This Chef Cooks the Food I Want to Eat Forever
Sheldon Simeon shows that Hawaiian food is accessible — and, of course, incredibly tasty
I have never watched an episode of Top Chef. I am a typical white person who went to Hawai’i on my honeymoon. I loved it, and I loved the food. So when I heard about chef Sheldon Simeon’s now incredibly successful cookbook, Cook Real Hawai’i, I was intrigued, despite not being as aware of him as I should have been. (And after talking with him, I’m even more embarrassed.)
The book arrived, and I was immediately captivated. Simeon is in love with his home — he was born and raised on the Big Island — and that love flows from the pages in his introduction and his history of Hawai’i, both of which I eagerly read in full. It almost reads like a mini-memoir; it’s transporting.
I was pretty ignorant on the subject of Hawai’i’s history (not to mention the history of its food), which makes for a fascinating read, especially when written by someone whose passion for his home is infectious. As Simeon said to me, “Everyone’s a fan of Hawai’i. It’s this magical place that everybody knows; it’s literally paradise. And once they get educated about its history, its people, and its culture, they’ll love Hawai’i even more.”
And then: There are Simeon’s recipes. I’ve made a couple of them already — the Pan Sushi Dynamite, which is below, and the Hurricane Popcorn, both fantastic — and I’ve earmarked many more. I can’t remember the last time I was so jazzed about a cookbook — and a chef.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Kate Bittman: So I’ve only been to Hawai’i once, but I loved it so much — how each island has its own personality. I just wanted to eat fruit the whole time. We just don’t have that kind of fruit here; the fruit here sucks.
Sheldon Simeon: I ate a banana this morning and oh, my god, it was so good — it was like eating sugar candy. Avocados are going crazy right now, the breadfruit is amazing, everything. This year has been awesome for fruit.
I wish you could send me some, but it wouldn’t be the same. I found that interesting, in the book — that you said that there were certain recipes you wish you could have included, but you didn’t because it just wouldn’t be the same — kālua pig and poi, specifically. Many other chefs don’t make that decision.
At first, that’s what I thought the book was gonna be: these things that you can only get here, and showing off the different seaweeds, and the different fish that we can get. But then we realized: Who is that book for? That’s gonna be stroking my ego, and it would be representing us, but nobody could partake in it, which is what the real reward of the book is — having people cook from it. This book was meant to showcase our culture and our food that we eat at our homes and hopefully, everybody can educate themselves and learn from that, and be able to recreate it in their own homes.
What is the most annoying question you can ask someone from Hawai’i? And then, I’m going to ask you a question that you will probably think is annoying because I bet a million people have asked you.
I just want to let you know that my second cookbook will be named The Annoying Questions of Hawai’i. Maybe there will be four recipes in there, but all the rest is just me ranting. I don’t know if it’s a question that’s annoying; the thing is that showcasing something that’s supposed to represent Hawai’i is totally not what Hawai’i really is. One of the things that got under my skin is now that we have to have these scans before you fly back into Hawai’i, you can get your QR code at the airport, and they decided since the plane is coming to Hawai’i, they have plastic leis, fake hula skirts, palm trees made out of silvery tinsel. Just set up a table with a QR code; you don’t have to go to that point where it’s corny and weird. It’s just bad representation of Hawai’i, that’s what the worst thing is. There’s so much history, and there’s a dark side to Hawai’i — that’s why it’s Hawai’i, and why it’s so complex. The people who are living here had to go through so much, to survive and to be. So when I see something like that it just makes me sad because Hawai’i can be represented in so many cooler ways. But it’s become this amusement park to a lot of people. I wish there was a little more balance in the way Hawai’i is represented.
Yes. And for me, your introduction and history of Hawai’i is every bit as cool to read as the recipes — I learned a lot, and there are sure as hell better ways to represent Hawai’i than with leis. My annoying question fits right in here. Did you watch “The White Lotus”?
I was going to ask YOU about “White Lotus”! It’s crazy — it’s almost spot on.
I loved it, but I really wanted to hear what you think. I thought they did a good job addressing the cultural appropriation that plagues Hawai’i, and a lot of the issues that you talk about in the book.
Yup, they nailed it. The characters in the hotel, and the struggle between the native people and visitors. That’s a loaded question because — it’s crazy, it’s entertaining, we laugh, we watch it, and we say, damn, they hit it right on the nose, but on the flip side, it’s like, where do we go from here? Because it’s a balance: We need tourism, for the economy — but more native Hawaiians are getting pushed out; the locals are getting pushed out. It’s just a constant battle, struggle, of what Hawai’i is. When tourism is 70 percent of our economy, it’s kinda hard to not be able to put all of our money into tourism. And we’ve done this for so many years, that that’s what we think needs to be done. But our economy can be much more diverse. See, I’m stumbling over this question because it’s loaded! Because my restaurants wouldn’t be successful if there wasn’t any tourism on the island. We need that, but — we prioritize outside guests before we prioritize the people who live on the island. And that’s where it gets interesting.
We got a taste of it with this whole pandemic. There were zero planes coming in. And the island got a rest. There was no one on the roads. Imagine 30,000 cars not on the road. We get 100,000 guests a day into the island — to nothing. There’s a balance of our reality of living in Hawaii. More of our culture and all of that gets mixed up with how quick life is going, so we gotta uphold these traditions of food. I don’t dance hula; I don’t surf; my way of representing Hawaii is showcasing the food.
You write that the food in Hawai’i is “the most organic form of fusion cuisine.” Which makes so much sense — can you talk a little bit about how you came to that beautiful conclusion?
It is, it’s an organic fusion. Nobody was like, ‘Hey, let’s make Hawaiian cuisine.’ It just is what it is, and it comes naturally. The whole basis of it is culture — the Hawaiians set the form for us all. They’re the ones that respected the land, respected ingredients, respected everything to the highest of levels. Anybody else who came onto the island — those are the rules you live by. That’s the code. Everything that was added, sprinkled on top of the base Hawaiian culture, it just all kind of blends in seamlessly, and it’s amazing. Where you can see all these cultures live together and meld and it all works, because of their respect for the place where we live.
It’s like, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Japanese — the best kind of food. All these amazing cuisines blended together.
Right, and we come from a culture of sharing and giving to your neighbor and helping one another, and that’s how food blends together. I knew I was Filipino, but there were so many things in my refrigerator, my pantry, that I just thought of as my own culture. Japanese soy sauce — shoyu — and kimchi in the refrigerator, having poi on the countertop, and having Portuguese sweet breads instead of sliced white bread, eating rice, having Japanese vegetables grow in the garden, and giving them to my Portuguese neighbors so they can make pinakbet. It just kind of happened — we’re not creating this food to wow on the pages of some shiny magazine.
I was really excited to see the kimchi dip.
That’s a lowkey banger right there. That puts kimchi on another level. Go to Hmart and get the most fermented, sour kimchi you can find.
I love H Mart.
H Mart is fire. They just got an H Mart in Oahu, and they asked me to partner up with them and put a restaurant in there. I had conversations, but it didn’t go through — just because I live on a different island and I didn’t want to have to deal with that. But I’m always like, what if.
There’s a part in the book where you talk about how a meal made completely of appetizers — pupus — is the best kind of meal. I AGREE. You have a shoyu sesame dip which I would just eat all day, every day. That’s all I need to eat.
That’s very Hawai’i-minded. My dad has the term, “use what get,” like use what’s around you. It took me a while — you go through these paces of being a chef where you’re like, I only want to cook with the best ingredients, but then you start to think: Shit, my grandparents would be so mad at me, being so wasteful of everything. So: Use what get.
For someone who’s never cooked the food of Hawai’i, and they want to buy your book, where’s the best place to start?
The best place to start is pupus, for sure. The idea of pupus is having something to get on the table once you have guests there so you can eat and have a conversation. The way that we do it — when we’re cooking, we’re eating. There’s food already on the table. A lot of those recipes are so quick and so easy; the resourcing is not that difficult. Start with a dip, start with a musubi or the Pan Sushi Dynamite – those are things where you’re literally just putting it together, mixing storebought ingredients, and then there it is. Use what get! I think what people will be amazed by is — a lot of the time people think of Hawaiian food as being exotic, but if you really look at it it’s homey, very rooted in family, humble recipes, humble ingredients.
Do you have a few favorite recipes in the book? Tried and true?
The Paloma — I could drink about a hundred of those. The Beef Shank à la Oxtail Soup — I love soup that simmers on the stove all day, and you go back at it and you’re eating it multiple times a day. I call it the Sunday Stew. Big ol’ chunks of meat with potatoes and cabbage, simmering on the stove; you wake up in the morning, you eat it for breakfast, you take a nap, you go do something, then you have it for lunch, and then you have it for dinner again.
A couple weeks ago, my husband and son and I went to my dad’s house, and he made this soup, and we ate it literally all weekend. Every day he added something new to it — Short ribs! Pasta! Barley! All this random stuff, every day — and the broth was so rich and so good. And we started calling it The Forever Soup ©.
Yup. I love things like that. In my household, my dad only knows how to cook for an army, so there are like different stages of it. So the beef stew, on the first day, the short ribs and the brisket might be a little bit chewy, the vegetables a little bit crunchy, and the next day is the in-between spot. But as it continues on, there’s no meat, just vegetables left, but there’s still the gravy, which turns into gravy and rice, and it just continues. I gotta cook with [your] pops! I like his style.
You do. Seriously. Next time you come here, can we make that happen? My dad lives on this wonderful farm, and you can come visit.
All right, I’m into it. Forever Soup weekend.
I don’t want to keep you much longer, but: You and your wife met at Disney World, where you were both interns. I just keep thinking about you wearing a Cinderella costume, or something like that.
Not far off. I was wearing a Pecos Bill costume, it was just ridiculous. I worked at Pecos Bill Cantina as a busboy. And then I graduated to a cook at The Living Seas. That was my first time being away from home, being away from Hawai’i, so that opened my eyes. There’s something about — once you go out of Hawai’i, you immediately recognize somebody from Hawai’i. Lucky for me, when my wife was passing by, she invited herself over to my apartment, because she had never had leftover chicken long rice — from a luau that we cooked for the girls in our complex. It was a few days after Valentine’s Day, and me and a couple other Hawai’i guys decided that we were going to cook Hawaiian food, and invited every single girl in our apartment complex. But we were young and shy, so they ate our food and then they left.
The Bittman Project is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Shoyu Dip with Sesame Crunch
Serves 4 to 6
“Mayo and shoyu. Shoyu and mayo. There is no kitchen in Hawai‘i lacking these essentials, the building blocks of teriyaki and mac salad. I buy them in the gallon jugs they sell at Costco, if only because when raising four kids you can never really have too much.
It’s not surprising that at some point a clever pupu connoisseur figured out that when you mix the right amount of shoyu with the right amount of mayo you end up with a tasty dip that grooves beautifully with many things, sort of like a homegrown spin on veggies and ranch dressing. At the Simeon house, we didn’t even know what ranch was when we were little!
In the hierarchy of pupus, this is the most basic and elemental, but that’s the appeal. My version is fancied up from what my uncles and aunties snacked on watching Laker games in our garage, but the salty-savory base is there, amplified with nutty sesame seeds and bright lemon zest. As for veggies, use whatever is in season and be creative. Shoyu mayo goes with everything.”
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce)
2 teaspoons Lemon Olive Oil (recipe follows)
1 ½ teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
3 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 pounds assorted vegetables (see Note), cut into 3-inch spears,
In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, shoyu, lemon oil, lemon zest, and 2 teaspoons of the sesame oil. Season to taste with pepper and transfer the mixture to a serving bowl. Drizzle with the remaining 1 teaspoon sesame oil.
Heat a small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the sesame seeds, sugar, and salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar has melted and has caramelized around the sesame seeds, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove this from the pan to a plate, let cool, then crush it up and sprinkle over the dip. Serve with your assortment of vegetables.
NOTE: Eat the dip with whatever vegetables are on hand—carrots, radishes, watercress, green beans, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, eggplant, squash, etc.—either raw, blanched, steamed, or roasted. Chill them before serving.
Lemon Olive Oil
Makes 2 cups
4 lemons, thoroughly scrubbed in hot water
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
Peel the lemon zest in long strips with a vegetable peeler, making sure to avoid the bitter white pith. (Reserve the lemon flesh and juice for another use.) Combine the zest strips and olive oil in a saucepan and simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If any bubbles appear, even on the side of the pan, reduce the heat or briefly remove the pan from the heat. Let the oil cool to room temperature while the zest strips are left in to steep (about an hour will do). Strain out the zest and transfer the lemon oil to a clean jar or sealable container. Store in a cool, dark place. The oil will keep for about 1 month on the shelf, or for several months in the fridge (just be sure to bring it up to room temperature before using).
Pan Sushi Dynamite
Makes one 9-inch square pan; serves 4 to 6
“This easy-to-make potluck recipe is a sterling example of local ingenuity. Think of it as a sushi roll without the rolling, or in haole terms: sushi casserole.
The first time I remember having it was when my older brother, Jeremy, started dating Allison, who is now my sister-in-law. Allison’s family is Japanese, so at parties they’d sometimes bring a big pan of vinegar-seasoned sushi rice layered with salmon, avocado, mushrooms, and pickled vegetables. It immediately captured me.
The variations for pan sushi are endless. Some line the pan with sheets of nori. Some alternate layers of rice and fillings, lasagna-style. My method leans simpler: a single layer of rice spread with spicy salmon “dynamite” and topped with scallions, avocado, and a sweet soy glaze, an ode to the flavor-bomb rolls found at American-style sushi bars.
If you’re using canned salmon, broiling the dynamite mixture is optional, but I find it helps marry the ingredients in the sauce. As for the nori sheets, instead of layering them into the rice, I like to serve them on the side so they stay crisp. Scoop spoonfuls of pan sushi onto the dried seaweed and eat it like a hand roll or taco.”
10 dried shiitake mushrooms
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons mirin
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal (or 1/2 teaspoon Morton) kosher salt
4 cups cooked white rice, warm
1 pound fresh salmon, diced, or 3 (5-ounce) cans salmon, drained and broken in flakes
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 medium sweet onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce)
1 tablespoon sambal oelek
1 tablespoon Thai sweet chili sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 cup masago (capelin fish roe)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
2 medium avocados, thinly sliced
1/4 cup Sweet Soy Glaze (recipe follows)
1 (1-ounce) package dried nori sheets, for serving (cut into 4-inch squares, if necessary)
In a small bowl, combine the mushrooms and warm water to cover. Let soak until soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and squeeze out excess water. Cut off and discard any stems. Finely chop the caps and set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, mirin, and salt. Heat over medium-high heat, stirring until the salt is dissolved, then let cool slightly. In a bowl, pour the warm vinegar mixture over the rice evenly, using the back of a rice paddle or spatula to deflect the stream and spread it out. Mix thoroughly. Spread the rice evenly onto the bottom of a 9 x 9-inch baking pan (the rice should be about 3/4 inch deep), gently but firmly using a paddle or spatula to compact the rice.
Adjust an oven rack to 6 inches from the broiler element and preheat the broiler.
Rinse out the rice bowl and use it to stir together the salmon, mayo, onion, shoyu, sambal, sweet chili sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, the rehydrated mushrooms, and masago until thoroughly combined. Spread the mixture evenly onto the rice, gently but firmly pressing down with a paddle or spatula. Broil until the top is lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the pan and let it cool slightly.
Top with the scallions and sliced avocado. Drizzle with sweet soy glaze. Cut the sushi into small squares and serve with dried sheets of nori on the side, for wrapping.
Sweet Soy Glaze
Makes a scant 1/2 cup
1/4 cup shoyu (soy sauce)
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
In a small saucepan, combine the shoyu and sugar and cook over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves and starts to bubble. In a small bowl, stir the cornstarch together with 1 tablespoon water until dissolved, then stir it into the shoyu-sugar mixture. Continue cooking until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 5 to 10 minutes. Let cool before using.
Serves 2 to 4
“At Lineage, we had these cool rolling pupu carts that my dad welded together from scrap metal. The inspiration was that, like at our house, as soon as you sat down, you were already eating and drinking. I originally wanted to offer little bowls of poke off the carts, but apparently the health department frowns on raw fish circulating around an outdoor dining room in the tropics.
So, instead, we used all the wonderful produce we’d been getting from farmers on Maui and put it through the lens of traditional poke. The more we played around with the dish, the more we loved the idea of a poke that was completely vegan but also captured the spirit and soul of the original.
Any and all root vegetables work great for this dish. The key thing is to roast them long enough so they soften but don’t turn mushy; you’re roughly aiming for the texture of raw tuna, after all. Adding uncooked vegetables like shaved radish, onion, and cucumbers provides freshness and crunch. Snap peas would work well, too.
Here I like to use tamari instead of shoyu. It’s made only from roasted soybeans instead of a blend of soy and wheat, and it has a robust earthiness that goes well with roasted vegetables.”
2 ½ cups 1-inch cubes (about 1 pound) root or sturdy vegetables, such as sweet potato, taro, carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, yuca, radishes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup Tamari Dressing, plus more to taste (recipe follows)
1/2 cucumber, roughly diced
1/2 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 or 3 small radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 cup roughly chopped ogo seaweed (optional)
1 tablespoon finely chopped roasted macadamia nuts
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
In a bowl, coat the vegetables with a splash of olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Lay out the vegetables in one layer on a baking sheet and bake until tender but slightly firm (think of the texture of raw tuna), 15 to 20 minutes.
Once the vegetables have cooled, transfer to a bowl and toss with the dressing. Let sit for a few minutes, then gently fold in the cucumber, onion, radishes, and seaweed (if using). Season with more dressing if needed. Top with the macadamia nuts and serve.
Makes about 1/2 cup
½ cup tamari
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon sambal oelek
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 Hawaiian chili peppers, thinly sliced, or red chili flakes to taste
In a small bowl, whisk together the tamari, ginger, sambal, sesame oil, and chilies. The dressing can be kept refrigerated for weeks.
— Recipes reprinted with permission from Cook Real Hawai’i by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder, copyright © 2021. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography copyright: Kevin J. Miyazaki © 2021