What Remains of Hawaiian Sugar?

What Remains of Hawaiian Sugar?

How the story of food, culture, and family intertwine.

The next time you peruse the aisles of your local grocery store, snag a bag of Hawaiian sugar as it may be the last time you see it on the shelves—well, the last time you see REAL Hawaiian sugar. The last batch of cane sugar was shipped aboard the Moku Pahu with the closing of the last remaining sugar plantation on the Islands this past January, marking the end of an era that has greatly shaped modern-day Hawaiian culture—especially the language (Hawaiian Pidgin) and the local food.

Hawaiian cuisine is a hodgepodge of different cultural bests mixed together into a dizzying array of fusion dishes, from the more traditional selection of the native Hawaiians—poi, lau lau, Kahlua pig, lomi salmon and poke—to more contemporary recipes that, to the immigrant laborers, served as reminders of home brought to the islands from their motherlands and adapted to local tastes—oxtail soup, Portuguese bean soup, Pipikaula short ribs, saimin, fried rice, lap cheong (Chinese smoked marinated sausage), loco moco, karaage (Japanese deep-fried chicken), etc.

{Pictured below: fries, Pipikaula and karaage chicken rice plate, and saimin @Forty Niners Restaurant}

{Pictured below: oxtail soup, lep cheong fried rice and portuguese sausage w/egg @Asahi Grill}

{Pictured below: rice, Kahlua pig w/cabbage, deep-fried butterfish collar, tripe soup, pink sea salt, and haupia w/onions @Helena’s Hawaiian Food}

Today, it is more cost effective to bring in raw sugar to refineries from other countries—like Australia, the Philippines, Nicaragua, etc.  There was, however, a day and age where America found it advantageous to recruit low-wage laborers from overseas.  Beginning in the 1850s, waves of immigrants—Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Korean, and Filipino—came in through the shores of Hawaii to work the sugar plantations and send money back to their families abroad.

In fact, the first cohort of Korean immigrants into the U.S. came as migrant laborers 1903-1905 to work the sugar cane fields of Hawaii.  This multicultural landing bed created a safe haven for Asian immigrants, who like my Korean grandmother, faced discrimination in other parts of the U.S. upon arrival from the East (well, technically they came from west of the U.S.)—which merges this story into my own personal family history.

As I ruminate on what the Hawaiians call Pipikaula—which to me are dried strips of galbi (Korean word for “ribs”)—, I can’t help but be fascinated by how the intermixing of cultures makes even my short ribs taste better. Honestly, I have to admit, there are times I personally take offense when my boyfriend wants to adulterate one of my family’s traditional Korean recipes. However, there are times—more oft than not—that I am pleasantly surprised by the result of trying something inventive (like drying beef) WITH an age-old known and true tradition familiar to me (our family’s traditional galbi marinade).  The first Pipikaula (aka “beef rope”) recipes were invented in the mid-1850s by Paniolo cowboys (local Hawaiian word for “Spanish”, but they were actually from Mexico) and flavored with the ubiquitous soy sauce which came over to the Hawaiian Islands with their aforementioned Asian immigrant laborers.

The simple Korean marinade for short ribs (aka galbi) consists of soy sauce, sugar, water, sesame oil, garlic, ground black pepper, sesame seeds and the optional addition of some sort of edible enzyme meat tenderizer (anything from 7-up/cider, pineapple, kiwi or papaya). My family recipe also includes ground Asian pear to lessen the part for sugar. I actually don’t know the proportions by measurement, but can eyeball it and know when it’s exactly right by taste—a secret power accumulated from years of lingering around and sampling off the back of my hand whatever my mom was cooking in the kitchen. No regrets. 

I miss Hawaii (for the meantime, I am back in Seoul, S Korea). I miss the local people and the culture which embraces newcomers and diversity. It’s where I find my family roots … well, after having been unrooted from Korea and rerooted multiple times. It’s where my bae lives—the one who usually innovates (not adulterates) cuisines in the kitchen. I hope when you visit or try these recipes, you too, will remember and be impacted by how the sugar plantations shaped the food culture of Hawaii. Or when you open up a packet of “Hawaiian” sugar for your next cup of coffee, maybe, you will understand my nostalgia and the reason why I wrote this blog entry—and maybe, even be tempted to stash a few away as a keepsake. So, to answer the question, “What Remains of Hawaiian Sugar?”  With the shutdown of the last sugar cane plantation, Hawaiian sugar may be extinct … but there is no doubt of its irreversible impact on the immigration, family histories and the local culture of Hawaii.

Find local grindz on your next visit to Honolulu (these are my favs below):

Asahi Grill

Forty Niner Restaurant

Helena’s Hawaiian Food

Poke Stop {pictured above: tako and ahi poke bowl}

Punahou HS Carnival (this is hosted annually by the junior class at former President Obama’s alma mater–only happens once a year in February)

[Take-out ONLY spots]

Alicia’s Market (not a sit-down restaurant) {pictured above}

Tamashiro’s Fish Market (not a sit-down restaurant)


Feeling adventurous in the kitchen? Try out these recipes:




More about meat tenderizing:




Other references:






3 thoughts on “What Remains of Hawaiian Sugar?

  1. What a great write up! Thank you for sharing your unique perspective and for teaching me more about the significance of Hawaiian sugar!

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