The luau stew from Heeia Pier

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I am a townie, and grew up as such, though I have scattered memories of long weekend drives in the old white Impala. We ended up one time on an empty beach in Waianae with our dog, Kiko, a short-legged corgi bouncing away from the waves, and another time on a road by a wall of cane, gnawing on lengths of sweet, peeled stalks. And one time, only once, we happened upon a hukilau.

It’s the memory of that that makes me grateful for the short recent chapter in the life of Heeia Kea Pier General Store and Deli, when Mark Noguchi helmed the kitchen and Ricky Goings was his sous. Never in my life have I had such simple food, so local and expertly prepared, that it threw me back to places and times I’d forgotten.

Like that hukilau. Probably the last time I went to Heeia Pier, about a year ago now, Noguchi put in front of us a dish of freshly caught fish seared tataki-style, on crispy fried paiai with sliced grape tomatoes, hoio fiddlehead ferns and limu. We all melted. And tasting together those elemental flavors, for the first time I remembered the hukilau, standing on a beach watching the adults, my parents included, hauling in a heavy, heavy net, realizing we didn’t know anyone there, the air filled with the smells of fish and brine and limu, and then the fish they gave us in the spirit of sharing. Even that small, I understood the significance of community and inclusion, though I didn’t know then that was the last time I would see a hukilau.

There were other dishes, like that, that made me understand Hawaii better. I saw glimpses of old times, brought back with love and framed for me that way. Those ice cakes, florid blue and red and green, that apparently all the other kids bought during recess but that I never realized existed until Noguchi popped one out of its wax paper cup and held out to me. The simple old-fashioned cheeseburger, juicy local beef with the bun grilled, too, and the homemade thousand island.

And this luau stew. There’s not much more I can say about it, except that like the ice cakes, I never knew it existed until I had it at Heeia Pier, and then it was the one thing I had to have every time. When you taste it you’ll know immediately that it’s old school, as Noguchi told me, a recipe from his uncle in Waipio Valley. It’s so easy you can tell it to your aunty over the phone in two minutes.

And it will make you remember … I don’t know what. But I hope it’s something good.

Shinsato Farms Luau Stew

Recipe courtesy of Mark Noguchi

2 lbs luau leaves, stems removed and stemless leaves coarsely chopped
2 lbs Shinsato Farms pork shoulder, cut in 1 1/2″ to 2″ cubes
1 lb yellow onion, sliced thin with the grain
Finger-size knob of fresh ginger, smashed
1 Hawaiian chili pepper, minced (optional)
1 pint water
Salt, to taste
Black pepper and soy, to taste (I left out the chili, black pepper and soy)

Set a large, heavy-bottomed pot on the stove and get it ripping hot. Meanwhile, toss the diced pork in a bowl with about 1 Tbsp of salt.

Add just enough oil to the pot to lightly coat the bottom. When the oil is hot enough to shimmer and give off wisps of steam, add the pork in small batches to avoid overcrowding and brown well. Remove cooked pork, add next batch and continue until all pork is browned.

Pour out most of the rendered pork fat from the pot, leaving just enough to coat the bottom. Add onions and ginger, lower heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are sweet and translucent.

Now layer in luau leaves on top of onion. Add browned pork on top of the luau leaves to weigh them down, add water, cover. Bring heat down to medium low, then very low, and simmer until pork is cooked through. Those sensitive to itching from luau leaves will want to keep it on simmer for 2-3 hours, depending on type of luau leaf.

Finish seasoning with salt, pepper, soy sauce. Add more water if you like your stew thinner. Serve with rice. Makes 4 medium or 3 large servings.

Pairing recommendation: beer