Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, March 3, 1999

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Chiyoko Ouchi works the line, serving up
a plate for Masako Kalama at Fukuya.

Much Ado About Okazu
By Cynthia Oi


Fear not, okazu-ya lovers. Although some long-established local delicatessens have folded during the years, there appears to be no danger they will become extinct any time soon.

In a time when fusion and Pacific Rim flavors get the buzz and when food design has become equivalent to feats of architectural balance, the plain and simple okazu-yas remain a mainstay of food lovers in Hawaii.

Just stop in at any of the dozens of delis around town.

On a recent morning at Mitsu-Ken on North King Street, a line of 20 people snaked outside the closet-size storefront onto the sidewalk.

Devotees wait patiently for a serving of the garlic chicken, which customers claim is the best in town.

Marelee Callejo, a Waianae native who now lives in Seattle, is one of them.

"I love this place. When I came home on vacation, this is the first place I came," she said. In her one-week stay, she's eaten there twice and will likely be back for another dose before flying back to the mainland.

Across the street, Mitsuba Delicatessen has its loyal grinders, too.

The specialty here is owner Daryll Nakama's potato crumble, a crust of flaky pastry surrounding a purple Okinawan sweet potato filling.

"You gotta come early to get these," said customer Pat, who's been patronizing Mitsuba for 15 years. "By 5 o'clock, all gone."

Nakama has been running Mitsuba for 18 years. He does all the cooking, so he gets to work at 2 a.m. and stays until about 1 p.m. It's a good business, he said, but it isn't easy.

You don't have to tell Barry Tanabe that. Three years after he bought Kaimuki Saimin & Deli, he's hoping to sell the Waialae Avenue operation.

He says the work doesn't leave him any free time. He's tied to the business seven days a week, putting in 15- to 18-hour days.

"I cannot even go fishing," he complained good-naturedly.

Nakama said he wouldn't want his children to take over his place. "It's better if you work regular jobs with eight-hour days and weekends off," he said.

But there are some young people who want to continue the businesses.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Arrison Iwahiro and his fiancee Kristen Watanabe cook
omelets. They'll be taking over Fukuya soon.

Arrison Iwahiro, 30, will be taking over his family's Fukuya delicatessen later this year when his mother, Lorna, retires.

He said that when he was just a teen-ager, he already knew that Fukuya would be his life's work.

"I've been around it from when my grandfather ran this business," he said. "I never planned to go away, go to college. This is what I want to do.

"It's hard work, but when you see people who enjoy our food, people who always come back, that's what keeps you going."

Down in the McCully area, Colleen Kuramoto, 38, the mother of two, is the third member of her family to operate Ebisuya, which was established by her uncle in 1960.

When she was a teen-ager, Kuramoto worked the okazu-ya counter on weekends, so when her cousin asked if she and her husband Todd wanted to take over, her answer was yes.

She understands why younger people would shun the business. It is "tiring, physical labor," she said, but happy eaters are the reward.

"We have some customers who come in every day. The people on the counter -- when they see them coming -- they get their plate ready so by the time they get to the window, their food is ready to go."

Like at Fukuya, a good portion of Ebisuya's business comes from catering funerals, as much as 20 to 30 percent, Kuramoto said.

During his grandfather's days, Iwahiro said, "he did three weddings every Saturday." Now, weddings demand more sophisticated meals, and funerals are the staple of Fukuya's catering.

Times change. However, good food at good prices still sells.

On a recent morning, sitting on the sidewalk between Ebisuya and a new, upscale Euro-Pacific eatery, Irwan and Susan Sie unfolded the paper wrap from their breakfast plates.

They'd come from Mililani to go to a bicycle shop, which hadn't opened yet. Hungry, they shunned the nearby McDonald's for Ebisuya because Irwan had seen lines of people at the counter on previous drive-bys.

"The food is really good," he said, as Susan nodded, her mouth too full to verbalize.

He laments that the modern fast-food industry has taken over Honolulu. "All the small places like this are disappearing," he said. "And it's too bad."

"There's nothing more fun than finding a good, local hole-in-the-wall place."

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Magdalena Corrales cuts seaweed to make nishime.

A day at Fukuya, the food’s in the making well before dawn

When it comes to making sushi, Jill Takayama is on it. She has to be. Takayama is part of the busy team at Fukuya delicatessen, a family business that has spanned three generations and is still going strong.

The day begins at 2:30 in the morning with the firing up of the rice cookers. It ends around 4 in the afternoon with clean-up.

In between, there's chicken to fry, salad to mix, shrimp to devein, kombu to knot, cucumber to slice, potatoes to peel, fish to saute, catering orders to deliver, musubi to mold and customers to serve.

At Fukuya, all of this is done with cooperation, good humor and a quiet efficiency.

Efficiency is Jill.

The delicate crimson line of shrimp flakes she lays across her canvas of white rice is precise. Each time it is the same width, the same length and in the same position. The red tracing precedes the sprinkling of flavored tuna, which is followed in order by yellow shreds of scrambled eggs, strips of kampyo and hot pink kamaboko. Last comes the watercress, green, fresh and crisp.

When she rolls the sushi, there is no hesitation, no fussing. The finished pro-duct is perfectly cylindrical and when she nestles it into a tray, it is indistinguishable from the seven others she's made in the last nine minutes.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Lorna Iwahiro mixes coloring into a batch of mochi. She
and her husband have run Fukuya since the mid-1970s and
soon will turn the business over to their son.

The skill she began learning at 15 (she politely declines to give her age) is one she's constantly honing.

"I'm still improving," she says. "There is intricate stuff you pick up even if you've been doing it for a long time."

Like her sister, Lorna Iwahiro, who runs Fukuya, Jill is modest. She won't tell you that she developed the ingenious template she uses to keep the sushi rice on the nori even, or that she designed a mold to churn out musubi faster.

Words of approval come from Chiyoko Ouchi and Doris Inouye. "She's the best," "she's fast." The words fold over each other so it's unclear who said what. This is typical of conversations with them. After a decade or so on the job, they move and talk in a rhythm to which both are tuned.

Two hours before dawn, Chiyoko and Doris are working the musubi station. Doris presses rice into a mold, turns the triangles onto a board and slides them to her right, where Chiyoko dresses each with nori, furikake or chiso flakes. These varieties, as well as the plain musubi, are lined up 27 to a tray. The two women will make 10 trays "to start with," Chiyoko says.

They will also make 30 to 40 Spam musubi, for a total of 300 musubis -- and they are expecting a slow sales day.


Lorna and her husband Edward took over Fukuya in the mid-'70s from Edward's father, who started it in the 1930s. Lorna will soon pass it on to their son, Arrison. "This place has a long family tradition," she says, her small smile a hint of her pleasure that it will last for at least another generation.

At another stove, Carl Yoshioka works chow mein in a huge wok. In T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap, he will choreograph a series of dishes across the burners.

With large paddles, he tosses noodles and vegetables, bobbing and weaving between columns of steam. He steps away, eyes glued to the pot as if it might disappear. After a few moments, he steps back to the wok, extracts one noodle and pops it into his mouth. Chewing, he deems it good and empties the chow mein into a tray that will go on the steam table.

He flings open the door of an oven, fearlessly stirs a vat of chicken thighs simmering in a rich shoyu sauce, swings the door shut and draws another wok over his favored burner. "Now, the look fun," he says, more to himself than to anyone in the kitchen.


It is 5 a.m. and the aroma of food billows through the kitchen.

Grilled miso fish, hash patties, grilled hot dogs and tempura all appear as if by magic.

Yet the atmosphere is calm. No one is rushing about and it's so quiet the words of the Japanese songs playing over the stereo system echo around the high ceilings.

To the rhythm of the music, Lester Lau dances in, calling good morning to everyone.

"I'm the chicken man," he says. The nickname defines Lau's duties. He trims the fat and back meat off 200 pounds of chicken thighs a day.

After two years of retirement, playing "mah jongg, mah jongg, everyday, everyday," he got a job at Fukuya. That was a year ago, and Lau sees no end to his new career.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
When the morning rush dies down, employees gather
in the kitchen, above, for breakfast.

"Everybody here really friendly and everybody work hard. The time passes so fast."

The door swings open again. It is Arrison and his fiancee, Kristen Watanabe, arriving for work.

"There," Lau says, pointing his knife and smiling. "The new generation to keep the thing going."

At age 30, Arrison looks like a teen-ager, his short hair spiky with gel. He and Kristen don aprons and get cracking.

Soon Arrison has chicken frying in a pressure cooker, checking the work board to see what needs doing, and returns to the stove to heat two pans for omelets.

Kristen is slowly chopping green onions. She quit her office job to join Arrison in the kitchen and admits she's a novice. Still, her bookkeeping and billing skills are valuable to the operation.


It is 5:30 and eager customers -- career women in suits and pantyhose, laborers in T-shirts and denims, students with backpacks -- are waiting outside. Although the okazu-ya doesn't officially open until 6, the doors are unlocked early to accommodate them.

Chiyoko and Doris, name tags pinned to their crisp red aprons, start service. There's no hash-slinging here. Each piece of shrimp, slice of sushi and scoop of salad is respectfully placed in foam take-out containers.

The early morning hours are busy with people picking up lunch before heading to work. Business slows down mid-morning, picks up again around 11 and continues through to noon.

Doris and Chiyoko keep things tidy mind the food supply. When sushi runs low, they tell Magdalena Corrales.

Magdalena recalls without having to think that she began work at Fukuya on "May 2, 1982, exactly."

She had never even eaten sushi. "I come from the Philippines. I don't know how to make the sushi," she says. "My first time, every time I make, the seaweed broke," she laughs at her frustration. "Now any kind I can make."

About 7:30, Carl gathers odds and ends to make breakfast for the staff. In a few minutes, he serves up a massive ham-and-cheese omelet, rice and French toast. Everyone who's not busy pulls up a stools in the kitchen. They use chopsticks, even for the toast.

At 8:30, most of the cooking is done. But there's always tomorrow. The slow day gives the staff a few more hours to wash, peel, chop, slice and mix.

"You prepare for a busy day even when you don't have one," says Arrison.

That way, if a catering order comes in late, Fukuya can manage without turning customers away.


Fukuya has regular, loyal customers, some coming every day for their dose of the familiar foods. Arrison is determined to keep them coming and to win others.

One way is to treat them right, which Doris and Chiyoko do. They greet customers by name, asking about their families, talking story.

"Hi Sandy!" "Hi, Kiyoko." "You know Janet retired?" "He had the flu, but better now."

When a customer is unfamiliar with the food, they are patient and helpful.

One blond-haired fellow is undecided on what he feels like eating.

"You like fish?" Chiyoko asks.

"Not much," comes the reply.

"OK. You like barbeque? Chicken?"

"Yeah, chicken," he says, happy with the suggestion.

She leads him down the length of the steam table, explaining each dish. Then she packs his lunch in a neatly tied plastic bag, because she's notices his hands are full with briefcase, keys and magazines. "Easier for you to carry," she explains as she loops the bag handles over his fingers.

"You have a nice day, now."

"You have an even better one," he responds.


Before noon, most of the food preparation for tomorrow is done. Lester has trimmed and bagged chicken into labeled bags, Carl is icing down blanched won bok, and Lorna, arranges slices of ham for a catering order. Arrison is out back, washing and waxing the delivery van, while Kristen types on the computer.

Out front, Grant Okamura and his daughter Hannah sit at the lone table with plates of okazu in front of them. The University of Hawaii band director and UH student have lunch together occasionally at Fukuya.

He's been a customer for 15 years and chooses the shrimp tempura and fried ahi. Hannah loves the potato hash and chow fun, which her father is filching from her plate.

"It's homey food, like you get at home," she says.

By 1 p.m., the kitchen winds down. Lester scrubs the pressure cooker and cleans the floors, while Magdalena punches out on the time clock. Carl, a plaid flannel shirt draped over his shoulder, strolls out the door.

"See you guys tomorrow," he says. Outside, he lights a cigarette, unlocks his bicycle and rides away.

Chiyoko and Doris watch him for a minute, then a late customer in a BMW drives into the lot. The women perk up, hands on the counter, ready to serve.


Tofu Salad

Arrison Iwahiro, Fukuya

4 16-ounce blocks tofu
1 5-ounce can tuna or salmon, 5 ounces
1/2 medium chopped onion
4 tomatoes, seeded, chopped

1/2 cup salad oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup shoyu
4 cloves garlic, smashed

Heat oil and fry garlic until golden brown. Remove. Pour shoyu into hot oil. Remove from heat and cool.

Mix tuna, onion and tomatoes. Cut tofu into bite-sized pieces. Toss with sauce.

Optional: Add green onions, or shredded cabbage or other vegetables. Serves 20.

Approximate nutritional analysis per 1/2 cup serving: 205 calories, 14 g total fat, 1.5 g. saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 780 mg sodium.*

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