Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, March 17, 1999


Portrait of a Mystery: 
What makes macaroni salad a local treat?
By Cynthia Oi


In its simplicity, it is sublime. In its ubiquity, it is surpassed only by two scoops rice. It is a creation rare except in Hawaii.

But macaroni salad -- that mound of curved pasta combined with large globs of mayonnaise and sprinklings of salt and pepper -- is a mystery on the plate of island foods.

Fusion food isn't anything new to us. Island people have been blending vittles since the days when different ethnic groups began mingling at the plantations.

The cultural grinds at local drive-ins and lunch wagons find their bases in the people who migrated from Asia, Europe and the Americas: chicken hekka and teriyaki from Japanese, chow fun and oxtail soup from Chinese, pipikaula from Mexicans (with strong Native Hawaiian influence), curry stew from Indians (loosely) and sweet bread and bean soup from Portuguese.

Then there's macaroni salad. It is one of the plate lunch's holy trinity, the "show" horse in a trifecta. No self-respecting plate lunch is without it.

What's obscure is which ethnic group takes the honors for its appearance here and why it has such a hold on island palettes.

Its roots are European, what with pasta (Italian) and mayonnaise (French). The Germans and their potato concoction likely seasoned the salad bowl too.

The genre that has developed in Hawaii, however, is not the kind June Cleaver whipped up for the Beaver's Fourth of July picnic.

For one thing, the macaroni is cooked -- overcooked, some may say -- until it's fat. For another, mayonnaise is added in liberal quantities.

"The Hawaiian recipe is very different from the mainland recipe," said Tony Thompson of Fortune Macaroni, a California company that distributes pasta products in Hawaii. "Lots of mayonnaise, lots."

Hawaii cookbook author and food writer Ann Kondo Corum agrees.

"The island style is to cook the macaroni until its soft," said Kondo Corum. Her mother-in-law makes macaroni salad but with cubes of cheese, olives, celery seed and a vinaigrette, "a completely different dish from what we're used to in Hawaii."

Like many of Hawaii's foods, mac salad is probably a make-do dish.

Roy Maruoka, owner of Modern Macaroni, guesses European or Western bosses on the plantation consumed potato salad, exposing it to workers. Then workers substituted the cheaper, longer-lasting macaroni for the more expensive and perishable potato.

"The transition came with the plantations," he said.

Yoshiko Yamauchi, a volunteer with Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, also thinks macaroni salad may have evolved on the plantation.

Before going to work in the fields, she said, mothers would boil potatoes so when their children came home from school, they'd have a ready snack. The potatoes would be dipped in a mixture of mayonnaise and shoyu. The jump to Western potato salad, then to macaroni salad, isn't a large one, she said.

The mayonnaise, she said, was not store bought -- "that would be too expensive" -- but homemade.

"People used to have mayonnaise-making jars," she says.

Wesson oil company sent out jars with markings on the sides to show how much oil, vinegar, eggs and salt to use. "You shake it up and you have mayonnaise."

Harold Imamura, Hunt-Wesson's representative here, has a mayo-making crock dating from 1925. The crocks were a promotional offer from Wesson, he said. "You clipped a coupon from the Saturday Evening Post, sent 'em in and they gave you that crock."

So mayonnaise wasn't a rarity and Maruoka said macaroni was widely available in Hawaii in the early 1920s.

Arnold Hiura of Mo'ili'ili Blind Fish Tank, who has researched the origins of plate lunch, said he's heard accounts from old-timers about vendors and push carts that sold food along Honolulu's waterfront in the 1920s and '30s.

"Even at that time, there was two scoops rice, mac salad and choice of stew or whatever," said Hiura.

But who combined the two for the salad?

"The Portuguese," guessed Randy Francisco, culinary expert at Kapiolani Community College.

"Possibly the Portuguese," said Kondo Corum.

"Could be Portuguese," said Barbara Kawakami, a writer who has studied Hawaii's early immigrants.

Not so, said chef John Peru, author of "Portuguese Cuisine in Hawaii."

Peru believes macaroni salad came via the hotels when chefs and cooks from Italy and Switzerland came to work in the islands. They had picked up the dish in New York where they worked when they first immigrated to America.

"There was this restaurant in New York, Delmonico's. It was on the menu and was very, very popular in 1901," Peru said.

It was through the restaurant that people on the East Coast became acquainted with macaroni salad, he said. "It was a popular picnic food, but they added lots of mustard to keep it from being perishable,"

When hotels opened in Waikiki, "the chefs hired for them came straight from the New York area."

Peru's theory is as valid as others. The question that remains is why it has such a constant presence.

For one thing, it's a good filler.

"The macaroni salad became popular because it was very, very cheap to make," Peru said.

These days, Hawaii's consumption of elbow macaroni is huge, said Fortune Macaroni's Thompson.

"It is phenomenal how much elbow macaroni we ship to Hawaii each month," he said, estimating the amount at a million pounds a year.

But the taste may be why it remains popular today.

A young Mililani man has stopped at a local delicatessen to buy lunch. His plate includes two orders of macaroni salad.


"Because taste good with everything," he said. "With teri beef, katsu, fish. Cannot beat the mac salad."

Macaroni memory

Hawaii people love their macaroni salad, some so much that they have clear memories of their encounters with it. Barbara Kawakami, author of "Immigrant Clothing in Hawaii," remembers vividly her first taste.

"The first time I had macaroni salad was in the fifth grade in the early 1930s. We went on an excursion to Waikiki when it still had the ducks and ponds. We rode the bus, a big thing then. And my girlfriend, her mother packed macaroni salad with her lunch. She let me have some. It had green peas. It was the most delicious thing I'd ever had."


Do you know?

More than 30 people -- food experts, researchers and proprietors -- were consulted about the origins of macaroni salad in Hawaii. No one could definitively place it, although many had theories.

If you have clues to this mystery, call the Star-Bulletin, 525-8664.

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