Learning From Musubi

And thinking about tiki

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Learning From Musubi

By Rosamund Lannin

My Honolulu-born hapa father-in-law doesn’t like musubi. He’s not crazy about poke, either. The last time I visited, he pulled off Kamehameha Highway into the parking lot of Kahuku Superette with a bemused smile, watching from the front seat as my husband and I dove into plastic containers of shoyu tuna and rice. Despite not liking two Hawaiian classics, he can get behind regional specialties like plate lunch, haupia, and manapua. Like the snacks he spurns, his culinary opinions have a complex history.

Much like my father-in-law, musubi was born of two cultures. The rice, canned meat, and seaweed treat is the product of American imperialism: Spam was introduced to Hawaii via US military occupation, and quickly made its way into the population’s diet in a big way. Sometime in the second half of the 20th century, Barbara Funamura, a Japanese-American woman from Hawaii, probably invented Spam musubi. (Others lay claim to it as well. It’s eminently possible that more than one person had this great idea.) Today, you can find musubi everywhere from 7-11 to museum cafeterias to the grocery chain Foodland, and its influence is spreading beyond the island, making its mark in trendy restaurants from coast to coast. (In Chicago, you can only find musubi at H Mart and Aloha Eats. I’m still waiting for my local 7-11 to get with the program. I can and will wait for as long as it takes.)

Photo: DAVID

American soldiers weren’t the first invaders to step foot on Hawaiian soil; the history of colonialism runs long and deep. Well before GIs arrived with processed pork, the British sailor James Cook landed on the island of Kauai in 1778. The Hawaiians had a word for Cook and his men: haole. Originally meaning outsider or foreigner, over the centuries haole has come to mean “white person.” 

My husband’s extended family says I’m pretty okay for a haole. I’ll take it. Every time I sink my teeth into a rice patty topped with perfectly grilled Spam and wrapped in nori, I think about approaching a culture through its food. I listen to my father-in-law talk about how he’s not local enough for all the locals, but not quite like anyone on the mainland, either. I read about an islands in the words of Native Hawaiians. I eat more musubi. Even if I still don’t understand my father-in-law’s aversion, I understand him a little more. 🍙 

Related:

Spam with Helen Hong (transcript)

Hawaiian Food with Sarah Kuhn (transcript)

Rice with Sheldon Simeon


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