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Jun 24, 2016

History of the Plate Lunch

There are few things more ubiquitous in Hawaii's culinary scene than the simple plate lunch.

With its traditional Styrofoam shell, the plate lunch may appear to be a simple, straight-forward-stick-to-your-ribs meal: two scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and perhaps a few slices of barbecued meat or katsu, and you've got yourself a hearty Hawaiian-style lunch. However, when it comes to the history of this humble meal, history shows us that there's much more than meets the eye.

In the mid to late 19th century, the plantations of Hawaii were in full swing as laborers from across Asia and Europe made their way to the islands to farm sugar and fruit. Droves of workers from China, Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines poured into the islands. And after a hard morning's work, the plantation workers often broke for lunch.

Ravenous and with little time to eat, they often gorged on rice and left over meat from the previous night's dinner. From here, the genesis of the plate lunch took form.

According to Kaui Philpotts, who has detailed Hawaii culinary heritage for the Star-Advertiser, unlike their counterpart workers in the Continental United States, these laborers "took their lunch in small tins, similar to Japanese bentos, and weren't eating sandwiches or things like that; it was leftover rice and a lot of things like canned meat or teriyaki or cold meat or maybe scrambled eggs or pickles, and almost no salad or vegetables."

In the 1920s, out of our shared love of rice and meat that rose from our plantation period, the origins of the plate lunch that we know today were born. While it's nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact time rice, mac salad, and a few slices of meat were combined and served on a paper plate, Honolulu Magazine makes a strong case that the first plate lunch just might have originated out of Honolulu Harbor in the late 1920s from a woman named Moyo Iwamoto.

As a young woman of Japanese descent living in Honolulu, Iwamoto made her living selling sushi and fruits to the stevedores, workers, and visitors who frequented Honolulu Harbor. From her dockside cooking stand, she would whip up a concoction of meat, rice, and other ingredients for leagues of hungry patrons.

"For 50 cents, hungry dockworkers and other customers could buy an eight-inch paper plate piled high with rice, a vegetable, macaroni salad, kim chee or takuan pickles and a main entrée," wrote Honolulu Magazine in their quest to uncover the first plate lunch. "Entrées included beef stew, beef tomato, butterfish, chop steak, pig's feet, chicken long rice, pork chops, ham hocks and saimin. Their mixed plate, which included hot dogs, spam, eggs, rice and salad, was one of their biggest sellers." Could Iwamoto truly be the mother of the plate lunch? It's hard to say with certainty, but in the coming decades, the plate lunch had become an integral part of our identity.

By the 1950s, the plantation era in Hawaii was coming to a close, but our collective hunger and cravings for plate lunch in the islands couldn't be satiated. Freestanding restaurants and hole-in-the wall establishments specializing in plate lunches popped up across the islands, giving rise to iconic eateries like Rainbow Drive-In and L&L Hawaiian Barbecue—which has brought the plate lunch to the mainland and other countries—that have become quite popular today.

While there are very few of us who don't routinely crave a gut-busting plate lunch on occasion, it can't be denied that the quintessential local meal has evolved to suit our ever changing palettes. Take Kaka‘ako Kitchen, right here at Ward Village, for example. For more than two decades they've attracted droves of famished patrons craving their upscale plate lunches. Here, they're known for dishing out fresh salads and gourmet options like miso butterfish and masago-crusted ahi with a five-spice cream sauce. The result has led to a fanatical following. "We try to take it a little more upscale," Russell Siu, owner of Kaka'ako Kitchen told the New York Times. "We don't want to be like every other drive-in in town."

As one of the most ethnically diverse states in the country, it's no surprise that our collective tastes have come together and manifested in the humble plate lunch where elements of Japanese, Korean, Philippine and American cuisine meld together in delectable harmony. The fact that our cultural history is reflected in the plate lunch wasn't lost on food historian Matthew Gray, who owns Hawaii Food Tours.

"The cultural significance of the plate lunch is that it illustrates Hawaii as a special place where all of our mixed cultures share their foods with one another," he said.

Instead of referring to Hawaii as a melting pot, I prefer to call us a salad bowl, where we all get to share and showcase the individual flavors, aromas and histories of our food.

Russell Siu

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