Saimin: Hawaii in a Bowl

This is an off-topic Saturday post that came to mind as I was eating lunch. I haven't written an off-topic in a while, so I thought today might be the day I write about something that is very close to me: one reason I live where I do.

This is an off-topic Saturday post that came to mind as I was eating lunch. I haven’t written an off-topic in a while, so I thought today might be the day I write about something that is very close to me: one reason I live where I do.

Work/Life Balance

I’ve talked about it before, but when I moved back to Hawaii over 5 years ago, it was with the intent that I was never going to touch a computer again. I was burned out and felt like I wasn’t being a good dad, commuting over 3 hours every day (some days 4) and getting home just in time to read a story to my daughter and kiss her goodnight. That wasn’t living to me.

SaiminI used to work on the Na Pali tour boats (Hanalei Sea tours) just starting captaining before I moved away from Kauai in 1997. I was 29 at the time and I felt like I needed something more - a career and a bigger statement of who I am. Life on an island will do that to you - make you feel isolated and insulated, like you’re not part of the “bigger thing” and I really felt that.

So I moved back to CA and soon after began a full-time career hacking together web sites. Right before I moved, on the last day that I worked at Hanalei Sea Tours, I remember sitting on the bow of one of our 32-foot RHI Zodiacs, watching the surf roll in to Hanalei bay and thinking “This is real. Don’t ever forget this”.

That memory stuck with me, up until the day I told my boss I was on contract and I’d never drive to the office again; that I was now a remote worker. It was 2 months after that when I told him I was leaving the state and I understood if he replaced me, and I headed off to Kauai, knowing full-well that I’d be fired, that I’d probably need to sell my laptop so I could afford to look for a job teaching school over here, and that I’d probably never write a line of code again.

I was ecstatic.

Back To Saimin

Hawaii bit me while I lived here, and I haven’t been able to recover. It’s not simply the beauty of the place, it’s the truth of it all. The bare naked acceptance of who you really are and rejoicing in it (there’s nothing really to distract you from it), and the simplicity of enjoying dinner with friends.

Not many people have heard of Saimin, but they’ve probably had it and don’t know it. It’s a true Hawaiian dish that’s not born of Polynesian cuisine - it’s something much more. Wikipedia has the best explanation I’ve ever seen (emphasis mine):

Saimin is recognized as a traditional state dish in Hawaii, taking into consideration the various historic and cultural significances of its creation. The dish is composed of elements taken from each of the originalsugarcaneandpineappleplantationlaborer ethnicities of the early 20th century:Chinese,Filipino,Japanese,Korean,Hawaiian,Portuguese.As plantation laborers got home to their families in rented plantation lots or shacks, each family would begin cooking dinner. Sometimes, such meals became communal as a means of saving money. Every family would offer an ingredient they were able to spare. The Filipino family might have some extragreen onionsgrowing in their yard, the Portuguese family might have leftover sausage, the Hawaiian family’s chickens might have laid a couple extra eggs, the Korean family might havebok choyunused from makingkimchi. They would all throw their ingredients into the pot and share.

It was through these communal meals that theHawaiian Pidginlanguage evolved so they could all understand one another, borrowing words and phrases from each others’ language and piecing them together. In some ways, saimin gave birth to Hawaii’s becoming well known as a haven of multicultural harmony today.

I can’t think of many dishes that have such amazing historical context. A dialect derived over food. Awesome. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii you’ll know that the Hawaiians take food quite seriously, and eating together is quite literally the fabric of their society. A bit of trivia that many may not know is  that the biggest subject of Hawaiian music is food. Exponentially so.

Relationships are equated by what food you serve, and when you “talk story” (or “Wala’au”) with the locals, it quickly turns to fishing, then how they prepared the fish for the family.

The Calabash

One of the terms I had to get used to when I first lived here was “Calabash Cousin”. It’s a neat term that basically means “good friend of the family” - but it’s really a lot more than that.

There’s not much to do here except eat, sleep, go to the beach, go to someone’s house for dinner, rinse, repeat. As I mention above, eating together is a major component of friendships and “Ohana” (extended family) and you quickly develop a circle of friends that like to “eat with you”. calabash_pot

This is really an interesting thing in that these aren’t friendships based on work or proximity (living down the street) - these are friendships between families that like to spend their free time eating together. May sound weird - but there’s something sort of special about that. We spend most of our Saturday nights with a core group of families that head to the beach and let the kids play while the families throw together whatever we’ve brought with us. In the old days they used a big pot called a “Calabash” and made a big soup from it (usually Saimin, or a variation thereof).

There are quite a few reasons/thoughts/issues that have surfaced over the last few months (some personal, some professional) of why I continue to live here in Hawaii when there is so much opportunity for what I do over on the mainland (especially within Microsoft). Suffice to say that I feel the pull, strongly at times, to pick up shop and follow my ambitions (my wife’s too!).

But then, almost as if on purpose, the simplest of all things - having a bowl of Saimin for instance - reminds me of the truth I felt while sitting on the bow of that boat, 12 years ago and I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes of all time, from one of my favorite movies of all time:

Temet nosce (Know thyself)

I think if you find something that is true to you, true for you, than you know something else about yourself. I’ll avoid the transcendental aspects here and simply say that, for me, sometimes a good bowl of hot soup on a cold day can do that for you.