Mele Kalikimaka

When I was a kid growing up in Hawaii, Christmas was always depicted with Santa on a surfboard. I mean, what would you expect, living on a tropical island? Doesn’t make sense for him to come down a chimney, riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer, does it? Christmas in Hawaii is definitely a unique experience, with its own flavor and culture unlike anything on the Mainland. And as a kid, I never wondered how Santa was able to deliver our toys on a surfboard—I only cared that I got them.

Christmas was introduced to the Hawaiians back in the early 1800s when Protestant missionaries first came to the islands. Prior to this the Hawaiian religion celebrated Makahiki, which was a time of thanksgiving, and all warfare was forbidden while communal bonds were renewed. Eventually King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma of Hawaii declared Christmas an official holiday in 1862.

Mele Kalikimaka means “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian (roughly translated). It’s not as difficult to pronounce as it looks, BTW—just say “Meh-leh Kah-li-ki-mah-kah” and flash the “shaka” sign and grin! There are 2 songs that say Mele Kalikimaka that I know of; the original is by Bing Crosby from the 1940s and the other one is a more updated version by the Beach Boys. Maybe you’ve heard these before?

What’s for dinner at Christmas? My guess is that most of America has ham or turkey during the holidays, or maybe roast beef. Being Japanese-American, someone would always bring sushi because that’s what you eat on special occasions. But there would be Kalua Pig too, just because— who doesn’t like roast pork, Hawaiian style? If you go to any luau in Hawaii, you’ll be able to see how they roast a whole pig and bury it an underground oven called an imu. As a tourist attraction it’s pretty spectacular to see the entire pig being hoisted out of the ground, but luckily by the time it hits your plate it basically looks like shredded pork. My wife’s family, from her Hawaiian side in Maui, really did have a pit in their backyard where they did this every year.

Poinsettias, which start blooming all over the place in pots during Christmas, are indigenous to Mexico and Central America. But they grow wild in Hawaii, where you can see them changing colors to their brilliant red on the hillsides. The tropical latitude makes for ideal conditions for Poinsettias, which can grow up to 12ft. and can be spotted everywhere, in backyards and along local roads. As winter comes in Hawaii, the shorter days cause the Pointsettia leaves to turn Ferrari Red, and everyone knows Christmas is coming. Be honest, when you see Pointsettias in pots it’s no big deal, but if you saw them like this, wow!

Let’s get back to Santa on a surfboard. Only in Hawaii can you get an ethnic looking Santa for a picture, right? Here’s my son at 19 months old, when we took a Santa picture at a mall in Honolulu. We’ve taken pictures every year since my kids were born, and we still make them take Santa pictures even today. My son is now in college and 20 years old, but he’s a good sport about it. This is my favorite though—with the local Santa who just got back from the beach.

Happy Holidays!


Photo credits: Ornament by Dave Dugdale Blocks by Daniel Ramirez Imu by DuffelBlog Kalua Pork by Daniel Lane


The Taste Test

With the holidays coming up, we’re all going to be doing a lot of eating, right? I got to thinking how we’re going to taste all this food that we’re going to consume. Have you ever thought about the science behind our taste buds? Did you know that the “tongue map” that shows how different parts of your tongue taste sweet, sour, bitter, and salty is completely wrong, and that it was debunked by scientific research in 1974? Since that tongue diagram has been around since 1901, I guess we were pretty gullible about our tongues for a long time.

The truth is that all parts of our tongue can taste everything, even though certain areas are more sensitive than others, like the sides compared to the middle. The one exception is that the back of the tongue is most sensitve to bitter taste. Why? Apparently this is the body’s defense mechanism so we can taste poisonous or spoiled food and be able to spit it out before we can swallow it! Yes, the human body is awesome!

Even though tasting starts with the tongue, being able to connect the taste with a flavor is also related to our sense of smell. A food’s flavor only happens when it’s combined with your smell—which is why we can’t taste much when we have a cold and our nose is stuffed up. So how do our tongues work? Those little bumps that you have on the surface, called papillae, contain many sensory cells more commonly known as our taste buds. These buds are what sends the signals to our brains that help us identify flavors.

The papillae are concentrated mostly at the tip and at the edges, where the tongue is most sensitive to taste. Most adults have between 2000 and 8000 taste buds in our tongues, but unfortunately we start to lose them as we get older or they shrink, along with their capacity to distinguish flavors. Bummer.

Today there are 5 basic indentifiable tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, which was discovered by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in the early 1900s. Umami has now become common knowledge among the foodies, who like to show that they know such things, but it took a long time for umami to catch on here. Maybe it’s because umami is hard to define. The word savory and brothy is used most to describe the taste—a long lasting aftertaste that leaves a pleasant coating sensation on the tongue.

Recently researchers have been studying even more distinct tastes that can be isolated and identified. New evidence suggests that the tongue probably has the capacity to taste fat, which scientists have described as the sensation you’d get from “eating oxidized oil.” Ugh! Maybe this is a good thing though, like the body’s ability to warn us to stay away from it, like when something bitter might be poisonous. Eventually fat will probably become the 6th taste.

So what’s the sweetest food you’ve ever tasted? How about the sourest, or saltiest, or bitterest?


Sources: Thanks to U.S. National Library of Medicine for the taste facts.
Images: Cat by Dominique, Tongue Diagram courtesy of, 5 Tastes by


How To Eat Plain White Rice

If you’ve been guilty of this, you’ve probably been told not to pour soy sauce on your rice if you visit Japan (yes, it’s bush league). But that doesn’t mean the Japanese eat their rice plain and without flavor. No, the trick is to take a mouthful of salty grilled fish, tangy deep fried pork or whatever tasty dish you have in front of you, then eat your bland white rice. If you think about it, you wouldn’t want your rice to be salty or spicy too, if you’re eating it with another dish.

But what happens if you don’t have enough dishes to eat with your rice? Or if you’re still hungry and all you have left is a bowl of rice? You do what the Japanese do—you look in your refrigerator or cupboard and find the dozens of ways to accompany your rice so that it isn’t so plain anymore. You do not pour soy sauce on it!

So stock up on some of these condiments—you can find them at most Asian grocery stores, so no excuses:

TsukemonoOh, if you’re not familiar with the amazing world of Japanese tsukemono (literally “pickled things”), you’re in for a treat. So many kinds, so many tastes, so good with rice! Just writing this is making my mouth water. I can’t get into every single kind here, but here’s a list of the most popular types in case you see them at the store. They’re named by the pickling agent that is used to make them:

Shiozuke (salt)

Nukazuke (rice bran)

Kasuzuke (sake)

Shoyuzuke (soy sauce)

Suzuke (vinegar)

Misozuke (miso)

You’ll find a variety of vegetables used to make tsukemono in all its forms, like cucumbers, eggplants, Chinese cabbage, daikon radish, carrots, turnip greens, ginger, scallions, etc. At Japanese restaurants, they’re usually served in their own little dish off to the side. Don’t ignore it next time—try it with some rice; it’s very addicting.

A lot of families pickle their own at home, which is very easy to do these days. All you need is a large earthenware pot, a heavy stone or concrete block, and a cool storage area or backyard to bury it underground. Just kidding! My grandmother used to do it that way, but you can just buy a spring-loaded pickling press and do it on your kitchen counter. These specialized Japanese kitchen gadgets an be found at most Asian markets.

FurikakeAffectionately known as “rice sprinkles”, the best part of this dry seasoning is that unlike tsukemono, you don’t have to refrigerate it and it has a good shelf life. They come in packets or jars, in multi-colored, multi-flavored varities, and it can be used as a topping on rice, vegetables or fish. Depending on the ingredients used inside the mix, furikake can taste like fish, eggs, sour plum, seaweed, spicy wasabi, or even teriyaki. This is a great way to eat leftover rice or as seasoning on bento rice (makes it look good too). My favorite way of using furikake is to mix it in hot rice and to roll it into rice balls (onigiri).

If you go looking for furikake, be sure to see what kind of ingredients are in it, so you’ll know whether it’s going to make your rice salty, sweet or sour. The seaweed,shrimp and egg varieties tend to be milder and have a slight sweet/aromatic flavor. Most of them fall into the salty range and many are quite deep with umami when sprinkled on hot white rice. If they have bits of dried plum bits (umeboshi) you can taste the tangy sourness mixed in. And if you’re not good with spicy, make sure it doesn’t contain wasabi or kimchi flakes—but if you like spicy, I think they really dress up your rice!

Here’s a handy chart put out by Asian Food Grocer, an online supplier. You can also find furikake at most Asian supermarkets.


The type of seaweed (nori) than you see on sushi doesn’t have any flavor added to its already rich umami, but there are flavored kinds (ajitsuke nori) that you can eat with white rice that are excellent during meals. You may have seen them as a common add-on at a typical Japanese style breakfast. They’re usually seasoned with a teriyaki tasting sweetness, and come in narrow sheets—packed in cellophane packaging to preserve crispness. If you want to eat this with your rice properly, practice your chopstick skills, because you’re supposed to wrap the sheet around a mouthful of rice like a small sushi roll and pop it into your mouth.I prefer tsukudani nori, which is more of a paste made with seaweed and strongly flavored with soy sauce. It’s not the most appetizing of looks for seaweed, but trust me, on hot white rice it’s so good! But use carefully because it is salty. And kids love it—I would slather this on my rice.

UmeboshiAnd of course, the classic way to eat white rice is a patriotic one for the Japanese. The mighty sour plum, known as umeboshi, is what decorates the center of a bed of plain rice when you make the traditional “Hi-no-maru Bento”. The traditional hinomaru is named after the Japanese national flag because it resembles it—a red dot on a field of white. Many years ago I remember seeing a comedy on Japanese TV, in which a penniless bachelor would make his umeboshi last by only having one piece for his dinner. He would hang it by a string in front of him and stare at it until the sourness of it made his mouth pucker so he could eat his rice and imagine the flavor. After his meal, he untied the umeboshi and put it away for next time! LOL!

Seriously though, umeboshi is very popular in Japan because they’re also thought to have health properties as a digestive aid, as a prevention against nausea and hangovers, and to help combat fatigue. So good on a bowl of rice, or stuff one into a rice ball (but watch out for the pit)!

And if you get desperate and there’s nothing in the house…Take an egg out of the refrigerator, beat it until scrambled, and add a generous amount of soy sauce to it. Pour the raw egg mixture over very hot rice and stir it up until the egg half cooks or gets frothy. Or drop the egg on the rice first, and pour the soy sauce over it before mixing. This is called Tamago Kake Gohan (egg on rice) and was my father’s favorite way to end his dinners. Don’t let the raw egg scare you—this is good stuff! And it’s the only way you get to pour soy sauce on your rice…


photo credits: Tsukemono by, Hinomaru Bento by PamandJapan, Furikake Chart by Asian Food Grocer, Wrapping Nori by Gigazine, Tamago Kake Gohan by JP Info, and all other images by Bert Tanimoto.

Boiling Water is a Science

If you’re one of those people who are ashamed to admit that you’re “such a bad cook, you can’t even boil water,” you shouldn’t feel so bad. Boiling water is more complicated than you may think. First of all, did you know there are 4 degrees of boiling water that are commonly found in recipes—SIMMER, SLOW BOIL, FULL BOIL and ROLLING BOIL. And let me preface that by saying the differences are kinda minute, so they may very well blend into each other. On the other hand, Chinese tea aficionados have an additional stage and have 5 degrees of boiling—all the better to be more precise, when you’re fussy about brewing your tea.

Boiling is boiling, you say? Ah, not so fast, grasshopper! The longer you boil, the hotter the water—the hotter the water, the more your food cooks, and the more it cooks, the more it changes; in texture, in flavor, and even in chemical makeup. This explains why controlling the boil is critical in cooking, and why recipes are specific to what kind of boiling water should be used. When it comes to tea, the leaves are delicate. Water that is too hot will scorch it, and you won’t be getting the full, true flavor of the tea. So if you’re a true tea drinker, either master the Chinese way of boiling water, or get a water boiler like the kind Zojirushi makes, and you’ll never have to worry. More on that later…

The Simmer

As in a “simmering feud”, at this stage, tiny bubbles have formed at the bottom of your pot, but they aren’t really large enough yet to rise to the top and break the surface of the water. Temperature is roughly 140°F to 170°F at this point, which makes it ideal for gently poaching meats, fish and eggs—keeping them tender and delicately preventing any harsh movement that could cause them to break apart in the pot.

The Slow Boil

AKA the “lazy boil”, the water agitation is kept to a minimum and bubbles are rising and popping but kind of in isolated areas on the surface. The temperature is roughly 170°F to 195°F, usually the range used to make soup stock or slow-cooking stews. When meats are added to the stock, the lower temperature keeps the proteins from emulsifying into the liquid, keeping the stock clear—the created scum simply settles to the bottom of the pot.

The Full Boil

Now we’re at close to the boiling point, which is 195°F to 212°F; smaller bubbles are breaking over the surface everywhere and there’s all kinds of constant action. This kind of boil is best used for reducing sauces, which is a controlled way of evaporating the liquid in an open pot in order to thicken and intensify the flavor. The steam is also good for cooking tender vegetables in a basket placed above the boiling water.

The Rolling Boil

At the max temperature of 212°F, the water cannot get any hotter than this. Large bubbles are violently breaking over the surface and you’re in full agitation mode—so many bubbles that you can no longer cause any kind of break in the action by stirring. But because the heat is highest and constant now, the rolling boil is perfect for blanching vegetables or cooking pasta.

With blanching, vegetables like asparagus or broccoli are scalded for a couple of minutes, then quickly removed and dropped into ice water. The sudden temp change shocks and stops the cooking process—preserving the color, flavor and texture. It also cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, and helps to slow the loss of vitamins.

Boiling pasta at this temperature has a couple of benefits. Al dente pasta usually requires a precise cooking time. Since the water is already at its highest, any drop in temperature when you put the pasta in, is minimal and won’t affect the cooking time—so you can be accurate. Plus the extreme agitation helps to keep the pasta from sticking together.

Tea Temp Talk

My Zojirushi Water Boiler has 4 temp settings that allow me to choose the best hot water for my tea. We drink a lot of Japanese tea around my house, so having one of these has become indispensable. To be honest, I’m probably not as critical about my water temperature as I could be, but the kids need it to be hot enough for the occasional cup of instant noodles—and you don’t need to be picky about that. I use it for instant oatmeal sometimes too.

It’s interesting to hear how some older generation Chinese measured their boiling water by describing the bubbles and the water with colorful phrases. From simmer to boil, the bubbles grow from “Shrimp Eyes” to “Crab Eyes” to “Fish Eyes”. Then the action in the water starts to look like a “Rope of Pearls”, until finally the churning and swirling is like a “Raging Torrent”. So there you go—5 degrees of boiling water. I love those descriptions!

If you want to get more precise with your hot water and brewing your tea, you can read about it here on the Zojirushi site.



credits: Chinese tea brewing knowledge by Golden Moon Tea blog
“Boiling water” by Ervins Strauhmanis is licensed under cc by 2.0
all other images by Bert Tanimoto




Pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled, just don’t get confused by the apostrophes (they’re meant to help). Ho-oh-la-oo-lay-ah is a Hawaiian festival that celebrates the culture, the dance, and its food. If you ever want to feel like a kama’aina (local native), go out to a ho’olaule’a and stuff yourself with da kine ono grindz. Luckily for me, there’s a pretty large festival near my area that’s been going strong for 39 years! Our family would participate in this festival awhile back, when my daughter used to dance the hula on stage at this event. She doesn’t anymore, but recently we decided to go to the park to check it out again. Perfect for a hot summer day!

Like most festivals, the longest lines are the ones at the food booths—and local food is “da bess kine”. Manapua (stuffed bread dumplings), teriyaki, shave ice, Kalua Pork (shredded roast pork), spam musubi, and more! And what kind of fair would it be without meat on a stick? At the Hawaiian kine fair, it’s Korean Kalbi (short ribs) on a stick. We sat on the grass and ate our plate lunches while we watched the dancers perform on stage.

This is a 2-day weekend festival that takes place in the city of Gardena, California; today being the second day, it wasn’t as busy as the first—but still a good crowd came out to watch the festivities. Many halaus (hula dance studios) come from all over to perform here, so it’s a pretty big deal for all us expatriates living on the mainland.

Everyone’s favorite is always the fast moving Tahitian dance, which gets the crowd going with its hyper drum beat and shaking grass skirts. But the beauty of the much slower Hawaiian hula is that the graceful movements of the dance transcends age, and can make anyone look like poetry in motion. Dancers visually tell stories with the movement of their hands as they sweep across the stage, set to the lyrical, falsetto vocals of the music. I mean, talk about stress relief—just watch hula for an hour and chill, man!

At the booths you can buy almost anything that has to do with island culture. Pictured here are (from upper left clockwise) Uli Uli, the feathered gourd rattles used in dancing, and Poi Balls, the string tethered balls also used by dancers as they skillfully whip them around like yo-yos. The giant Gourds are rapped and pounded in rhythm to Hawaiian chants, and you can also see Plumeria stalks—another popular item that people buy to start their own trees at home. Handcrafted jewelry is always in demand—the rings are a traditional Hawaiian design, while plumeria shaped earrings never seem to go out of style. Hawaiian print lunch bags are one of my favorites—I always get a new one every year because I bring my own bento to work and it’s way better than a brown paper bag.

Most of the decorative garlands, wreaths, necklaces, hair ornaments, and ankle & wrist bracelets that you see on the dancers are made by hand with natural materials like flowers and leaves, as was crafted by the ancient Hawaiians. Here’s an award-winning lei designer displaying her skill. Aren’t the flowers beautiful?

That’s my tour of a little bit of Hawaii on the mainland, for a day. If you get hungry for local food, try your hand at all the recipes available everywhere online—they’re really not that complicated. Zojirushi also has a few on their recipe page that are traditional favorites. Jump to their Loco Moco, Spam Musubi and Butter Mochi pages and let me know how you like them!


All photos by Bert Tanimoto
Recipe photos by Zojirushi