One of the things you learn quickly in Hawaii is never arrive anywhere empty-handed. For a recent meeting at a remote elementary, I wanted to make a good impression with the principal. After that, I was planning to“talk story” with a counselor colleague. So, on the way I decided to grab a box of pastries from Simply Sweets, a bakery right next to (ironically) 24 Hour Fitness.
I got there and Simply Sweets was gone. The hardbodies probably picketed it. In its place was a hand-carved sign: EV’s FastFood. Since I had no time to scout around for another bakery I decided to go in and see what I could get.
I’m not very familiar with Filipino food—I know lumpia (delicious deep fried rolls)
and even adobo (see picture at top, comes in various meat/seafood types). I was aware that Filipino food also included bits from vines and organ meats as well as pickled eggs with fully developed ducklings in them (the infamous balut) so I was a little uncertain.
(I went to put a picture of balut but they were so gross I couldn’t do it. Google Images outdid my lurid imagination for once)
On the hand lettered menu, the word “pancit” was featured frequently and I had no idea what it was, so I perused the “bakery” side of the display cabinet. Nothing familiar. Oddly shaped buns, slices of bread with unidentifiable bits embedded, Long Johns with something brown hanging out.
I turned to the lunch display. More unfamiliar food, swimming in brown sauces, looking like Chinese but… not smelling right. A customer was waiting for me to make up my mind and I waved him forward, and he began getting the Bento One Choice with several kinds of Pancit.
Well, this was too scary for a first impression food, I decided. I sidled to the door and scuttled to my car, weighing my chances of finding another bakery in time. The other customer followed me out. A middle-aged Filipino man, he carried his bento in a bag proudly.
“Why you nevah buy lunch?” he barked. I startled guiltily, keys in hand.
“Uhmm… I was looking for donuts for my school,” I said.
“They get donuts! Plenny kine, on da side!” he said, glaring.
“Oh!” I said, grinning overly. “I must have missed that! Thanks!” I tucked my keys back into my purse and scuttled back in, having failed this cultural competency test. I decided to throw myself on the mercy of the sweet-faced lady behind the counter.
“Hi. I want to get something for a school,” I said. “Like donuts.”
“Get &^%$#@ ovah heah,” she said, pointing at the oddly shaped rolls.
“What’s inside?” I asked.
“Bean curd, da top one, cheese da bottom one.”
The rolls looked harmless enough.
“Ok, six of each,” I said.
I perused the lunch counter while she filled the box. It seemed wrong to not buy lunch, so I looked for the most familiar Chinese food-like thing.
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing.
“#@%^&?? adobo,” she said. It was swimming in something greenish, looked too greasy. I pointed again.
“$^&%*, Beef and onion,” she said. It looked tasty even, and not greasy.
“I”ll have the One Choice Bento with that, and the string beans.”
She served it into a styrofoam container and rang me up. Twelve dollars! Yikes. I went out to the car, feeling redeemed. My colleague had recently married a Filipino guy, and she could tell me about my lunch.
But as I was driving, it smelled good, and I got to the school too early, so I popped open my Bento box.
The noodles looked like chow mein but… weren’t. They had a strange, fishy flavor and were laced with long rice, the slimy transparent filaments reminding me of the strings of toad eggs I used to find in mud puddles growing up on Kaua`i. I skipped them and ate the string beans with gusto, and moved on to the *&^%$#@ beef and onion.
The first thing I speared on my fork was a full-size mussel, the orange lips curled back in death. Taking the cultural challenge, I ate it, remembering that less chewing was better with shellfish. The next bite I took was: LIVER!!!
One only has to taste liver once to forever remember the mealy gray flavor that fills your mouth. I spat it back into the box and probed.
More liver. More mussels.
This was just not my kind of thing. Takeaway lesson: don’t buy things to eat when you don’t know what they are, as any visitor to a foreign country will tell you. I’ll stick with adobo and lumpia next time.
I went inside the school with my white bakery box of mysterious rolls and gave it to the principal. Being Japanese, she appreciated the gesture of a gift. Also being Japanese, she was too gracious to ask about it.
I couldn’t have told her anything anyway.
My counselor friend laughed her ass off and told me I was lucky I hadn’t ended up with balut. Turns out it’s quite expensive.