Healthy, cheap and fast food has ‘Mana’
Across from Washington Intermediate School is a little gem of a takeout spot, Mana Bu's.
Inside, you'll find 30 kinds of musubis offered daily, as well as nutritious prepared vegetables -- at no bigger than 3 or 4 ounces a serving -- ready to go. If you've ever complained about being unable to eat healthfully because there are no fast and inexpensive outlets, consider your prayers answered.
We're talking $1.20 to $1.50 for musubi, and about $1.50 for the vegetable dishes.
In coming up with prices, owner Manabu Asaoka said he thought about his desires as a consumer and what he wants to pay for food. Asaoka's background in Japan was in the insurance business and he moved to Hawaii with a idea of starting his own business doing something he loves. He initially came as a tourist, and was shocked by the heavy fat- and salt-laden food consumed here.
At Hawaii Pacific University, he wrote his thesis about Hawaii's food, based on about 30 interviews with tourists from Japan. "Most said they were not satisfied with Hawaii's eating environment. Food is not tasty, only expensive. There is no easy access to healthy food. It's very challenging to make veggie okazu, but I believe I can do that."
Although Japanese restaurants are abundant in town, anyone growing up here would have a skewed view of a Japanese diet. It is either Japanese as shaped by more than 100 years of mixing and mingling with other local cultures, or largely upscale izakaya dining rich with steak and premium seafood.
"The average Japanese person in Japan does not eat like that," Asaoka said. They eat veggie okazu, and I wondered why nobody serves veggie okazu in Hawaii. I now realize it's not easy to do, and if we wanted veggie okazu we would have to do it by ourselves," he said, now working with his wife, a nutritionist.
WHAT you'll find here is food that seems to conform to the principles of a macrobiotic diet, rich with brown rice, vegetables and soy proteins, but Asaoka said that was not his goal.
"I would just like local customers to have easy access to healthy food," he said.
The name of his little take-out shop is a play on his own name, which coincidentally means "energy" or "power," but he also liked the Hawaiian meaning of "mana," which has a more spiritual element linked to a life force. Food possessed of mana nourishes body and soul, which I appreciate when so much of the food placed in front of us is processed and devoid of its original life force.
You will find simple triangular musubi of nutty, crunchy brown rice flecked with konbu ($1.50), or teri Spam musubi ($1.20) with about a sixth of the Spam of the typical local musubi. Meats such as the Spam or salmon are tucked into the musubi's center.
The precise, individually wrapped pieces look precious lined up in neat rows, treated like designer merchandise instead of grab-and-gulp foodstuff. You will also find palm-sized helpings of steamed vegetables with a light touch that shouldn't diminish their nutrition values: a tofu and broccoli salad with tahini ($1.50), dotted with tender carrots and corn kernels; fresh kabocha ($2); crisp French beans with tahini ($1.20); and soybeans. My favorite is a combination of purple sweet potato, mac nuts and corn.
Should you be worried at all about the contents, all are listed on cards on the racks, whether Best Foods mayonnaise, Kikkoman soy sauce or cane sugar.
Desserts include homemade, fresh-fruit mochi, with apple banana slices ($1.50) or strawberries at their center, and milk-and-gelatin puddings ($2).
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chef Asaoka has more than 30 types for sale on his musubi shelf at Mana Bu's, at 1618 S. King St.
Many will be dismissive of the small portion sizes, which are not practical for big families and would take more research for kids, but they're right-sized for healthful consumption by normal adults. Americans are so skewed by super-sized diets of past decades that few know what a portion should be.
A human being's stomach was only intended to hold 3 or 4 ounces over a short period, which is why dietitians espousing portion control often suggest readjusting one's food rituals to consuming six small meals throughout a day. This is difficult because the concept is undermined by our social constructions, which call for the big breakfast and the big group meal at lunch and dinner time.
If you want a good reason to eat the Mana Bu way, you might consider that researchers have long believed that calorie restriction is the path to longevity. Saint Louis University researchers recently determined that cutting 300 to 500 calories a day from your diet could be the key to slowing the signs of aging and living longer by decreasing production of that thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3), associated with tissue aging.
Those most open to Mana Bu's approach have been women of all ages, who have three different buying styles. The first buys a musubi and vegetable combination for a lunch as low as $3. The second buys several selections for lunch and dinner, spending about $20 at a time. The last group might pick up 10 to 20 musubi for a meeting or picnic.
And all are most surprised by how clean the space is, which surprises Asaoka because cleanliness is a given in Japan.