Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Temple of Chop Suey

Back in the day, before the 1960s, when a new influx of Chinese and other Asian immigrants arrived in Hawaii — and pretty much transformed the local dining experience — there was chop suey. This was essentially an invention of the early Chinese settlers who opened restaurants featuring the dishes of their home provinces, adjusted to the tastes and resources of their host communities.

In the case of Hawaii, this generally meant rural Cantonese food from the Chung Shan District (Zhongshan County) in Guandong Province — Zhongshan people constituting the majority of the plantation workers and traders who came to Hawaii in the nineteenth century. Pre-war examples of some of their dishes were frog leg noodles, duck leg noodles, lobster noodles, and cake noodles.

The high altar of this unique local cuisine was undoubtedly Wo Fat Chop Sui Restaurant, the temple-like structure at the corner of Hotel and Maunakea Streets in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Even its interior, a forest of massive red pillars, contributed to the feeling of a joss house, where the dining ritual was reinforced by the sacramental chaser — the shot of whiskey you drank between courses (you brought your own bottle though the restaurant provided the glasses).

A look at the menu for their seven- or nine-course banquets reveals concoctions that became standard fare at Hawaiian-Chinese restaurants: lemon chicken or crispy skin chicken, red-dyed roast pork, and taro duck. It was haute chop suey — and in this post-dim sum age, it’s fast becoming an endangered cuisine.

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June 15, 2010 at 2:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Legend has it that the bar in the Wo Fat, if it actually had one, was the setting in the James Jones novel and film From Here to Eternity where a drunken Frank Sinatra plays craps with a couple of olives. It actually was a favorite hangout for GIs when Hotel Street was a notorious red-light district during WWII. So sad to see its demise.

March 22, 2018 at 6:05 AM  

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