Once in Hawai'i (as Hawaii is spelled in the native language), I ached to close the gaps in my cultural knowledge by practicing the language, dancing hula, and—most imperatively—filling my stomach. Food has always been one of the easiest ways for me to better understand myself and my bloodline. For decades, it’s helped me connect with my paternal roots in the American South. In that humid, haunted region, taste buds are revered because food isn’t just sustenance; it’s also a repository for memory and culture that transports the eater through time, linking her to a way of life with every spoonful of gumbo, étouffée, or jambalaya.
Similarly, when I was growing up, my mother’s kitchen also helped me feel connected to the islands. With every batch of her kālua pig (slow-cooked, shredded pork) and cabbage, she fed my cultural curiosity. But her home cooking and the occasional Hawaiian restaurant meal barely whetted my appetite for deeper understanding, which grew more ravenous with every passing year. Finally, I was in a position to satiate that hunger.
So began my impromptu Kaua'i food tour—starting in, of all places, the commercial belly of Costco. On a standard mission for groceries, I found that the shelves of this cookie-cutter retailer tempted me with unexpected gems. There were vats of kimchi, batches of pork lau lau (meat wrapped in taro leaves and cooked), and bags of char siu manapua (Chinese-style buns stuffed with roast pork). It was an auspicious beginning.