquid does thicken due to the flour on the
chicken pieces.

Moving a generation closer, this next recipe is from my Mom (which I'm sure came from
one of the many Hongwanji cookbooks available in Hawaii) but it's become one of my
favorite chicken recipes. A bit mendokusai (humbug) to make but you'll be rewarded by
the taste. Don't even be tempted to substitute the butter for cooking oil - it's NOT the
same. Like going on a date with Salma Hayek versus a date with Salma Hayek's picture.
Something about the marriage of butter, shoyu and konbu... As with most recipes from
the elders, I intentionally didn't include measurements on most of the ingredients except
the sauce. The sauce recipe should cover 4 to 6 chicken thighs. Double or triple the sauce
if you intend on making a pot load. And purchase (and soak) more kanpyo than you
think you'll need. And cut it longer than you think you'll need. Wrapping raw chicken
thighs like a Christmas present is more of a bear than you think and the last thing you
want is a short piece of kanpyo. And kanpyo sticks - even to non-stick surfaces - so once
you lay the chicken "packet" in the pan, move it around gently until the proteins have
congealed. Otherwise the "packet" will self destruct if the kanpyo sticks to the pan and
breaks. Since this recipe probably came from a Hongwanji cookbook, this probably isn't
making its maiden appearance but here's my Mom's version of Konbu Stuffed Chicken:

Gochiso Mom's Konbu Stuffed Chicken

Skinned and boned chicken thighs
Konbu maki

1 tbsp Dashi-no-moto
1/4 cup shoyu
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1/4 cup sake or shochu
1 tbsp cornstarch

Soak konbu maki and kanpyo overnight. Place one piece of konbu maki in center of
flattened chicken thigh then wrap and secure with kanpyo. Mix next 5 ingredients and set
aside. In a non-stick sauté pan or sauce pan, brown the chicken "packets" in butter on
each side carefully moving each piece so that the kanpyo doesn't stick to the bottom of
the pan. When all "packets" have been browned, add the liquid mixture and simmer on
low until the chicken is tender, about 45 minutes. Thicken the sauce with cornstarch
mixed with a little liquid then serve with the sauce poured over the chicken.

Looking Ahead

It's been said that we have to see where we've been to know where we're going. Obon
reinforces this thought making us remember the past and what's been done by
generations before us that makes it possible for to achieve our present and future goals.
I've been blessed by a couple of generations of great cooks that laid a foundation for me
to follow. Hopefully your family will continue on that same tradition. Namu Amida